Sacramento Kings’ Coachie and ‘the kids’

Working with players nearly six decades his junior, coaching legend Pete Carril faces the daunting task of teaching the new Kings how to hoop the American Dream

Coach Carril

Coach Carril

Photo By Noel Neuburger

“Three, four, five.”

The Sacramento Kings’ afternoon practice winds down and one by one players head for the showers. Assistant coach Pete Carril remains out on the floor, his khakis hopelessly wrinkled, throwing big men Jason Thompson, Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman chest-high passes, urging them to work on their jump shots. The 79-year-old Carril’s mechanics remain forever sharp: thumbs down, knees bent, following through, consistent delivery. He’s a perfectionist. And demanding; he rattles off each made basket.

“Six, seven. Eight!”

Carril moves the three Kings to a new spot and restarts the drill. When the hoops stop falling, he prods: “You can make it to five, eh?”

Across the gym, Kevin Martin yells that lunch is ready.

“We’re working with the master here,” Hawes hollers back.

Martin threatens that the pizza will disappear fast.

“They didn’t tell Luke Skywalker to stop working with Yoda,” Hawes shouts. Ribs as to whether Hawes is truly a Jedi ensue.

This year’s Sacramento Kings—“the kids,” as Carril says—are the ultimate NBA underdogs. No one expected them to do well. Israeli up-and-comer Omri Casspi is just 21. NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Tyreke Evans is 20. Brockman, Hawes and Thompson are all under 23. Carril, whom many affectionately refer to as “Coachie,” jokes that they’re so green, one player—no names—didn’t even know who Red Auerbach was.

The generation gap cuts both ways. Evans, who’s forged a close bond with Carril, remembers first meeting the five-foot-six 79-year-old and thinking, “How does he know the game of basketball?”

Oh, but he knows. Thirteen Ivy League championships at Princeton University; 513 career wins; a spot in the Hall of Fame—hoops are coach Carril’s American Dream, and he’s one of the last basketball emissaries, a true teacher in this iPhone, Xbox and Facebook world. As Kings head coach Paul Westphal says, this year’s Kings are “the passion that gets him up in the morning.”

Carril’s motivation? To prove—to both the kids and himself—that with hard work and smarts, you can still live the American Dream. That David still can take down Goliath.

Carril’s Adidas sneakers hardly lift off the ground—he’s recovering from plantar fasciitis—as he shuffles over to sit in an ergonomic chair alongside the Kings practice court. “These guys always drive to the hole” and dunk, Carril says of his workout with the bigs. “Sometimes, you have to work on taking a shot.”

Sportswriters who’ve written about Carril during his 13 seasons with the Kings overuse the Yoda analogy, but Coach, polite and patient and generous with his time, endures the pet name. “I always answer by saying I was last in my class,” he jokes.

Still, it’s apt: Yoda, an aging, legendary and quotable teacher of short stature, used the Force, which gave him insight into the balance of the universe. Carril shares Yoda’s wispy gray hair, legendary stature, affinity for condensing life’s lessons into brilliant sound bites and a matchless intuition for how the game of basketball should be played.

He aims to share this knowledge, but with these young Kings it sometimes gets lost in translation. Carril wanted Hawes to study Vlade Divac, for instance, but when Coach gave the 7-foot-1 center a VHS tape, Hawes appeared confused by the old-school technology.

Sacramento Kings assistant coach Pete Carril is only 5 feet 6 (and three-quarters) inches, but the 79-year-old&#8217;s knowledge of the game towers over 6-foot-11-inch Jason Thompson (left), a 23-year-old power forward; and 6-foot-6-inch Tyreke Evans, a 20-year-old first-round draft-pick phenom out of the University of Memphis. Evans says he took one look at Carril and thought, &#8220;How does <i>he</i> know the game of basketball?&#8221;

Photo By Noel Neuburger

“But when times get tough, that’s usually the guy I go talk to,” the 21-year-old center says.

