The hallway to Rick Carlisle’s office is not a worn path for reporters. So an invitation is valued and a chance to visit there with the world champion Dallas Mavericks coach about basketball and beyond is unique. I talk exclusive with Rick about his ‘sudden genius,’ his thoughts on “Moneyball’’ and the bittersweet circumstances of Rick Carlisle’s bittersweet summer:
There are scribbles on the greaseboard in Carlisle’s handsome office overlooking the Dallas Mavericks practice court at the AAC. I pose a question about the meaning of different ink colors – some NBA guys’ names are in blue, others in green – and Rick responds with his now-familiar chagrin, a double-eyebrow raise and a smile so twisted that it almost turns from horizontal to vertical.
“That’s privileged information,” Carlisle says, “not meant for you media (bleeps).”
I fire back that maybe I ought to do his image a favor and erase from my notepad the phrase “media (bleep)” It’s not a very warm way of welcoming me to his office, and it might feed his reputation in some quarters as someone who looks down his pedigreed nose at us poor working schlubs. But then I realize that he’s just poking fun, and I remind him that for a year of non-coaching employment before coming to Dallas, Rick himself worked as a studio analyst media whore for ESPN.
“Yeah, but I did that job differently than some of you guys do,” Rick says, his smile returning to its natural horizontal form.
Carlisle also does his job as a coach differently than some. At age 52, and with four decades in the game, Rick straddles an era that was all about respecting tradition with an era that is about technological innovation and out-of-the-box creativity. With a Boston Celtics playing career on his resume, there is ample old-school “gut feeling’’ to much of what he does. Let’s call it a Red Auerbach thing. But at the same time he, and the Mavs, are on the cutting edge of the use of advanced stats to gather information and come to game-changing conclusions. Let’s call that a Mark Cuban thing.
“A big part of my job is to be open-minded, I think,” Rick says. “One of the things a young coach wants to learn is that there is not just a single way to accomplish a task. I hope that over the years I’ve expanded my thinking enough to be willing to explore every possible option. It’s all still about having good personnel; a team’s success is player-driven, not system-driven. But I know there is not one single way to accomplish that success. Being resourceful – that’s what this is all about.”
The Mavs famously employ a full-time coach just for free throws (Gary Boren)…another full-time staffer with great skills in the area of sports psychology (Don Kalkstein)…and another fellow who is an advanced-stats expert (Roland Beech). There are other coaches and NBA execs that are being dragged kicking and screaming into this era (a national story recently noted the unnamed team GM who is unaware of Google). And there are many, many coaches and execs that are unwilling to accept a previous regime’s collection of ideas and people. Carlisle, to the contrary, has embraced every offering. Beech doesn’t occupy the AAC while wearing a white lab coat; he’s got Adidas coaching gear like all the other theoretically less academically oriented assistants.
I ask Rick if it’s fair to compare his riding of the wave of this movement to baseball and “Moneyball.”
“I’ve read the book, and really enjoyed it,’’ Rick says of Michael Lewis’ smart best-seller. “I haven’t seen the (Brad Pitt) movie, but I plan to (an interview with Pitt and Billy Beane can be found on this website). The sports are very, very different, baseball vs. basketball. But the notion of finding the right sort of skills available in the right sort of people, that part of it is universal.”
As much as ever after this summer, Carlisle knows the differences and similarities between sports. I tell him that I’ve frequently referred to his travels this summer as mirroring Richard Gere’s military motivation in An Officer And A Gentleman. “I got nowhere else to go.”
“Well, it has been bittersweet in a way,” says Rick, referring to the lockout that immediately followed the Mavs’ first NBA title in their 31 years of existence. “It’s an unusual circumstance.” With no basketball players to coach (or even mention by name, as Carlisle forcefully reminds me, the result of the us-vs.them NBA lockout), Rick has been “on tour.” He’s fielded a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. He’s been in Ohio participating in a charity golf event with the family of assistant coach Monte Mathis. He’s been at the W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy, playing piano and Name That Tune with the kids. He’s escorted his daughter to elementary school at The Hockaday School, with the Larry O’Brien Trophy alongside. He’s visited Dallas Stars practice (telling the story of how the Mavs watched NHL video to reinforce the need to play physically), he’s thrown out the first pitch at a Texas Rangers game, he’s traveled to Houston to watch pal Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals close out the regular season, and he’s attended Dallas Cowboys practices on multiple occasions.
“Clearly,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says of Carlisle, “he’s the engine behind the whole thing. It just seemed like he made genius coaching decisions at every turn, playing the right guys at the right time. Their team responded and it was just fun as a fan to watch it.”
The “genius” thing comes up more than it usually does with Rick – and know that during the course of his NBA career, it’s come up a lot. A mutual friend, former Nets scout Curt Pickering, tells me that Bill Fitch was prepared to employ Carlisle as an assistant well before Rick’s playing career was done. Observers in his head-coaching stops in Indiana and Detroit sometimes thought him haughty, a result of Rick’s intellect. Especially early on in his three years in Dallas, I’ve written about his prickly dealings with radio host Norm Hitzges, about his delay in finally handing over some on-court reins to Jason Kidd, and about the possibility that he might be inflexible enough to mirror his predecessor Avery Johnson. Thus, the now-buried nickname “Ivory Johnson.”
So, Rick, I ask, how does it feel to go from being a dope in the summer of 2010 (after you lost to the Spurs) to being a genius in the Summer of 2011 – even though, I assume, your IQ point total hasn’t changed? “I truly don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Rick says. “Am I a better coach than I was? I try to grow all the time. But somebody who critiques a coach’s ability—I don’t even have knowledge of what is said. And not because it’s annoying, or because it’s wrong. Paying attention to things like that only distract me from doing my job. That’s what I’m here for: To do my job.”