P.J. Carlesimo isn’t a New Yorker. Based on his work, he is most often associated with the Big Apple, where he went to college, or the west coast, where he's coached in Portland, Golden State, and Seattle. So he always has to correct people - "No, I’m from Scranton."
"I loved it," Carlesimo says. "I have tremendous memories of growing up there. The way I ended up in coaching was my father and my uncle were both coaches, and then I played for two great coaches at Scranton Prep, Jack Gallagher and Bob Doherty. Looking back, I don’t think there’s any question I was extremely fortunate to have so many great coaches as role models."
It makes sense that Carlesimo landed in the profession himself, and wound up as a member of multiple elite circles throughout his career. Listening to him relate his storied history in sports is just a stream of names, schools, and programs, most of which are recognizable universally: Bobby Knight. Mike Krzyzewski. Avery Johnson. Michael Jordan. Gregg Poppovich. Digger Phelps. Larry Brown.
He was named Seton Hall’s "Coach of the Century." He was the first NBA coach given a crack at a young Kevin Durant in Seattle. He was selected as one of four coaches for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team that completed the country’s closest attempt at literal world domination.
The last time he came to the Wells Fargo Center as the coach of the Brooklyn Nets, a security guard told him ten minutes before the game that there was somebody there to see him - his old friend from UNH, Chip Kelly. Eventually, the Sixers would hire an old colleague of his in Brett Brown - the two were assistant coaches for the San Antonio Spurs in the early 2000s. Carlesimo does not apparently attract friends who lack in patience.
"My two buddies," Carlesimo says with a sympathetic laugh.
This Saturday, he will add a new honor to his resume as he is inducted to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. Upon reaching the podium, Carlesimo will share a few words, relate a few anecdotes, and eventually take credit for nothing.
"I’m going in because of what the people who played for me did," Carlesimo says. "When you go in as a coach the first thing you’ve got to keep in mind that it’s not because of what you did, but what other people did working with you. I will express the gratitude I have for all the people I coached."
That list is a long, impressive one, culminating with the Dream Team made up of legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and others that got him his Olympic gold medal in 1992.
"The players bought in from day one," he says. "If you could see the practices, how hard they worked, the way they prepared…"
The team had been victimizing practice squads comprised of college teams on their American tour prior to the Olympics. But upon their arrival in Monte Carlo, it was the first time the Dream Team had to turn against each other at practice with no medals at stake.
"The best basketball of that entire summer was in Monte Carlo when they scrimmaged against each other," he recalls. "That was unbelievable."
A forgotten aspect of that team, he says, was that they were at varying stages of their basketball lives. Johnson, Bird, and Jordan were in the later phases of their careers, while guys John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Clyde Drexler were in their primes. But the thruline was the attitude; the relentlessly hungry mentality that did not subside regardless of the size or profile of a victory.
"They just dominated other teams," Carlesimo says. "Even after we played a couple games, sometimes we played a team we’d already beaten, and they never showed up and just mailed it in. They brought the same attitude. They really played like they were on a mission that entire summer."
Part of it was a quest for vengeance following the U.S. team’s letdown at the 1988 games, but mostly, "That’s the way those guys operated," Carlesimo remembers. "Those guys were the ultimate pros."
Malone, especially, stuck out in Carlesimo’s mind as a hulking, relentless gym rat. "My college guys hated me talking about that for years," he says. "Somebody would be mulling around or tired in the weight room and I’d be going, ‘If you saw the way Karl Malone worked, you’d see why he’s Karl Malone!’ Even when I was in the pros later, Utah always had a summer league, and I’d bring the rookies in and I’d find out where Karl was working and I’d bring them over and say, ‘You want to be a good player? That’s how you work.’"
Now, he’s a humble ESPN basketball analyst - something he amicably informs a delivery man who arrives at his door and asks if he’ll be coaching again in the near future - a career packed with highlights behind him and a seat waiting for him in the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame next to other regional basketball coaching icons like Bo Ryan and Joseph Bressi. The Scranton native is hoping his coaching days aren’t over but in the meantime, he’s comfortable as a talking head - as long as he’s talking about basketball.
Which only leaves a single question remaining: Does he think his friend Chip Kelly’s offense will work in the NFL?
"Without question," he replies immediately.
The Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame will hold its 2015 induction ceremony on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at the Valley Forge Casino Resort, 1160 First Avenue, King of Prussia. Tickets are available here.