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Not Quite P.J.-Mania : Carlesimo Got Rich Portland Deal, but Team Has Faded

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was never like this in South Orange.

When P.J. Carlesimo coached Seton Hall in New Jersey, the Pirates warmed up in December with Wagner, Iona, Manhattan, schools like those, got a few victories, built up the old confidence.

In a good year, they might take in the Maui Classic. They might play one of those big intersectional games for TV exposure and the payday.

Aside from that, it was Cupcake College and Bull’s-Eye State. Even in a down season such as his last, they’d be 9-3 when Big East play started, 8-10 in the conference, 17-13 overall . . . and slither into the NCAA tournament. If you thought Heifetz could play the violin, you should see what a college coach can do with a schedule.

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But now Carlesimo is a continent away, here in Portland, trying to revive Blazermania.

Nor are the players taking it easy on the new kid.

Cliff Robinson, the guy with the headband and the $2-million salary, held out during Carlesimo’s first camp.

Clyde Drexler, due $9.75 million next season, blew up at not getting an extension, demanding a trade anywhere he’ll be treated with “respect.”

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Carlesimo must have known there would be days like this, but weeks and months?

“I didn’t think about it, to be honest with you,” he says, using his pet expression for whenever he’s straining credibility.

“You’re always going to have situations. Some of those situations you have control over. This is one like an injury situation.

“We’re OK. Clyde has played very, very well. It hasn’t seemed to affect him at all.”

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Amid much skepticism and the usual high jinks, with little fanfare, Carlesimo is blazing a trail into the heart of dread professional basketball, with its prima donnas and its pressures. NBA owners have begun making million-dollar offers to NCAA coaches whose answer has mostly been, “Who me?” Carlesimo is the one who said yes.

Why him? Why now?

He left a friendly campus for a situation he may have scant control over, an aging team that has to be rebuilt, an invitation to look lousy, no matter how good a job he can do.

Drexler, his star, is 32. Terry Porter is 31 and has been out all season. Buck Williams is about to turn 35. Jerome Kersey’s game is a memory, but he’s chained to the roster by his contract.

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Local talk shows reverberate with calls to break them up, but the Trail Blazers are moving into a new arena, the Rose Garden, next season and aren’t eager to try selling the extra seats and the new higher prices while looking like an expansion team.

Guess who gets to front for the old regime?

“There is still in Clyde and Buck and Jerome and Terry, when we get Terry back, a real solid veteran nucleus,” Carlesimo says.

“We’ve got younger guys like Cliff and Rod (Strickland), who have established themselves at that all-star level and yeah, we need some things to happen. Clearly we need to get healthy. We’re not one of the favorites, nor do I think it’s such a monumental upset for this team to be competitive and to be a playoff team.

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“We haven’t called any of these guys in and said, ‘Your role is to mentor the young guys and get them ready.’ Guys who have had as much success as these guys have had don’t want to hear we’re building for the future and it’s time to move on. . . . “It’s almost a danger in talking about it. These guys--'What the hell is he talking about? He’s worried about how we’re going to be in ’97 or ’98. Hell, he better get worried about how we are now.’ ”

OK, he’s worried. Now what?

*

If NBA owners have discovered NCAA coaches, the NCAA coaches are mostly recoiling in horror.

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All but unfireable where they are, they have also proved to be all but unhireable.

Last summer, Miami management prostrated itself before Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, hoping to sign him for enough money to build his own campus. In this case, the K in “Coach K” stood for strikeout.

The Lakers, who’d had the door open for Kansas’ Roy Williams, went after Kentucky’s Rick Pitino, ready to make him the game’s highest-paid coach. Pitino ran like a scalded cat. His friends think the the former NBA coach will return, but he intends to make his comeback with a sure thing.

The Clippers and Denver Nuggets sought Georgetown’s John Thompson, an unabashed capitalist as well as builder of young men. Big John’s asking price--$3 million a year--ended negotiations.

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But Carlesimo actually crossed the Willamette, and not only for the challenge, either.

Buoyant and boyish, a born schmoozer and recruiter, a media favorite and a power in the back rooms--"I mean,” Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese says, “how could anyone not like P.J.?"--he was no marked-down item. He cost the Trail Blazers $7 million--$1.4 million for each of five seasons--making him second to Pat Riley’s $1.5 million, ahead of Don Nelson’s $1.3.

Carlesimo says, to be honest with you, it wasn’t the money.

“People would say, ‘Would you ever like to coach in the pros?’ ” he says. “And I would say, ‘Yeah, I would because it’s the ultimate.’ It’s the best basketball in the world. But I don’t want to not do what I’m doing (coaching Seton Hall).

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“People look at me and say ‘What kind of a stupid answer is that?’

“Guess what? There’s a big element of that because most or all of the people who would be attractive to the owners--everybody says, ‘We’d like to have John Thompson, Mike K.’ Well, no kidding.

“Those guys are very much entrenched where they are. They like it. The place likes them. They make a very, very good living. Maybe not as much as our salary but all things considered, very comparable.

“The money thing, which a lot of people think is a factor, is a total non-issue. For the people who are on these lists, money is either no issue--or a negative.”

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Indeed, if universities can’t match the pros’ hard dollars, the college coaches’ tote bag of perks--money from sneaker companies and summer camps that use school facilities, country club memberships, tuition for the kids--boosts the big college coaches well over $1 million, before one ever takes in the difference in the price of housing between Durham, N.C., and Miami.

Carlesimo estimates his package at humble Seton Hall, which he built from a Big East doormat, was about $700,000.

He was a star. He had concrete job security. What did he need with the Trail Blazers?

The timing was right. He had gone as high as a second-place finish to Michigan in 1989, but now he was in a down cycle and had just finished No. 2 to St. John’s in the recruiting battle for Felipe Lopez, the heralded New York City prep.

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Meanwhile in Portland, Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen, the computer genius who had started a little company named Microsoft, had begun casting around for new approaches.

Carlesimo had had feelers before, but he followed up on this one. He liked Portland, having often visited Nike in suburban Beaverton. He knew the franchise that had drafted two of his players, Ramon Ramos and Mark Bryant. The owner had deep pockets, a fresh outlook and didn’t meddle.

Carlesimo took the job and a new era began. The last coach, Rick Adelman, a former player, had run a relaxed ship. Carlesimo put in new rules, barring the press from practice, even at the summer league in Salt Lake City.

The Trail Blazers started fast, but they faltered when Strickland went out for three weeks and are now barely over .500. Shortly after he returned, Drexler demanded to be traded.

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“All I say,” said the team’s new general manager, Bob Whitsitt, opening the bidding, “is if you’re a team trying to make a run for it, there’s no better shooting guard in the NBA.”

Whitsitt is the brash young executive who did the impossible in Seattle, transforming a squabbling, aging, middle-of-the-pack team into a power. He’d better have another miracle up his sleeve. The Trail Blazers may have a dream team in the front office, but the one on the floor is running out of time.


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