by | Jun 2, 2003 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The man who got rid of Rick Carlisle woke up this morning in his pajamas and had his breakfast. His hair is white and he stands slightly stooped and he moves around as well as an 80-year-old man can. Perhaps he read the newspapers. Perhaps he didn’t bother. He is the richest person in this state, richer than anyone named Ford or Fisher or Ilitch — at least if you believe the Forbes 400 list — and while the whole city is buzzing about the firing of his basketball coach, he ambles quietly to lord over his multibillion-dollar empire — and no one asks him a thing. Bill Davidson can shrug at all the fuss, because he knows something that everyone else forgets.

It’s his ball.

He can take it whenever he wants.

Rick Carlisle will be working for someone new this summer for the same reason Jerry Stackhouse was working for someone new last summer. The owner didn’t want him. Plain and simple. The buck doesn’t stop with the team president. It stops with the guy who signs the checks. Bill Davidson signs the checks. Bill Davidson had enough of Rick Carlisle.

Mr. Carlisle is history.

“I’ll take the arrows,” Joe Dumars said during the weekend, when reporters grilled him on the firing of last season’s NBA coach of the year. How could this happen? Didn’t Carlisle do a great job? Didn’t the Pistons make the conference finals? Dumars was clearly uncomfortable, not because he had to fire somebody, but because he couldn’t be completely honest. “I’ll take the arrows.” It means the arrows could have hit someone else.

It’s Davidson’s ball.

He can do what he wants.

Stories about Carlisle

So what ticked off the boss so much? Apparently, he didn’t like Carlisle’s attitude. He didn’t like the stories that got back to him about rudeness, shouting, or humiliating members of the staff. Were all the stories true? Who knows? In the end, does it matter? It’s what the boss thinks, isn’t it?

Know this. Rick Carlisle is an intense man. He concentrates and he gets single-minded and when he does that, he may not realize whom he’s ignoring or how gruff he may sound. When I spoke to him Sunday, he was genuinely shocked that nasty stories were circulating about his temper. To his credit, he would not fire back. He would only say, “I enjoyed my two years there and tried to make everyone share in the success.”

But that doesn’t stop the stories. Stories that Carlisle, last year, shoved a senior Pistons executive as he tried to high-five the players. Tales about Carlisle yelling at secretaries, or snapping at the medical staff, or ripping on assorted personnel, young and old, in front of other people. Maybe he didn’t do all these things. Maybe he did but didn’t realize how he came across. Doesn’t matter. In Bill Davidson’s world there is loyalty and there is proper respect, and you don’t keep your job without them.

Remember, Davidson joined his uncle’s windshield company in the 1950s and built it into an enterprise with annual sales of nearly $4 billion. You don’t do that by brooking dissent. Nobody — nobody — disrespects Davidson’s staff or loyal employees.

Carlisle, a smart and talented coach, apparently felt that being smart and talented would be enough. Players disagreed. Some never cared for him, since he could stand in an elevator with them and not even strike up a conversation.

“That was always a difficult thing,” admitted guard Chucky Atkins, “he didn’t speak to a lot of people. When you treat people bad, it comes back to haunt you. If you can’t talk to your coach, who can you talk to?”

Meanwhile, the guy Carlisle most needed to be talking to was no longer talking to him. Davidson never publicly acknowledged his coach’s accomplishments, not even during the exciting playoff run. When the postseason ended, so, apparently, did the boss’ tolerance. And once Davidson decides something, it happens.

This is how much he wanted to be rid of Carlisle. He had to hire a bigger-name coach to make it look like an improving move, but there was only one such coach available, Larry Brown, who had just quit the 76ers. So Davidson gave the nod.

And today, after a wham-bam negotiation, he will hand Larry Brown a five-year contract worth around $25 million. Carlisle was due to make about $2 million for next year.

In other words, the boss committed $23 million to get rid of somebody he didn’t like.

Now that’s rich.

The pressure increases

The sad part is that a lot of destruction has taken place this weekend and nobody feels very good about it. Dumars is in a tough spot, because on the one hand, he likes and respects Carlisle, but on the other hand, he has to do what the owner wants. Carlisle is in a tough spot, because his reputation is being besmirched, and no one knows if he is truly to blame or is simply a victim of spin.

As for the team itself? Well. That remains to be seen. Carlisle molded this group into a low-key, hardworking defensive machine. The players may be happy to be rid of his intractable attitude, but if they think hey, great, we can be the Dallas Mavericks, they’re not going to win. Brown is a proven coach and a good teacher, and he’ll likely have an 18-year-old prodigy, Darko Milicic, under his wing. But teams often need a season to adjust to a new coach. And anything less than the conference finals means the Pistons are going backwards.

That’s a lot of pressure.

It’s funny. Less than two weeks ago, Dumars and Carlisle were smiling and walking arm-in-arm in a tunnel at a New Jersey arena, having just earned the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft. They were laughing and talking about the future. Both of them were sincere.

But neither of them was in control. That belongs to the 80-year-old, white-haired owner, who may be the polar opposite of a George Steinbrenner, but in profile only, not in power. When it comes to power, there is only one man in the Pistons organization who shakes the thunder and claps the lightning. And he’s the guy from whom you’ve heard the fewest words all weekend.

It’s his ball.

He just handed it to someone else.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


Former Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown will make Detroit the seventh stop on his 20-year NBA coaching cavalcade. He also won a national championship, coaching the University of Kansas in 1988. Brown, 62, will be introduced as the Pistons’ coach today. Complete coverage in Sports, Section D.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!