The first recollection here of Rick Carlisle as a freshman at the University of Maine in 1979 is not from Memorial Gymnasium, but the lobby of Hancock Hall where he was teaching himself to play the piano by ear.
“Rick liked to play the piano,” said Skip Chappelle, the Black Bears’ head coach at the time. “Everywhere we went on a trip, when we’d get to a dining hall or a restaurant or our hotel, he’d end up at a piano playing away.”
Carlisle apparently has become quite good at it, having played with Bruce Hornsby during a concert a few summers ago.
He’s also become a basketball coach at the top of his game, guiding the Dallas Mavericks past LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat to the NBA championship last weekend.
“It was 11:36 Sunday night when the awards ceremony ended,” said Chappelle, “and I went to my computer and sent him an e-mail: ‘From my family to your family, congratulations – Coach C.’
“Then at 2:36 a.m. he replied, ‘Thanks coach. This one was for all the old-schoolers.’”
Carlisle was referring to elder statesmen on his team like Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA Finals MVP, but he could have been reflecting on the coaches and teammates who helped him along his way, including those at Maine where he spent his first two years of college.
“You really didn’t have to do too much coaching when he was on the floor,” said Chappelle. “Rick knew how to position himself and he knew how to position everyone else on the floor. He was clever.”
But the cerebral guard from Ogdensburg, N.Y., wasn’t the most gifted athlete, which left him with few Division I opportunities coming out of prep school.
“[Assistant coach] Peter Gavett had a lot to do with him coming here,” said Chappelle. “He had seen him play at Worcester Academy and saw something there. I’m sure if some other school had seen that he might not have come to the University of Maine, but nobody else offered a scholarship.”
After being his conference’s rookie of the year as a freshman at Maine and an NABC District 1 all-star as a sophomore, Carlisle found a larger basketball calling at the University of Virginia, where as a senior he co-captained the Cavaliers to the Final Four.
Carlisle was selected in the third round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, then coached by K.C. Jones — a close friend of Chappelle since Chappelle tried out for the Celtics in 1962.
“K.C. asked me about Rick, and I told him you can’t go wrong having him in the locker room,” Chappelle said.
Carlisle played five years in the NBA, mostly watching and learning but also contributing to the Celtics’ 1986 championship run.
He landed his first assistant coaching job with the New Jersey Nets, which eventually led to a reunion with Larry Bird as an assistant with the Indiana Pacers in 1997.
Now he’s a ninth-year head coach, with stints in Detroit and Indiana preceding his current three-year run in Dallas.
From one lone Division I offer from the University of Maine, the 51-year-old Carlisle is a world champion, and his old coach couldn’t be happier.
“It was just a memorable run,” said Chappelle. “To me the biggest aspect of it was the team concept of basketball they played, and how they found a way to win against all that talent.
“I’m proud of him.”