Princeton’s Pete Carril Changed Basketball, the NBA and Me

IIt was the summer of 1994, and my mother burst into my room to deliver a message: Pete Carril was on the phone. I walked out into the kitchen to grab the old landline receiver, nervous about what this conversation could possibly be, and a little in awe that it was even going to happen.

By then Carril, the innovative Hall of Fame basketball coach who died Monday at 92, was known in the hoop world as a near-giant killer: five years prior, on the day of the St. Patrick, his 16th-seeded Princeton team. scared the top-ranked Georgetown Hoyas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Princeton lost, 50-49. But at a time when college basketball‘s powers that be were considering eliminating automatic March Madness offers for smaller conferences, the Georgetown-Princeton game restored faith in the Cinderella charm. It was the highest-rated hoops game in ESPN history. The little guys kept their seats and CBS bought the rights to the entire NCAA tournament. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is now an $8.8 billion business, and the March office is a national pastime.

I now had the chance to be a part of it all. Carril recruited me to play at Princeton very late in my senior year of high school, and I was going to New Jersey in the fall. There was a problem, the subject of this phone call: At 6’3″, 155 pounds, my dimensions weren’t optimal for banging under the boards with, say, former Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, who wanted the Hoyas’ victory over Princeton in 1989. Forget the bereavement: these dimensions weren’t ideal for facing 99% of Division 1 players. I needed to gain weight, quickly, and Carril was calling with a very specific suggestion .

“Yo, Sean, here’s what you need to do to get fat: Drink a six-pack of beer and eat a ham sandwich, before bed, every night. Do you have this kid? »

I laughed. Carril did not. He was deadly serious.

Until now, I had only known Carril as so many outsiders saw him: as the Yoda-like sideline genius whose deliberate style of play, which emphasized passing and movement and more passes until a worn defense gave up an easy hit, allowed an undersized team like Princeton to hang on to Georgetown, Arkansas, Villanova and Syracuse in four straight NCAA tournaments from 1989 to 1992. As I would soon discover, Carril was so much more. What he lacked as a nutritionist or provider of modern “load management” – all of his newbies often gambled close to 40 minutes a night – he made up for it by looking at the game and life, in terms of maddening efficiency of a pop philosopher. See what’s around you. If you can’t see, you can’t do. Share the ball. If you are being closely watched, go through the backdoor. Don’t spend too much time reflecting on the past, because what does it really mean to you now and in the future?

Michelle Obama’s brother Craig Robinson – 1982 and 1983 Ivy Player of the Year at Princeton – had Carril in mind when he invited his new boyfriend, Barack, to a Chicago pickup game to gauge him . IA guy is a jerk on the basketball court, he’s probably a jerk in real life. This Obama guy, Craig knew after playing with him, was fine.

Carill abhorred new-age tools. “He didn’t understand computers or the people who used them,” says Bill Carmody, Carril’s longtime assistant at Princeton, who succeeded him at the school and later coached at Northwestern and Holy Cross. But going back to the 1970s, Carill foresaw analytics before anyone, especially him, knew what the term meant. His Princeton teams were basically the basketball version of the silver ball Oakland like. While finances prevented the small market of Oakland from competing with the New York Yankees for high-priced baseball talent, Princeton’s strict admissions requirements and lack of athletic scholarships prevented the Tigers from signing rookies. All American. Carril therefore had to look elsewhere for competitive advantages. He found it, in an offense designed to secure two of the most effective ways to score: open three-point shots and easy layups. He liked players, overlooked by most big schools, who could hit open threes and throw clean passes for those two-point shots. Princeton teams almost never took contested two-point shots from half range. These attempts were ineffective; their smaller players better shoot farther from the stronger defenders. Plus, those shots were worth another point. Carill’s calculations added.

