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Rick Carlisle celebrated by the Mavericks in emotional return to Dallas, where his head-coaching career began
"It’s hard to reconcile the whole thing in one moment like that, but it was very nice," he said.
Rick Carlisle didn’t get the chance to completely close the last chapter of his life last month. The Dallas Mavericks played in Indy on Dec. 10, but he was in the health and safety protocols so he couldn’t even be inside the fieldhouse. He stayed home for 10 days and had to watch it on television.
Because the Mavs play in the Western Conference, the Pacers visit just once a season. That night was Saturday and unfortunately for both Carlisle and the Pacers, it came on the second night of a back-to-back. Friday’s game in Oklahoma City even went into overtime, delaying the team’s arrival.
Carlisle met his wife, Donna, in Indianapolis and it’s where their daughter, Abby, was born. But Dallas is where the family called home for the last 13 years, though his wife and daughter haven’t moved on just yet to allow her to finish high school. Abby was four when they moved to Dallas in 2008 and she has another year of high school left — all at the same school for 14 years. For a child of a coach, that’s unique.
They’ve been to Indianapolis just a couple times to visit Rick and see him on his third stint with the Pacers. But it was no surprise that when discussing his return to Dallas, the first thing he mentioned wasn’t the city or the Mavs … but rather a chance to spend two days with his family.
“That’s gonna be the best part of it,” he said a few days before the trip. “I made a lot of great friends there over 13 years, a lot of friends that will be lifetime friends. I had an amazing experience that was once in a lifetime. It will be good to see a lot of people that were very special to me.
“I really miss my family and I’m really looking forward to seeing them. Beyond that, Dallas and American Airlines Center will always be a very special place for me.”
Carlisle, 62, didn't want to spend much time thinking about it in the days leading up to Saturday. Mostly, because they had another game before then and “it was really important to get that win last night for us, coming off some difficult games recently,” he said on Saturday.
But then it all started to come back to him.
Landing at Dallas Love airport, the drive to his home and then to the American Airlines Center Saturday afternoon. “It’s a bit of an unusual day,” he admitted, “but it’s great to be back.”
When he arrived to the visiting coaches locker room, he couldn’t help but think back to 2001 when he was in that exact office about to make his debut as an NBA head coach. He was with the Pistons and their first game — on Oct. 30, 2001 — was the first Mavs game played at their new arena.
Now back in that office 21 years later, it has a different feel. And so many memories.
Before the game, Carlisle spoke for 19 minutes during his pre-game availability; it typically lasts about seven minutes. He spoke about his fondness for the Mavs and the so many special people behind the scenes. He mentioned many by name, notably owner Mark Cuban and former Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson.
Carlisle was disappointed he couldn’t return to town recently to be there to see future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki’s No. 41 jersey retired by the Mavs, but he did record a video to be part of that night.
“Dirk is the guy, really, that was most responsible for a successful run of 13 years for me,” he said.
Carlisle wasn’t the only one returning to his previous home, though. This was also a special night for assistant coaches Mike Weinar and Jenny Boucek, along with Zach Chu, the manager of game strategy and analytics. They were with him in Dallas.
His tenure as Mavs head coach ended after last season when he elected to move on. Days later, Carlisle was having phone conversations with Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and then was named the head coach for the second time.
On Saturday, Carlisle started to visibly get emotional right before tip-off. The Mavs played a two-minute tribute video celebrating his time in Dallas and it moved Carlisle to tears.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “The only other time I’ve felt that kind of emotional moment was when we raised the banner for the first game of the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. It was the same kind of feeling, but I was not expecting anything like that. It was a wonderful gesture and much appreciated.”
Members of his Pacers staff and the players then surrounded Carlisle, celebrated him and let him enjoy the moment. Players, probably too often anymore, get tribute videos but it’s rare for a coach to get one. And for it to be featured before the game.
“It was awesome,” said Domantas Sabonis. “He had a hell of a career here with them and just seeing him get emotional like that, seeing how much it means to him just shows what a big impact he had on the community and the city and the team and everyone here. It was awesome to be part of it.”
Then for 30 seconds, he saw almost 20,000 fans rise to their feet to give him a standing ovations. Just imagine the thousands of memories that raced through his mind during this moment.
Carlisle raised his family in Dallas. It’s where he coached the Mavs for 1,033 games, to the 2011 NBA Championship over LeBron James’ Miami Heat. Like Nowitzki, he’s a future Hall of Famer and his tenure in Dallas cemented who he is as a head coach — or so I thought.
“I don’t think I’ve cemented who I am as a coach,” he responded. “I think that’s an ongoing evolution. As you get with different teams, work with different groups of players, the game evolves, you try to stay ahead of it. If you’re not staying ahead of it, you certainly need to keep up with it. I’ll never stop learning about all of this and it’s a humbling profession on so many levels. You got to approach it with a level of humility, a level of excitement every day. You always have to recognize the human element and really be aware of it, and embrace that and always work on being a better communicator.”
That reminds me of the great line I first heard from JJ Redick: You’ve never arrived; you’re always becoming.
The Pacers had played into overtime the night before and were shorthanded. The Mavs, who had won 12 of their last 15 games entering this one, led the entire way en route to a 132-105 win. They’re fifth in the West and rising. “That’s a team that's got a real chance, not only to come out of the West, but they're a real contender,” Carlisle said. “They’re very, very good and we obviously didn't have our best game.”
Mavs star Luka Doncic didn’t take it easy on him, finishing with 30 points and 12 assists in 32 minutes. He even returned to the game with four minutes left despite a 16-point lead. They weren’t leaving it to chance.
“If he’s not the best player in the world, he’s right on the cusp,” Carlisle noted, including Doncic in the conversation with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and a few others.
Added Doncic: “I was with him my first three years and learned a lot from him. So, it was a special moment. The tribute was really special to him, too. You could see it. And he deserves it.”
After the loss, Carlisle walked toward the Mavs’ bench, the one he led for more than a decade. The entire team and more was waiting for him, each ready to embrace and say a few words.
“It’s a special group,” Carlisle later said. “This is a special place. It’s a challenging thing coming back like this and going through all of that.”
Then at his post-game press conference, the spotlight remained on Carlisle. He spent the first 10 minutes answering six questions about the night, his night, and the meaning it had on him before discussing the game.
See, games can run together during an 82-game season. The start of the pandemic, almost two years ago, feels more like three or four. But this night … yeah, Carlisle will be talking about this night for the rest of his life. There were too many wins, too many good relationships, building from scratch and seeing the thing through to win a championship — which Carlisle did so as a player, as a member of the Celtics in 1986, and as a head coach.
Dallas and the Mavericks organization gave him the warm welcome he deserved and far more than he even expected. If anything, this was a thank you and goodbye — wishing him well in his current role guiding the Pacers.
“It's really the culmination of over a decade of just amazing experiences,” Carlisle said. “Some of them were very tough and challenging, other ones very exuberant. Periods where it was very difficult for extended periods of time during the rebuild and so on. It’s hard to reconcile the whole thing in one moment like that, but it was very nice.”