How Princeton's Pete Carril Changed Basketball, the NBA, and Me

IIt was the summer of 1994, and my mother popped into my room to deliver a message: Pete Carril was on the phone. I went out to the kitchen to grab the old landline receiver, nervous about what this conversation could be about and a little stunned that it would even happen.

Until then, Caryl, the innovative Hall of Fame basketball coach who died , 92, on Monday, was known in the hoops world as a near-giant killer: Five years earlier, on St. Patrick’s Day, his 16th-seeded Princeton team upset the top-ranked Georgetown Hoyas in the first round of the NCAA. Princeton lost 50-49. But at a time when major college basketball is considering eliminating automatic March Madness bids for small conferences, The Georgetown-Princeton game restored faith in Cinderella charm. It was the highest-rated hoops game in ESPN history. The little guys kept their spots and CBS bought the rights to the entire NCAA tournament. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is here an $8.8 billion enterpriseand the March office brings together a national pastime.

Now I had a chance to be a part of it all. Caryl recruited me to play for Princeton very late in my senior year of high school and I was going to go to New Jersey in the fall. There was one problem, the subject of that phone call: At 6’3″, 155 pounds, my size wasn’t optimal for banging under the boards with, say, former Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, who helped the Hoyas beat Princeton in 1989 d. Forget mourning: those sizes weren’t ideal for going up against 99% of Division 1 players. I needed to bulk up fast and Caryl was calling me to make a very specific offer.

“Yo Sean, here’s what you have to do to get bigger: drink a six pack of beer and eat a ham sandwich before bed every night. Did that kid get it?’

I laughed. Caryl didn’t. He was deadly serious.

Until then, I had only known Caryl as so many outsiders saw him: as a Yoda-like sideline genius whose deliberate style of play emphasized pass-and-move and more passing until a depleted defense stopped taking easy shots. allowed an undersized Princeton team to compete with Georgetown, Arkansas, Villanova and Syracuse in four straight NCAA Tournaments from 1989-1992. As I would soon discover, Caryl was much more. What he lacked as a nutritionist or purveyor of modern “workload management”—all of his starters often played nearly 40 minutes a night—he made up for in watching the game and life, in the maddeningly effective terms of a pop philosopher. See what’s around you. If you can’t see, you can’t do. Share the ball. If you are under heavy security, go through the back door. Don’t spend too much time dwelling on the past, because what does that really do for you now and in the future?

Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson — the 1982 and 1983 Ivy Player of the Year at Princeton — had Caryl in mind when he invited his new boyfriend, Barack, at a pickup game in Chicago to gauge it. Ithis guy is an a-hole on the basketball court, he’s probably an a-hole in real life too. This Obama guy, Craig realized after playing with him, was good.

Caryl hated the new tools. “He didn’t understand computers or the people who used them,” says Bill Carmody, Caryl’s longtime assistant at Princeton, who succeeded him at the school and went on to coach at Northwestern and Holy Cross. But going back to the 1970s, Caryl envisioned analytics before anyone — especially him — even knew what the term meant. His Princeton teams were essentially basketball’s version of the Moneyball Oakland Ace. While finances prevented small-market Oakland from competing with the New York Yankees for high-priced baseball talent, Princeton’s strict admissions requirements and lack of athletic scholarships kept the Tigers from signing All-American recruits. So Caryl had to look elsewhere for competitive advantages. He found it in an offense designed to provide two of the most efficient ways to score: open three-pointers and easy backdoor layups. He valued players overlooked by most big schools who could hit open threes and throw crisp passes for those two-point shots. Princeton teams almost never made contested two-point shots from mid-range. These attempts were ineffective; their smaller players were better at shooting farther than stronger defenders. Also, those hits were worth another point. Caryl’s math adds up.

