A few weeks ago, Rick Carlisle was in the delivery room, witnessing the birth of his first child. The doctor liked to hear music while he worked, and the song playing as the baby girl emerged was “Rocket Man” by Elton John, which includes the line, “It’s lonely out in space.”
Remember that, kid. Because you can’t blame Daddy for feeling a bit galactic the last 12 months. What a ride for this guy! He went from leading the Pistons to their best season in years to being abruptly fired and looking for a gig. He went from thinking he was fired to make room for Larry Brown to hearing he was fired for being rude and tough to work with. He went from out of work and considering a job in the broadcast booth to the sudden coach of his previous team, the Indiana Pacers, one of the NBA’s best jobs.
And the man he replaced there, Isiah Thomas, is the former backcourtmate of the man who fired him here, Joe Dumars. And his new team, the Pacers, used to be coached by Brown, who now coaches his old team. And Carlisle’s boss in Indiana, Larry Bird, is one of Detroit’s old enemies.
It is lonely out in space.
It’s also darned confusing.
“My memory is set to go back only as long as an egg timer,” Carlisle says in a phone call, as the Pacers prepare for the Eastern Conference finals against his old crew, the Pistons, with Game 1 slated for tonight at Indianapolis. “It’s very selective short-term memory. I choose to remember the good things about my time in Detroit.”
That’s nice. Because, let’s be honest, Carlisle and the Pacers versus Brown and the Pistons? This is like showing up at a wedding and seeing your ex-girlfriend with her new mate — and being seated at the same table! There’s no way it’s not awkward. There’s no way you don’t notice.
There’s only how you handle it.
Carlisle won in ’03
“We’ll be thinking about it, sure,” Ben Wallace admitted Friday. “Anytime you play a former coach or a former teammate, you want to beat them. You want the bragging rights.
“I personally didn’t have a problem with Rick. He didn’t say much, but I don’t say much, either. But I’ll say Coach Brown is completely different. They’re like night and day.”
Last year around this time, Carlisle and the Pistons had just defeated Brown and the 76ers to advance to the conference finals. The Pistons had just won the rights to select the No. 2 pick in the draft, and Carlisle and Dumars were side by side laughing and slapping each other in congratulation. It seemed like their future together was bright.
A few days later, the Pistons were out of the playoffs. And Carlisle was out of a job.
“It was crystal clear to me that they wanted Larry Brown,” Carlisle says now. “I was told, in the conversation when they let me go, that they were gonna hire him. And I understand that. He’s the best of the best. He’s a Hall of Famer. They felt he was better suited to bring them where they needed to go.
“I accept that. I’m not in the Hall of Fame. I’m not the Olympic coach. I don’t have those kinds of credentials.”
Maybe not. But he did defeat Brown’s team last time they met in the playoffs. There were many who didn’t understand why the Pistons would part company with a guy who, in two years, had won coach of the year honors and had delivered back-to-back 50-victory seasons.
Then came the rumors that Carlisle was somehow too aloof, that he had alienated certain players and offended certain staff members. Carlisle rightly notes that “nobody wanted to go on the record with that, so I can’t put much stock in it.”
But one of Carlisle’s new employers, Donnie Walsh, the president of Pacers Entertainment (which oversees the team), heard the talk and dismissed it.
“Because I knew Rick from when he was here before” as an assistant coach, Walsh said, “I knew that he can get inside his own head a lot. I know some people can misjudge that. They might think he’s being aloof. But I wasn’t worried.
“Was I surprised he was available? Yes.”
Old faces in new places
Carlisle, 44, did a fine job with the team when he was here. And Brown, 63, has done an equally fine job in his first season at the helm. This may be one of those rare times where everybody benefited, even if Carlisle had to bleed a little.
“It’s always tough when things come to an end,” he says. “But I’ll never forget that Joe stuck his neck out to hire me and give me a chance when nobody else did. I’ll always be grateful for that.
“As for this series, I’m not sure it should ever be about the coaches. It’s about the players. It’s a players’ league, and I’ll do my best to get my guys prepared, and Larry will do the same. I’m not sure it’s much beyond that.”
Carlisle will say that phrase a lot. “It’s not much beyond that.” He is a guy who looks to diffuse rather than inflate. He is a cerebral, focused, genial man, who may not be perfect for every player in the league, but let’s not forget, Larry Brown and Allen Iverson weren’t exactly Burns and Allen.
So can you go home again? And what makes it “home”? Those questions will echo in this series. Pacers fans admit their franchise was nowhere until Brown turned it in the right direction. Then he left. Now he returns. Pistons fans know Carlisle must be credited with a similar turn of the chains in Detroit. Then he was canned. Now he returns.
So it’s Rick and Larry. It’s Dumars and Bird. It’s the ghost of Isiah. And, oh yeah, it’s Ben, Chauncey, Rip, Rasheed and Tayshaun against Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Reggie Miller and a soon-to-be familiar supporting cast.
It’s a horse race, basically, only certain jockeys have jumped saddles. But Carlisle, the new father, may understand better how you leave things behind. His legacy is on both sides of the basketball, as is Brown’s. And when they toss it up tonight, there’ll be a lot of invisible hands trying to tip that thing their way.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”
BROWN ON CARLISLE
So what does Larry Brown have to say about Rick Carlisle’s Detroit exit one year later?
Brown often has criticized teams for firing coaches. He blasted the Nets repeatedly for canning Byron Scott in the middle of this season, even though he had taken New Jersey to the NBA Finals in back-to-back years.
So on Friday, Brown said this:
“I hate to see any of this in our league, but the neat thing is the guy has been able to land on his feet and he’s done an amazing job. But I don’t like to see that happen to anybody.”