by | May 8, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Talk about first impressions. It was just another hot day in Phoenix, and Joe Dumars was in a Ritz-Carlton suite with a day’s worth of interviews for Detroit’s head coaching position. There was a knock on the door and a guy in khaki pants and tennis shoes came in, with a stack of notes. They sat down and they started talking — no food, no drinks, no TV breaks, just talking — and pretty soon, Dumars was pushing back one appointment, then another, then another, until the two men stretched a 90-minute meeting into four wordy hours.

And Dumars had found his man.

“He was just so fully prepared,” Dumars recalls of that first meeting with Rick Carlisle, who on Tuesday was selected NBA coach of the year after just one season with the Pistons. “We talked philosophies, we talked personalities. He was totally organized, with notes on everything.

“I’m not kidding now. If I had told him that morning, he would have been ready to coach the team that afternoon.”

As it turned out, it took a little longer. Dumars went through his scheduled interviews — with media-dubbed “front-runners” like John Lucas — but he kept thinking back to Carlisle, not just the big things, but little nuances, like the fact that Carlisle had taken a year off to travel and broadcast Seattle SuperSonics games — really an excuse to study every team in the league. Or the fact that Carlisle had taught himself to play piano fairly well. Dumars, who had once tried to do the same, knew the focus music required.

And then there was “the question.”

No, not “how much?”

The call to Indiana

“This is the thing that knocked me out,” Dumars remembers. “I asked him,
‘Rick, if there was one person I should call to tell me how you’d perform as coach of the Pistons, who would it be?’

“He didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘Donnie Walsh.’

“I said, ‘Wait. The Donnie Walsh that just passed you over for the head coaching job in Indiana? That Donnie Walsh?’

“He said, ‘That Donnie Walsh.’ “

Dumars pauses, still admiring the guts of that.

“Here he was recommending I talk to a guy who didn’t hire him, knowing full well he would tell me what the reasons were. That’s confidence.”

Or maybe nothing to hide. Carlisle, 42, brings a stunningly low-key honesty to the NBA. There is little flash. There are no pyrotechnics. He doesn’t leap off the bench with his coattails flying like a Superman cape. He doesn’t pose in an Armani suit, hands on hips, until he’s sure the cameras catch him.

Mousse his hair? Grab the microphone? Those are things he does not do.

Here are a few things he does: When he got the job, he flew to North Carolina, to visit for several days with Jerry Stackhouse. And he flew to Virginia, to visit with Ben Wallace. And he flew to Arkansas, to visit with Corliss Williamson.

And when time-outs are called, he stands on the court with his staff, away from the players, because 1) “They deserve some time to collect themselves before I start talking at them” and 2) “I have such respect for my staff, I want to hear their thoughts before I get in the huddle.”

On Tuesday, at the award presentation, Chuck Daly introduced Carlisle — Daly, who won two NBA championships, yet never got coach of the year. And Carlisle, on his day, still found time to ask an interviewer, “How is it possible that Chuck Daly never won this award?”

Plenty of pressure

There was one other question Dumars asked that first day. He said, “Rick, what happens when some player gets unhappy, and criticizes you in the media?”

This is what Carlisle said: “Joe, if I haven’t built enough of a relationship with a player that he feels a need to publicly come after me, that’s my fault.”

Dumars: “He was the only candidate who said that.”

I asked Carlisle on Tuesday if he remembered that first Dumars interview. Typically, he only said, “I thought it went well.”

He also said, “Joe and I are a lot alike. I guess we’re more thinkers than talkers.”

And they’re both do-ers. This Pistons team, stubbornly refusing to be overshadowed in Hockeytown, has now given the NBA its defensive player of the year, its sixth man award winner and its coach of the year. And a franchise once pegged for the draft lottery is actually in contention for the NBA Finals.

I asked Carlisle if the fans won’t expect more after this award. He laughed.

“What’s a little more pressure?” he said.

Yeah. You ever try playing “Melancholy Baby”?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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