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Seattle Basketball Legend Loves Golf

by Jeff Shelley

Not many people know that another basketball coaching icon not named Bill Russell or Lenny Wilkens is a Seattle resident.

That would be P.J. Carlesimo, a revered former college and NBA coach and current TV and radio commentator. He moved to the Emerald City in 2007 to become the new leader of the late, lamented SuperSonics.

Carlesimo was the Sonics last head coach before the team left town after the 2007-08 season. It was Kevin Durant’s rookie year.

Carlesimo, 69, never left, despite media work that involves traveling around the U.S. from the nation’s upper-left-hand corner. Settling here has enabled the Scranton, Pa. native to join Sand Point Country Club in northeast Seattle, where he, his wife Carolyn and their two young sons, Kyle and Casey, relax and have fun.

Carlesimo’s initial Northwest base was Portland, where he arrived in 1994 to coach the Trail Blazers. During his three years in the Rose City he helped usher the Blazers to three straight NBA playoffs. He then headed to Golden State (for three years) before Seattle.

The Sonics were moved (many fans would say ripped off) to Oklahoma City by new ownership in 2008. Carlesimo coached the renamed Thunder for 13 games before leaving the team. In 2012, he returned to the NBA as interim coach of Brooklyn, leading the Nets to the playoffs.

Before switching to the pro ranks, Carlesimo says the most fun he had during his 39 years as a basketball coach came at Seton Hall University. In their first-ever Final Four in 1989, the Pirates came oh-so-close to shocking the sports world. But, alas, the Orange, N.J., school lost the championship game in overtime to Michigan, 80-79.

Carlesimo said of that thrilling moment: “Great game from a player, coach and fan perspective. Both teams played very well. Nothing really to second-guess. Doesn’t get much better than a one-point overtime game (in the) NCAA Final. Would have liked a different ending. But I’m not sure if any school and fans ever enjoyed their NCAA experience as much as we did at Seton Hall.”

Carlesimo noted his tenure at Seton Hall left the most indelible mark on his career “because of how much we struggled in the early years, and how far we came. To make the NCAA tourney for the first time in school history, and to have our players do so well in the classroom and represent the school in the manner they did.”

Peter John Carlesimo’s father, Peter A. Carlesimo, was an influential figure in sports and his son’s life. “I grew up when he was the football coach and athletic director at the University of Scranton, and later as the AD at Fordham. He was also executive director of the NIT (National Invitational Tournament). He would have preferred I went into Law, or some other profession, but certainly supported me in my early years in coaching.”

Carlesimo, a natural raconteur, recalled his days at Fordham. “In my senior year (1970-71), I played with Digger Phelps as our head coach (who left after that season for an illustrious 20-year stint at Notre Dame). We finished 26-3, made the NCAA Tourney, and lost to Villanova in the East Regional in Raleigh, N.C. I sat at the end of the bench!”

Carlesimo launched his coaching career as a Fordham assistant a year after graduating. He secured his first head-coaching gig in 1975 at what’s now called Southern New Hampshire University, leading the Penmen to a Mayflower Conference title.

In 1979, he joined Division I newcomer Wagner College, taking that team to their first-ever post-season tourney, the NIT, with Carlesimo being named New York Sportswriter Coach of the Year. The Seahawks made the NIT again during his six years at Wagner before he departed for Seton Hall.

In his seven years at Seton Hall, Carlesimo piloted the team to six NCAA tournaments, including runs to the 1989 Final Four, the Elite Eight in 1991 and Sweet 16 in ’92. The college had struggled in the Big East Conference prior to his arrival.

Carlesimo was an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski on the vaunted U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” which handily won the gold medal in 1992.

The week before the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, held that year in Barcelona, Spain, Carlesimo (far right) played a little golf at the Monte Carlo Golf Club with (left to right) Rod Thorn (executive vice president of the NBA), Michael Jordan and Chuck Daly (head coach of the U.S. basketball team). Carlesimo was the assistant coach of the ’92 Olympic team, also known as the Dream Team.

Of his work with that once-in-a-lifetime squad, Carlesimo said, “Certainly as remarkable a two-month basketball experience as is possible. From San Diego training camp, the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, pre-Olympic practices in Monaco, and then the Barcelona Olympics. It was an honor to be together with the greatest basketball team ever assembled. Also had the opportunity to share that time with my parents and so many great friends with USA Basketball.”

Of a diverse coaching career that took him to both U.S. coasts and around the world, Carlesimo reflected, “I enjoyed 23 years in college and 16 years on the bench in the NBA. There’s a different dynamic in college, as it’s such an important time in players’ lives. As a coach, there’s almost as much to think about off the court as on.

