Understand something about Joe Dumars. He loves to ask questions. He loves to learn. That is the reason he was able to go from a sneaker-wearing player to president of the Pistons in a few short years. He asks. He learns. And he admires learning in others.

Rick Carlisle is another man who loves learning. He taught himself to play the piano — well. He taught himself to golf — well. This past year, after being passed over for the head-coaching job with the Indiana Pacers — even though Larry Bird, his boss, strongly recommended he get the position — Carlisle refused offers to be an assistant elsewhere.

Instead, he took a year away from the bench, viewed the game from a broadcast perspective, and traveled from team to team, learning how the best head coaches ply their craft.

“Every city we went to, he would ask to sit down with the head coach and pick his brain,” said Kevin Calabro, the Seattle SuperSonics’ radio broadcaster who was Carlisle’s partner last year. “He’d go to all the shoot-arounds. Sometimes, he’d even fly in early and spend a whole day.

“He spent a day in Utah with their coach. He spent a couple days in San Antonio with their coach. He even went and visited college coaches — like Stanford and Duke.

“I’m telling you, he used last year to teach himself. He kept his own mental notebook.”

Today, those mental pages get folded into the Pistons’ next playbook. And Carlisle, 41, a former Virginia star who once played alongside Bird, then studied alongside Bird, finally gets to fly on his own.

Recommended by Chuck Daly

“I love the guy,” Chuck Daly said from his Florida home. “He worked with me for two years in New Jersey as an assistant. He’s got all the qualities to be successful. Great work ethic. Great mental toughness. And a great intellectual curiosity.”

Hmm. There’s that characteristic again. Intellectual curiosity. Remember, Dumars was not looking for a guy who had all the answers. Guys who have all the answers are either coaching the Lakers or trying to get a chair on the TNT set.

Dumars was happy to find a guy who studied the questions, who explored the best way to succeed within the rapidly changing NBA.

Oh, there were plenty of established coaches who expressed interest in what Dumars was offering. Don’t be fooled. The Pistons may be in a down cycle, in a down market, but the head-coaching position here is still considered a plum. The team has a heritage. It has a high draft pick. And it has the thing most teams in the NBA today do not have — salary cap room.

There are plenty of top coaches who would cut off an arm for a job like that. Dumars heard from all of them. He knew what he wanted. He listened for what he wanted. He found it in Carlisle, a guy who played only five years in the NBA
(for the Celtics, Knicks and Nets) and never averaged more than three points a game.

“He’s smart,” Dumars said. “He’s the right man for this job.”

That job, which begins today at a 10 a.m. news conference, will entail working with a load of new young players, a few veterans, and perhaps an imported superstar who comes via trade or free agency. That’s not an easy mix. Carlisle has seen how to do it — and not to do it — with some of the rag-tag teams in New Jersey that Daly coached.

And he certainly saw how to do it in Indiana, where, with a good mix of young and old, the Pacers went to the NBA Finals last year and gave the Lakers a good fight.

It is no accident that this year’s Pacers, without Bird and Carlisle, barely made the playoffs. Many in Indiana privately claim that while Bird got the credit, Carlisle did the X’s and 0’s coaching.

If so, he’ll be welcome around here.

Quiet, reserved and smart

“When we worked together, he stayed watching film on off days until 7 or 8 at night,” Daly said. “His demeanor is quiet, a little reserved, and I don’t think he’ll be that high-profile coach that Detroit sometimes has had in the past (Sparky Anderson, Wayne Fontes, Jacques Demers). But he comes off very strong when he has to. They’ll all appreciate what he does very soon.”

Perhaps Carlisle’s hiring here is meant to be. After all, had former Pistons star Isiah Thomas not been given the Pacers’ gig over Carlisle, he would surely not be available for Dumars.

We’ll see how it works out. The new Pistons coach needs patience, motivational skills and smarts — the kind of smarts to make chicken out of chicken salad.

The early signs are good. It is hard to find anyone with anything negative to say about Carlisle. His co-workers talk of him glowingly. And he apparently has this little sideline of making his own golf clubs (making his own golf clubs?), which enables him to give wonderful parting gifts.

“When he left here,” Calabro says, “he gave our TV producer a new wedge.”

The Pistons, on the road to recovery, will settle for a driver.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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