For Coach, the first step to figuring it all out when times are tough is easy. It starts when you walk out onto the court—when you get out of bed in the morning. He says you simply have to be able to answer the question: “What do you stand for?”

Part of the family

When coach Carril shows up for lunch at East Sacramento’s 33rd Street Bistro, he doesn’t arrive through the crowded front entrance. How’d he sneak in? Who knows, but there he is, scooting his chair forward, sporting a navy, Granny Smith green and eggshell white argyle sweater. “I always get the Mediterranean salad here,” he announces with a husky East Coast accent before settling in to chat.

He also might go unnoticed on the Kings bench at games. Carril sits in the second row, behind first-year coach Westphal and next to assistant Shareef Abdur-Rahim, flanked by giants, and rarely stands during timeouts. He wears a modest hodgepodge of sweaters, sweater vests, sport coats and khakis, a style carried over from his Princeton days; most coaches don made-to-measure suits. “Diamond dealers … they’d starve if they had to depend on guys like me,” Carril says.

If the Kings are winning a game, Coach rests back self-assuredly, arms crossed. If it’s tense and the crowd’s on their feet, he’ll chomp gum and occasionally stand to watch. But if the Kings face defeat, he’ll bury his palm into his bald forehead and gaze down at the hardwood. This was a common sight last season—the worst in Kings history. It was so bad, Carril was uncertain whether he’d return this year or retire.

He says the last thing he wants to do, though, is to go back to Princeton, wandering the halls and the recently christened Carril Court like “some old relic.”

“To have a life without basketball would be difficult for me,” Carril acknowledges.

Plus, a kind of family has developed in Sacramento. Kings general manager and disciple Geoff Petrie, who played under Carril at Princeton from ’67 to ’70, first knew Coach as a mentor. “Then he became my friend,” says Petrie, who hired Carril to the Kings staff in 1996.

“And now, he’s really part of our family,” Petrie says. “When I reflect on my own life, it’s really been one of the great things that’s happened to me. I would and do seek his counsel on just about anything. Except electronics.”

Coach and Petrie watch a lot of games together, arguing, debating, challenging each other. Coach is more than a teacher; he’s like a father.

First big loss

Born in Bethlehem, Pa., Carril didn’t see a lot of his actual dad, sometimes for weeks at a time. His father, an immigrant from León, Spain, worked all kinds of odd shifts at Bethlehem Steel Company, which Carril says ran from one end of the town to the other.

But Dad did teach a few things. “‘You’re going to find out when you get older that strong people are always picking on weak people,’” Carril remembers his father saying. “‘And smart people are always taking things from the strong.’”

Carril adopted this refrain as the title of his 1997 book, The Smart Take From the Strong. In it, he describes his dad heading out the front door, but stopping and pointing his finger at his head. “Use el coco,” he’d say, or “Use your head.”

Most kids in Bethlehem grew up with a ball in their hands. Carril was no exception. His father preferred soccer—“Real Madrid, everything stops when they play”—but Carril took to basketball under the tutelage of his first mentor, high-school coach Joseph Preletz. By senior year, Carril was all-state.

“[My dad] only saw me play twice in my career, once in high school and once in college,” Carril says.

At Lafayette College, Carril played under Butch van Breda Kolff, who would go on to coach at Princeton and later the Los Angeles Lakers. Van Breda Kolff emphasized unselfishness, things like reducing “the amount of tension involved in the game by passing the ball,” Carril says.

Did it work? “No, I shot the ball every time I got it,” Carril says, joking that he picked up ball hogging in the Army during the Korean War.

Pete Carril first saw Tyreke Evans (left) play ball and said, &#8220;Holy God!&#8221; With the game tied at 100 against the Denver Nuggets in early January, Evans made Arco Arena believers, too, hitting the game-winning shot. Spencer Hawes roars approval.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Carril himself began coaching and, in 1959, got the varsity gig at Reading High School in Pennsylvania. “‘You know, I hear you’re a teacher. But in this town, if you don’t win, you’re going to get fired,’” Carril’s superintendent warned.

