Back East, where the family all lives, Cheryl Carlesimo was talking, lovingly, about her brother. "His was a life of such great satisfaction," she said. But then, as she thought of what had happened to him, the distress was suddenly evident on her face, and she turned, looking out the window. "Oh, god," she sighed, "what really worries me is that this is all they'll remember P.J. for."
"I know," P.J. says, sitting in his office in Oakland, just upstairs from where Latrell Sprewell tried to strangle him at a Warriors practice on Dec. 1, 1997. "I'm linked. We'll always be linked." But he looks straight ahead when he says that, his mother's Irish-blue eyes unblinking. "When coaching is your profession, if you can't be a stoic, you're always going to be challenging your sanity."
In fact, after Sprewell choked him, leaving his neck scratched deep and rubbed red raw, Carlesimo had—well, he had taken a deep breath, and then he had kept practice going. Isn't that amazing? But: His team hadn't finished the day's session yet; there were more drills to run. "The world didn't end," Carlesimo says. "I'm a professional. I'm paid to coach. And the players are paid to play." So that is why he was still standing on the court 20 minutes later, when Sprewell returned to attack him again. The coach had simply gone right back to coaching. "This is what P.J. wants to do with his life—for as long as he can," says Jim Boeheim, his good friend, the Syracuse coach.
P.J. grew up the son of a coach, Pete Carlesimo, and coaching was, it seems, about all he ever wanted for himself. The family hoped he'd be respectable, a lawyer; they knew how hard a loaf coaching could be. Well, P.J. knew too; two of his younger brothers would also consider coaching, but he didn't want that for them. "I'm not indicting the profession," he says. "It's wonderful. But it's tough. And the average coach doesn't get to coach in the Big East and the NBA and make millions. There's something to be said for a job that lets you go home.
The only time I go home is to sleep. Most coaches can be obsessed, you know...."
"Oh, yeah, I'm obsessed too."
As a kid he played everything, and won letters in four sports in college, at Fordham. Coaches—like his father—were the men who guided him, disciplined him, informed his ethic. "There were even certain priestly qualities to being a coach then, weren't there?" his sister muses. So it may not be so surprising, really, that the other great influence in Carlesimo"s life, outside of family, were the priests who educated him: the Jesuits. The father always coached for the Jesuits, and, past grade school, the son was always schooled by them. The priests even hung around the house, a familiar and avuncular presence.
"The Jesuit influence is still very strong in his life," Cheryl says. "P.J. is a humanist. And he very much believes that acts have their consequences and that work should pay off." In a way, since he is unmarried and despairs of ever finding a love great enough to alter that status, and since he is so devoted to his vocation and to taking on assignments in the most hopeless basketball dioceses, Carlesimo is a secular Jesuit.
"P.J. seems to care more about his work than about himself," says Golden State vice president Al Attles, the coach of the Warriors' 1975 championship team, who serves this historically tortured franchise as a sort of conscience-in-residence. "True or not, that very impression says volumes about a person, doesn't it?"