“In the NBA, you coach the best athletes in the world; it’s essentially basketball only, 24/7, as opposed to so many other facets of a college basketball coach. The NBA has a much narrower focus. NBA players sometimes get a bad rap because of the behavior of a few. But, in general, they are tremendously motivated professionals, with a great work ethic and very receptive of teaching. I loved coaching in both college and the NBA.”

His favorite NBA memories? “My first job in Portland (when) we made three consecutive playoff appearances. We were the first team whose defense held opponents under 100 points over a season. I had the chance to coach some Portland greats my first year – Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams, and later, Arvydas Sabonis.”

He also worked alongside elite players as an assistant to San Antonio Spurs’ head coach Greg Popovich from 2002-07. “We had three NBA championships with ‘Pop,’ Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and company.”

Carlesimo cited other personal highlights. “I had the opportunity to coach the Sonics during their final year in Seattle. We had Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant along with Nick Collison and Jeff Green,” he said. “I was also the interim coach the first year of the Brooklyn Nets. We made the playoffs with 49 wins, still their best record to date.”

Among the teams Carlesimo coached (two of them being the Seattle Sonics and Portland Trail Blazers), the Brooklyn Nets was his last team as head coach. His son Kyle (walking behind him) served as the team’s ball boy.

Carlesimo got started in golf as, not surprisingly, a coach.

“I was actually the golf coach at Fordham when I was an assistant basketball coach there from 1971-75. I didn’t play much then, just handed out a sleeve of balls and scorecards to the team. But I soon started playing more. I actually thought the two courses (Winged Foot and Westchester Country Club) where we practiced and played were just typical golf courses. When we started playing away matches, I realized how special those two venues are!”

Carlesimo’s media assignments now include ESPN for NBA and college basketball, Westwood One Radio for college basketball, the NCAA Tournament, and PAC-12 Network for men’s basketball.

“I’ve also worked for ESPN SportsCenter, NBC’s NBA studio and games, TNT’s NBA studio and playoffs, San Antonio Spurs TV, Boston Celtics TV, and 2012 and 2016 Olympic basketball.”

These obligations involve extended stretches away from his family’s Queen Anne home. “I’m on the road for good chunks of the seven months of the NBA and college basketball seasons, with a few weeks of summer league,” Carlesimo said. “The toughest part is time away from my family. But travel is just part of the job.”

Golf has taken on greater meaning since Carlesimo’s introduction to the game. “Love everything about it, other than finding the time to play as much as I’d like.”

He lists his favorite U.S. courses as “Baltusrol and Olympic, both of which I am still a non-resident member, and Gozzer Ranch in Northern Idaho, my newest favorite. In Europe, it’s Turnberry, Ballybunion and Cruden Bay.”

As might be surmised, P.J.’s playing partners over the decades have included famed athletes, golfers and fellow coaches.

“I most like to play with my wife and sons,” he said. “My best and longest partner is (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim, from my college days and our many European trips. Peter Jacobsen is probably the most fun to play with, most tolerant of his failed efforts to improve my game, and the host of the best European trip. Seven of us accompanied him to play in the British Open at Royal Lytham in 1996. We played and traveled in Scotland and England before (NBA coach) Rick Carlisle caddied for him at Lytham.

“I also played in many Fred Meyer Challenges in Portland with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and numerous friends of ‘Jake’ from the PGA Tour. I had Nike golf trips with Phil Knight, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Boeheim, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Billy Cunningham and other coaching friends.

The Carlesimos overlooking the Rope Rider course at Suncadia – P.J., wife Carolyn, and sons Kyle and Casey.

“In the summer of 1992, I often played with Chuck Daly, Lenny Wilkens, Rod Thorn, Jordan, Barkley and Drexler. Payne Stewart, an old friend of Jacobsen’s, joined us in Barcelona during the Olympics. During my years at Seton Hall, we had an incredible event benefiting the Newark Boys and Girls Club. It was played at Somerset Hills (N.J.) Country Club and was hosted by Fuzzy Zoeller. It always featured eight great men and women golfers such as Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Jan Stephenson, Patty Sheehan, Phil Mickelson, Jay Haas, Jacobsen and many others.”

As for his ever-deepening Seattle roots, Carlesimo notes, “I love the people, the schools (St. Anne’s and Seattle Prep), our Queen Anne neighborhood and Sand Point Country Club. I’ve loved the Pacific Northwest from all my years with Nike, coaching for three years in Portland, Final Fours in Seattle, Goodwill Games, and numerous trips to play in Key Arena, and even the Tacoma Dome.”

Sounds like P.J. Carlesimo and family are here to stay.

Jeff Shelley has written and published nine books as well as numerous articles for print and online media over the past 30 years. The Seattle resident is the co-founder of the Northwest Golf Media Association and board president of First Green.