This is around the time Carril first tasted defeat.

It was the state championship. Reading had the game in its hands, but one mental error cost dearly. “We lost the game because one of my players misread a clock,” Carril reminisces, emphasizing the ck in clock as if, some five decades later, he’s still irritated by the gaffe.

Carril mentions the half-century-forgotten defeat the day after a recent double-overtime loss to the Lakers. “I’d be driving and then I’d think of the [Reading] game, and my heart would start running. I’d move my car over to the side until it passed,” Carril shares.

“I took my losses hard.”

Confusing euphoria

Kevin Martin sits atop the scorers’ table next to Carril, who’s focused on the Kings warm-up before the Dallas Mavericks game in early January. Coach wears dress shoes for the first time in over a month—doctors say the plantar fasciitis is gone—and sips a hot drink in a to-go cup.

“Omri! Omri!” he yells, motioning that the forward come see him. Casspi puts the ball under his arm and leans over.

“When you practice shooting, you have to dribble, too, because there’s a big difference—and they’re not going to give you a straight shot,” Carril reminds the rookie.

“Thanks, Coachie,” Casspi says. He hustles back to warm-ups and actually heeds Carril’s advice, taking shots after executing crossovers.

Carril has spent the best part of a lifetime teaching teenagers and 20-somethings. In 1967, Carril took over at Princeton. He won nearly two-thirds of his games, made it to the NCAA March Madness tourney 11 times and won the National Invitation Tournament title in 1975. Amazingly, Carril accomplished this without a single athletic scholarship; “I called the financial-aid office at Princeton ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’” he says.

Petrie remembers Carril as a “real perfectionist” and “demanding” coach. “We’d be working on something and he would start going, ‘One more time.’ And one more time would last for two more hours,” he recalls.

Carril is gracious, but self-effacing about accomplishments. He never brags that his Princeton defenses repeatedly were tops in the country. And this reporter chatted with Carril on and off for nearly six weeks, and not once did he bring up what many consider his shining moment: Princeton’s 1996 upset of defending national champion UC Los Angeles during March Madness.

That game’s winning play, the backdoor cut, was a thing of beauty, a fine example of what many refer to as the “Princeton offense,” Carril’s strategic legacy.

Leave it up to Carril, however, and he would rather talk about 1989, which he mentions often in moments of reflection. The perfectionist holds near the big wins, “but not as much as the losses,” he confesses.

Dick Vitale still was a host on ESPN in 1989. “If Princeton can beat Georgetown … I’m going to change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform and lead all the cheers,” the sportscaster declared. Georgetown was the best team in the nation. Princeton was the 16th seed, a pushover, a foregone conclusion. The ultimate underdog.

But right out of the gate, Carril disciple John Thompson and his Georgetown Hoyas were in trouble. The Tigers played unselfishly and smart. Kit Mueller hit an easy hook to open the game. Robert Scrabis knocked down a few baseline threes. Princeton was up 29-21 at halftime.

But the game came down to the final possession: With one second left, Mueller fired a 20-footer, which fell short. Georgetown escaped, 50-49.

Kings head coach Paul Westphal (left) says Carril&#8217;s love for this year&#8217;s players is what gets him up in the morning. Here, the two minds confer after practice.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

Watching the game’s final moments on YouTube, you can see Carril gesture in vain for a foul call, then let out a mighty guffaw, then smile. His gray hair shoots upward in the back; Petrie says he used to pull out his hair during Princeton games.

To this day, no college 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1 team in March Madness.

“There was a state of euphoria on the part of my team when we lost to Georgetown,” Carril says of how it feels to have exhilaration turn to remorse in an instant. “It was the No. 1 team in the country.”

The defeats still hurt.

