Nets' Carlesimo savors his last shot

P.J. Carlesimo, who took over following Avery Johnson's firing, chatted with ESPNNewYork.com. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- More than 15 years later, P.J. Carlesimo knows the question is coming. He is sitting in his office wearing a short-sleeve shirt and coach's shorts, sitting there in the middle of a this-is-your-life interview waiting to be asked about the incident he calls "the Spree thing."

The Latrell Sprewell thing, to be exact. Carlesimo has been around too long to believe the public's fascination with the assault of an NBA coach by an NBA player has faded like those red, angry scars around P.J.'s neck.

"The Spree thing was such an enormous story that for people who don't follow the NBA avidly, that's the only way they know me," the coach of the Brooklyn Nets said in a wide-ranging, 45-minute interview with ESPNNewYork.com in the team's New Jersey practice facility.

"To basketball people, I don't think that's how they know me. ... But for somebody else, depending on how old or young they are, it's where they first came upon you. It's, 'Oh yeah, that's the guy.' For non-basketball people, that will still be the first thing out of their mouths. If you did a general survey of the population, they would say, 'That's the guy who was involved in the Spree thing.'"

Of course, when the star of the Golden State Warriors responded to Carlesimo's criticism of his passing skills on Dec. 1, 1997, by dragging him to the practice court floor, choking him for up to 15 seconds before being pulled away, and then returning 20 minutes later to punch the coach and threaten to kill him, Carlesimo's involvement in the incident was strictly that of a victim whose life was forever altered.

The case inspired a heated national discussion on race in sports, and on the acceptable workplace conduct of athletes and coaches (Carlesimo was known at Seton Hall, and later with the Portland Trail Blazers, for his demanding, high-volume approach), ensuring that the assault would trail Carlesimo throughout his career.

"You can't control it," he said. "From that moment on that thing spun so big and so out of control, there was never going to be any control over that."

Sprewell lost 68 games and $6.4 million in penalties before re-emerging as something of a folk hero in New York, where he helped the Knicks reach the 1999 Finals. Carlesimo? At 63, all these years and jobs later, he finally has a chance to become something of a local folk hero, too.

If he can somehow hold on to his Nets job long enough to win an NBA title, he'd be the first man to bring a professional championship to Brooklyn since Walter Alston's Dodgers beat the Yankees in 1955.

"But if that ever occurred," Carlesimo said, "you know the Spree thing will be a sidebar. There will be people writing stories saying, 'Who would've thought this back then?' In a sense [a championship] will refuel it. There would be more written about it that year, if it occurs, than has ever been written about it since the incident."

Yes, the thrice-fired Carlesimo will accept the trade-off if it means he gets to write the most improbable New York narrative since the thrice-fired Joe Torre, son of Brooklyn, became a dynasty maker in the Bronx.

P.J. is 6-1 since replacing Avery Johnson, and he's heavily favored to make it to the end of the season before Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner, and Billy King, the general manager, get their final answers from Phil Jackson and, perhaps, the brothers Van Gundy, Jeff and Stan.

Only Carlesimo doesn't think Jackson or either Van Gundy represents the best possible fit in Brooklyn. Asked who he believes in his heart of hearts is the right man for the job, Carlesimo said, "I think I am. Any coach is going to believe he's the best one. I believe I'm the best one for the job, and it would be foolish for me not to believe that.

"I can't control Phil and Jeff and Stan and whoever else is out there. They're all really good coaches. But we're here and our guys right now are playing their asses off, and hopefully that continues."

It was mentioned to Carlesimo that Torre had been fired by St. Louis, Atlanta and the New York Mets, just like the Nets coach had been fired by Portland, Golden State and Oklahoma City. Why can't the charmed things that happened to Torre in the Bronx happen to Carlesimo in Brooklyn?

"No reason," P.J. said. "No reason it can't. I think they've already done a really good job, Billy and [assistant GM] Bobby Marks and [Prokhorov] with the resources, and Avery being a major part of all the decisions."

In his lunch with Prokhorov following his promotion, Carlesimo fielded questions from an owner who went up and down the roster wanting to know which players could move him closer to his one and only goal, and which could not.

"He didn't necessarily come out and say it with each one," Carlesimo said, "but it was, 'Is this a piece to us winning a championship? Is this guy a good starter at that spot right now, but not a guy we can win a championship with?' What Michael [Mikhail] said was, 'If this piece is not the right piece, we've got to go get the right piece.' That's excellent to hear, but it better happen sooner than later."

If time has softened Carlesimo's abrasive style, it hasn't softened that style by much. King gave him one directive -- "Be yourself, and don't change" -- and the coach has taken the GM's advice.

Just as he got all over the likes of Terry Dehere, Danny Hurley and Bryan Caver at Seton Hall way back when, Carlesimo has gotten all over the likes of Kris Humphries here. Former Nets coach Lawrence Frank (referred to as "L" in some circles) was known for his intense, hard-driving ways, but someone close to both called Carlesimo "L-squared."

Joe Johnson has publicly endorsed his coach's blunt, cut-to-the-chase methods with the players, and Deron Williams -- no easy point guard to please -- said Thursday that Carlesimo is a relentless barker who has earned the team's respect "because he's a straight shooter. ... It's not like he's just screaming all the time. He's doing a good job of teaching us as well.

"I think all the guys like him."

Carlesimo has never worried about winning popularity contests, and he understands how quickly supportive quotes out of an NBA locker room can turn sour after one three-game losing streak.

He also understands how his former boss, Johnson, must feel about the Nets' recent success, as Carlesimo was fired in Oklahoma City only 13 games after the franchise moved from Seattle, only 13 games into his first season with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the roster, a Thunder roster now good enough to win it all.

Carlesimo wouldn't accept the Nets job from King until he spoke to Johnson first, until Avery gave him the same blessing that P.J. gave to his Oklahoma City assistant, Scott Brooks. "It literally never entered my mind one time that I would be coaching this team this year," Carlesimo said.

It's almost certainly his last shot at a head-coaching job, too, his last shot to win the ring he should've won at Seton Hall. With three seconds left in overtime in the 1989 national championship game, Pirates up one on Michigan, an official named John Clougherty called a highly questionable foul on the Hall's Gerald Greene that allowed Rumeal Robinson to take and make the deciding foul shots.

Carlesimo was remarkably gracious afterward, saying he wouldn't want any ref other than Clougherty to make that call. But P.J. still can't bring himself to watch a tape of that game, or to tune in when friends call and text him to say it's airing on ESPN Classic.

In his office Thursday, after years of trying to forgive and forget, Carlesimo called Clougherty's foul "a terrible call. A bad call, not terrible. It was a bad call."

And one that left a permanent imprint on the coach's standing in the game.

"Winning a national championship is night and day from not winning one," Carlesimo said. "When you win one, that sets you apart."

Carlesimo was part of three titles in San Antonio, as an assistant under Gregg Popovich, but winning it as an assistant doesn't measure up to winning it as a head coach. With his wife and two young sons in Seattle, Carlesimo spends his nights alone in his Jersey City apartment consumed by the pursuit of that long, lost ring.

Brooklyn is a long shot this year, but with a little luck in the first round of the playoffs, and with Phil Jackson likely to wait for the Lakers (or Clippers) to come back to him, Carlesimo might earn a contract for next season and beyond, when the Nets are in the business of credible contention.

And if it happens, if Carlesimo can make good on this last shot, he'll put up with another round of questions about the Spree thing. A parade would be worth that price.