He's a talker. P. J. Carlesimo admits that much. But then, that's not much of a secret. Spend five minutes with the Sonics coach and it's...

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He’s a talker. P.J. Carlesimo admits that much. But then, that’s not much of a secret. Spend five minutes with the Sonics coach and it’s obvious he has lot to say. About basketball. About coaching. And about family.

Those topics take priority in his life, but not necessarily in that order.

Perhaps he should have been a lawyer after all. That was the plan after he graduated from Fordham University in 1971. That’s the life his parents wanted for him.

Not this. Not the public fish bowl of big-time basketball. Not the scrutiny. Not the crazy hours and the ridiculous time constraints.

“Somebody once said this, or told me this, or I don’t know where it comes from, but somebody said that if you’re a coach, every day somebody is patting you on the back and stabbing you in the back,” Carlesimo says, laughing. “That’s the job. The rewards are great. But not everybody is compensated like those of us in the NBA.

“Most coaches, the ones at high schools and small colleges or whatever, they’re in it for the same reasons as everybody else, but they don’t see the financial rewards. They work just as hard, and in most cases even harder, because they don’t have the same support or resources and they do it because they love to coach.”

If all you know about Carlesimo is what you see on television when he’s screaming at a referee or what you read about him after he was choked at a practice by one of his players, Latrell Sprewell, then you really don’t know him at all.

His brothers and sisters will tell you he’s a big softy who cries at weddings and family gatherings. His friends talk about his generosity and self-deprecating humor. And his former players say he’s a tough SOB with a big heart.

“He was that way when I met him and played for him, and he hasn’t changed,” says Mark Bryant, a former Carlesimo player at Seton Hall and now a Sonics assistant. “Coach is a disciplinarian. He’s old-school.”

Perhaps Carlesimo should have been a politician because he knows how to work a room and he’s in constant motion. He hardly has time these days for long, philosophical discussions. There’s just too much to do. He has assistants and a public-relations staff that keep him on a tight schedule.

“They protect me from myself,” he says.

Good for him, but not so good if you’re assigned to write a profile about the new Sonics coach and you’re given just 10 minutes for a one-on-one interview. Remember, he’s a talker and you’ve got a lot of subjects to cover in very little time.

So you suggest a game of word association and lay down the ground rules. You give the subject and he gives a one-word response.

“Agreed,” Carlesimo says as he nods approvingly.

Peter Anthony Carlesimo.

Can’t do it. I’ve got to use two words. Great man. I guess I lose already.

His father knew all too well what a life of coaching meant. Peter Carlesimo had been a football coach at the University of Scranton before becoming the school’s athletic director and then holding the same title at Fordham. But he was so much more than just a coach. He was a renowned after-dinner speaker who once sat on “The Tonight Show” couch across from Johnny Carson.

“My father was a coach and I admired him enormously, so I’m sure subconsciously that was a part of why I became a coach,” Carlesimo said. “I played for really good coaches. Great coaches in high school, my basketball coach and my baseball coach. I liked, almost without exception, these guys that I played for.

“I probably was lucky that I played for good coaches and I was raised to be respectful of coaches. That probably colored my thinking.”

Lucy Carlesimo

Again, can’t do it. Great woman.”

Being the oldest of 10 children, Carlesimo thought he understood the demands his mother had to bear. But what she did truly hit home once he married and had a family himself.

“I could name without really straining six or eight families close to us that all had 10, 11 or 12 kids,” he said. “I thought that was normal. Now we’ve got our hands full with two. How they raised 10 kids on a football coach’s salary in those days, I don’t know. My mother was incredible. She took care of 10 kids. It’s amazing. They were so into our lives and so not into their lives.”

Scranton, Pa.

“Home.”Seton Hall

“Validating.”

(Editor’s note: Two days later, Carlesimo changed his answer to “loyal.”)

Before taking the Seton Hall job in 1982, Carlesimo had proved himself to be an up-and-coming coach at Wagner College, where he led the Seahawks to the school’s first NIT appearance. The first four seasons at Seton Hall didn’t go as planned and twice he was nearly fired.

But in his fifth season, everything changed.

With Bryant as the star forward, Carlesimo led the Pirates to their first NCAA tournament in 1988. The next year, Seton Hall advanced to the title game, where the Pirates lost — some say they were robbed by a bad call — to Michigan at the Kingdome. Carlesimo was named NCAA coach of the year after guiding the squad to a 31-7 record.

Kentucky

“Flattering.”

After the miraculous ’89 season, the Wildcats came calling. It was his dream job. But Carlesimo said no and led Seton Hall to the NCAA tournament six times in his final seven years.