A few weeks back, Philadelphia handed the Kings a tough loss. After the game inside the bowels of Arco Arena, an elated 76ers head coach Eddie Jordan, who worked with Carril during his first two years in Sacramento, explains that he owes “his entire NBA career” to his mentor. Over in the Kings’ locker room, Carril is holed up in the coaches’ room with Westphal. Coachie stands at the whiteboard, diagramming the team’s movements in orange marker as Westphal occasionally interjects. Carril emphatically sketches downward-pointing arrows, as if to suggest the Kings should be moving. Moving! There’s a quotation on the board—“The man in front of you tells you what to do, shows you where to go”—and the brainstorm lasts well into the post-game. It’s an hour to midnight.

Coachie hates losing.

A teacher’s insight

There are two courts inside the Kings’ practice facility, one with a Kings logo at center, another with a Monarchs emblem. A few stray basketballs drift across the hardwood. The place is vacant. It’s a quiet moment, so you ask: “Why does everyone call you ‘Coachie’?”

“I don’t like the name,” Carril admits. But the nickname was partially his doing. “When I first came here, if a guy’s name was Dick, I’d call him Dickey. Mike, Mikey. You know, it’s a term of endearment in the background that I came from. Hardly anybody called me Pete; they called me Petey. That’s the way it was. If you liked the guy, you sort of added something to it,” Carril says.

“And so, Doug Christie, I’d call him Dougie. And he thought it was funny, so he started calling me Coachie. And it caught on.”

“Coachie” is just right. It evokes a sense of easygoing trust and camaraderie. It shows admiration, gratitude. Respect. It’s paternal. It captures both Carril’s winning single-mindedness and his generous character. It’s fun. It’s Coachie!

“It’s just notable how much he loves the game and how much he loves these players,” Westphal sums up one day after practice. Coach is an equal champion of what Westphal has done for the team, attributing it to the fact that he’s a man who’s “at peace with himself.”

Westphal pretty much allows Carril to do anything he wants. “I want you to say whatever you want to say to whoever you want to say it whenever you want to say it” is how Westphal explains Carril’s job description, noting that Coach mostly works with Evans. Carril says he earns a salary of $150,000 each season; his official title is “basketball development consultant.”

“He was a teacher in high school and he has a teaching mentality,” Petrie praises. “And he has a great body of knowledge about a lot of things, not just basketball.”

Carril’s chatting in the locker room after a rout of Minnesota in early December. “I’m going to work on Tyreke’s shooting tomorrow. He’s not practicing hard enough [on it],” he says. Evans is a special player, probably more than most realize: The rookie from University of Memphis, who would only be a sophomore at college, has averaged more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in every game this year. The only other players in NBA history to put up such numbers in their rookie season were Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

Carril has been quoted as saying of Evans: “When you look at him, you say, ‘Holy God!’”

In Las Vegas, Carril was head coach of the summer-league team and worked extensively with Evans—exuding confidence in his free-throw shooting, adjusting his shooting hands down from above his head, discussing smarter shot selection, practicing moving off the ball.

“I listened to him and noticed that I got better at certain things, and I still work with him to this day,” Evans says after the Dallas game, his first game back from a medium ankle sprain. The night before, he struggled, a bit creaky.

Coach Carril says that the first step to figuring it all out is easy: When you step onto the court&#8212;or when you get out of bed&#8212;you have to be able to answer the question, &#8220;What do you stand for?&#8221;

Photo By Noel Neuburger

You could say that Carril is Evans’ WD-40. He works on the small, overlooked, mechanical aspects of his game. “Things like getting the ball in the right direction when I’m going to go by somebody, switching it into a different hand and things like that. Spinning. Pivoting,” Evans says. “Shooting floaters,” like the last-second game winner Evans made against the Denver Nuggets on January 9.

But even more than his game, Carril talk about Evans’ support system: his brothers, best friends—and his parents. “I wanted to work a little bit at 2 o’clock, and Tyreke said ‘Well, my parents are coming.’ And I said, ‘Well, good,’” Carril says. “That shows you that there’s something there to kind of back me up. … I’m just so happy that he feels that way about his parents. I mean, this day and age, who has parents?”