Once Carril left Princeton in 1996 after 525 career wins in 29 years there and a year at Lehigh – his last college win was a memorable 43-41 win over UCLA that secured his Hall of Fame spot , and whose winning basket, a signature backdoor layup, plays on a highlight loop every March — he brought his philosophy to the NBA, as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings. In 2002, Carril’s Kings nearly met the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals; Nets head coach Byron Scott was also an assistant in Sacramento in the late 1990s, and he installed some of Carril’s passing concepts with New Jersey, which employed the game’s best passer at the time. , Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd. A 2017 the wall street journal The article highlighted Carril’s continued influence in the NBA: Like Princeton, teams like champion Golden State Warriors seek efficiency by valuing three-point shooting, easy layups, and avoiding two-pointers. midrange.

Warriors general manager Bob Myers was a reserve on the UCLA team that lost to Princeton in 1996 (I was also a reserve in that game, for the Tigers. Myers beat me, 4 minutes zero.) He saw Carril’s influence up close. “I’ll never forget losing to Pete’s Princeton Tigers in my freshman year at UCLA,” Myers said. “His team’s backdoor cuts and high post fades are something the Warriors and the entire basketball world have benefited from.”

Princeton Tigers guard Sydney Johnson and coach Pete Carril celebrate after a game against the UCLA Bruins at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. Princeton won the game, 43-41.

Jamie Squire/Allsport—Getty Images

“You will miss”

When I arrived at Princeton, I quickly realized that Carril was not for everyone. Upon his retirement from Princeton in 1996, he admitted he was “a bit too rough, too harsh” for a then younger generation. The son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, Carril has sometimes held the privileged past of certain players against him, even if they didn’t completely deserve such animosity. Many were just trying to make it in basketball. He pushed some players to give up and, in the quieter times of later years, would admit he would handle some relationships differently.

But damn if he wasn’t entertaining. One of our players threw an errant pass in training that cracked Carril’s glasses. He ripped off his shirt in anger, exposing tufts of gray hair on his chest. Her twisted frames stayed on her face the whole time, and the exercise resumed. He smoked cigars during practices: the indoor track teams who shared the gymnasium with us had to sprint through the stench. Carril once told a player that he planned to write the word “layup” on his own chest. He would challenge the player to hit him. “You will miss !” He cried.

Carill, who was a “Little All-American” at Lafayette College in the early 1950s, often played lunchtime basketball well into his 60s. He had a fun static shot that somehow came in more often than not. During a match, a football coach blew a ligament and was writhing in pain.

Carill walked over to him. “I guess,” he said, “it’s a bad time to tell you you’ve travelled.”

He asked a friend about a potential recruit. The friend told him that many respected scouts had said the player had a bad summer. Carill leaned back in his chair and took a puff of his cigar. “Frankie,” he said, “we play in the winter.” He wanted our biggest player to get faster. So he had him run around our smallest player on the pitch for about half an hour. “Catch him!” he would shout. “GATCH IT!!!”

Before or after many practices, he would walk down the line, pointing out each player’s fatal flaw, in front of everyone. This exercise often involved diatribes, rants and colorful language. When I was helping coach my son’s 7th grade basketball team a few years ago, in a private moment with him, I channeled Carril and played what he would probably say about each of his 12-year-old teammates and himself. He’s laughing.

And damn if he wasn’t right about a lot of things. Focusing on the past is largely counterproductive. Not taking a charge, or diving after a loose ball, is probably a character flaw, all it takes is a bit of bravery. He would add 5–10 feet to a player’s shooting range by encouraging them to shoot the ball while rising in the air, rather than at the top of the jump. This gives you more leg strength. (Stephen Curry never played for Carril. But he shoots like that).

After Princeton’s current coach, former Tiger player (and teammate) Mitch Henderson, was hired for the job in 2011, Carill handed him a card. He said, “Think. See. Do.” Carill stared at him for five seconds. “It was like 30,” Henderson said. “It was one of those, are you fucking listening to?‘looks.’ Message received. He won 63% of his games at school.

And he was probably right about my diet. I tried the ham and cheese and six pack combo once or twice but it didn’t really work. I never really gained enough weight to be a serious college player. But I can trace most of the good things in my life – friends, wife and family, profession – to Carril’s decision to give me a chance. He tagged me “Bones” my freshman year, and it stuck. I swear some friends and classmates still don’t know my real name. And while it’s not a good name for a budding hoops player, I’d like to try to get by in middle age.

Thanks, coach.

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