“Coaches don’t get five years anymore,” he laments. “That’s too bad.”

Bobby Knight

“Teacher.”

Jim Valvano

“Friend.”

Portland Trail Blazers

“Enjoyable.”

Clyde Drexler

“Pro.”

Golden State

Long pause. “I would say enjoyable again. Or I would probably say something about meeting my wife. Golden State is enjoyable, also. I really enjoyed Portland and Golden State. I loved both of those places.”

Latrell Sprewell

Short pause. “Misunderstood.”

No matter what else he accomplishes, Carlesimo’s obituary will invariably include Sprewell, his former player who tried to strangle him and punched him on the head during practice Dec. 1, 1997. Sprewell served a 68-game suspension and was fined $6.4 million in salary, but Carlesimo lost so much more.

“What probably hurt him more than anything, is that deep down P.J. doesn’t think he did anything wrong … and he’s right,” says Sonics analyst Steve Jones, who worked the Warriors’ broadcasts at the time of the Sprewell assault. “He coached Latrell like he coached hundreds of other players. He pushed him. Tried to make him better. Most coaches are hardest on the more talented players, and P.J. is no different.”

TV analyst

“Fun.”

After a 6-21 start to the 1999-2000 season, Golden State fired Carlesimo with two years remaining on his five-year, $15 million contract. Standing at a crossroads of his NBA career, he took a job with ESPN radio and worked as an analyst on Spurs broadcasts for two seasons, which eventually led to a coaching job with the team.

San Antonio

“Friendship.”

NBA champion

“Educational.”

Gregg Popovich

“Great person. Great friend.”

Kevin Durant

“Special.”

Carlesimo is very protective of the 19-year-old rookie, whom many believe is the most talented rookie to enter the league since LeBron James. The Sonics coach says their relationship is in the infant stage and it appears he’d like to fashion the type of close-knit bond Popovich shares with Tim Duncan.

“Like coach says, you can’t build anything overnight,” Durant says. “I respect him as a coach just like I’m sure he respects me as a player. He yells and screams and stuff, but he’s a great coach. You can tell that he wants us to get better every day. That’s all he talks about.”

Sonics

“Opportunity.”

When it is suggested that this will be his last coaching job, Carlesimo doesn’t disagree. He recognizes that even in the NBA, a league that recycles coaches, few people get three chances unless they’re proven winners.

And Carlesimo has not won consistently in the NBA. In six seasons, his record is 183-222 (137-109 with Portland and 46-113 with Golden State).

Family

“You mean my Seattle family? They’re everything. There’s no one word that I can think of. They mean everything to me.”

Carlesimo met Carolyn, 39, while he was coaching Golden State and she was a sports psychologist who worked at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He proposed New Year’s Eve 2000, they married seven months later in July and they have two boys, 5-year-old Kyle and 2-year-old Casey.

“It completely changed my life,” said the 58-year-old coach. “It just happened at a much later time than it did for anybody else. I was always able to give a singular focus to my job, which was always basketball. I still had my family, I had my brothers and sisters and I had my parents. They’ve always been and still are really important to me, but I didn’t have somebody back home. I didn’t have somebody that I needed to care about and be concerned about 24 hours a day, like when I got married and then on top of that when we had the kids.”

Kyle and Casey are ever-present in Carlesimo’s life. A demoralizing defeat in the Sonics exhibition-season home debut to Houston appeared to humble Carlesimo during postgame interviews, but minutes later he was upbeat while playing with his boys on the court.

“They give you a much better perspective on what’s important and what’s not,” he said. “It forced me to be a little bit better on budgeting my time. I’ve never been good at it. I didn’t have to be. I could sit here and do an interview for an hour or two and just stay in the office until 8 or 9 at night, go get something to eat and then go home and go to bed because I didn’t have anything else to do.

“Now I have decisions. Now I have things to do. I have to take Kyle to the fan shop today and buy him some stuff. I bet him something and he did a good job in school so we’ve got to go to the fan shop as opposed to sit up there and go over practice plans, return calls and other stuff that I’ll do eventually.”

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

College head-coaching record
Years College W-L
1975-76 New Hampshire 14-13
1976-82 Wagner College 65-93
1982-94 Seton Hall 212-168
NBA head-coaching record
Years Team W-L Playoffs
1994-95 Portland 44-38 Lost first round
1995-96 Portland 44-38 Lost first round
1996-97 Portland 49-33 Lost first round
1997-98 Golden State 19-63 Didn’t qualify
1998-99 Golden State 21-29 Didn’t qualify
1999 Golden State 6-21 Fired Dec. 28