The motto Carril used to tell his Princeton players all the time was, “Your parents can never go to sleep at night worrying that [you] did something they wouldn’t be proud of.”

“I told Tyreke I want to meet [his parents]. We’ll see what happens,” Coach says.

The forecast this season for Evans and his fellow Kings is uncertain. After spending most of the year injured, Kevin Martin returned this past week, and Carril believes the player “has to add a lot” if the Kings want to call the season a success. But with or without K-Mart, after a promising jump early in the year, it’s been a struggle of late.

“Those losses that we had that we could have won, there’s a satisfaction early in the history of those losses,” Carril says of the first 20 or so games. “But the longer the losing goes, the worse you feel, because you think what could have happened if you’d won.”

Carril also reminds that, while Evans is young and tough, other off-the-court intangibles will confront him. “The violin player Itzhak Perlman, he practices six hours a day. And when I watch him … all his heart goes into what he plays. I mean, I’m impressed. I damn near cry when I see him play. Because he’s almost crying,” Carril sees a similar virtuosity in Evans. “This is what I hope for Tyreke, or all these kids. But it’s hard in this environment, because there’s so many things pulling at them, pulling them away from that.”

It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-January, and Carril is the last one in the gym again. He doesn’t always travel with the team and will stay in Sacramento for the upcoming 10-day road trip. This means games on TV and sleepovers at Petrie’s, maybe making his chicken pot-pie recipe. Or dinners with his local doctor, who he became “fast friends” with after his November 2000 triple-bypass surgery. Or reading a book on Einstein’s most memorable quotations. And a lot of downtime.

“[I] sort of get a little homesick,” Carril admits. He lives in Princeton during the off-season, when he can see his grown daughter, son and grandchildren. “I love basketball, but I don’t know how long I want to mess around. … I don’t know when. I haven’t decided.”

Never say never

Coach Carril’s right hand rests on the bridge of his nose, eyes staring down at the hardwood floor. It’s New Year’s Day at the Los Angeles Staples Center, and Coach appears to be either in anguish or a meditative state during the final moments of a pingpong battle with the Lakers.

There’s a minute left. Omri Casspi buries a 3-pointer, but moments later the refs bail out the Lakers with a foul. Tie game. But then Sac takes the lead on a zigzag layup by Beno Udrih. Just 4.1 seconds to go. Another Kings-Lakers game down to the final possession.

Back in Sacramento before the game, Carril admitted that winning in Lakerland would be unlikely. “It would probably be historic, one of the most-amazing victories for our franchise,” he says. “But we’ve still got to go in there thinking that we can do it.”

But here at Staples, everybody is on their feet, even Carril. Four-point-one seconds remain between the Kings, ahead 2, and payback to the Lakers for double-overtime heartbreak days earlier. Westphal stands tall, arms crossed. Kenny Thomas, who fans call K-9, tracks Kobe Bryant. Laker center Pau Gasol receives the inbound. Bryant escapes K-9’s scent and shimmies open. Gasol sees this and feeds him the rock.

Set. Jump. Shoot. Bryant lets it fly just ahead of the horn. Swish.

Bryant arms rise in a “V” right on top of the Kings bench. Game over. Lakers win. Saturday night. Happy new year.

Carril rests both hands on Westphal’s chair, then gestures at Bryant with the left, palm upward, as if to say, “That’s Kobe Bryant. That’s what he does.”

Back in Sacramento on Monday, Carril reflects on the team’s hard luck of late: five losses in six games, two of them overtime defeats against LeBron and Kobe. This is the hardest part of teaching a young team. “Sometimes, it takes a defeat to spur you on to do better,” he says, optimistic.

“Failures eventually lead to successes—unless you give up.”

But that’s one thing Coach will never do. The big losses drive him. Stir him to perfection. Reinforce his dedication to teach the kids about the American Hoop Dream.

Still, what’s it like to win a big game, an upset, one for the ages—the UCLA game? You ask him.

Carril, not one to suffer fools, looks you in the eye and smiles.

“You can answer that yourself.”