After Caryl left Princeton in 1996 after 525 career wins in 29 years there and one year at Lehigh –his last college win was a memorable 43-41 victory over UCLA who secured his spot in the Hall of Fame and whose game-winning backhand basket is played on the highlight loop every March — he brought his philosophy to the NBA as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. In 2002, Carril’s Kings almost met the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals; Nets head coach Byron Scott was also an assistant in Sacramento in the late 1990s, and he implemented some of Carroll’s passing concepts in New Jersey, which at the time recruited the best passer in the game, Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kid. A 2017 Wall Street Journal article pointed to Caryl’s continued influence in the NBA: Like Princeton, teams like the champion Golden State Warriors are looking for efficiency by valuing the three-point shot, easy layups and avoiding mid-range two-pointers.

Warriors general manager Bob Myers was a bench on the UCLA team that lost to Princeton in 1996. (I was also a bench in that game for the Tigers. Myers outplayed me 4 minutes to 0.) He has seen Caryl’s impact up close. “I’ll never forget Pete’s loss to the Princeton Tigers my junior year at UCLA,” Myers says. “His team’s backdoor cuts and high-post misses are something the Warriors and the entire basketball world have benefited from.”

Princeton Tigers guard Sidney Johnson and coach Pete Carril celebrate after a game against the UCLA Bruins at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. Princeton won the game 43-41.

Jamie Squire/Allsport—Getty Images

“You’ll Miss It”

When I got to Princeton, I soon realized that Caryl was not for everyone. After retiring from Princeton in 1996, he admitted that he had been “a little too rough, too strict” for a then younger generation. The son of a steelworker in Pennsylvania, Caryl sometimes held some players’ privileged pasts against him, even if they didn’t fully deserve such animosity. Many were just trying to make it in basketball. He made some players quit, and in calmer moments in later years he would admit that he would have handled some relationships differently.

But damn if it wasn’t funny. One of our players threw an errant pass during practice that cracked Caryl’s glasses. He ripped his shirt open in anger, revealing tufts of gray chest hair. His crooked frames stayed on his face the whole time and training resumed. He smoked cigars during practice: the indoor track teams who shared the gym with us had to sprint through the stench. Caryl once told a player that he planned to write the word “layup” on his chest. It would challenge the player to hit him. “You’re going to miss!” he yelled.

Caryl, who was a “little all-American” at Lafayette College in the early 1950s, often played basketball at lunch even into his 60s. There was slow footage from the set that somehow made it in more often than not. During one game, a football coach ruptured a tendon and writhed in pain.

Caryl approached him. “I suppose,” he said, “now is not a good time to tell you that you have traveled.”

He asked a friend about a prospective recruit. His friend said many respected scouts said the player had a bad summer. Caryl leaned back in his chair and took a drag from his cigar. “Frankie,” he said, “we play in the winter.” He wanted our biggest player to get faster. So he made him chase our smallest player around the court for about half an hour. “Catch it!” he would shout. “CATCH IT!!!”

Before or after many practices, he would go “down the line,” pointing out each player’s fatal flaw in front of everyone else. This exercise often involved shouting, raving and colorful language. When I was helping coach my son’s 7th grade basketball team a few years ago, in a private moment with him, I channeled Caryl and played out what he would probably say about any of his 12-year-old teammates—and himself. He laughed.

And damn if he was wrong about a lot of things. Focusing on the past is largely counterproductive. Failure to take a hit or dive after a loose ball is probably a character flaw. All it takes is a little courage. It would add 5 to 10 feet to a player’s shooting range by encouraging them to shoot the ball as it rises through the air instead of at the peak of the jump. This way you get more leg strength. (Stephen Curry never played for Caryl. But he shoots like that).

After Princeton’s current coach, former Tiger player (and teammate) Mitch Henderson, was hired for the job in 2011, Caryl handed him a card. He said, “Think. Look. Do it. Caryl stared at him for five seconds. “I felt like I was 30,” Henderson says. “He was one of those are you fucking listening‘ it seems. Message received. He has won 63% of his games at school.

And he was probably right about my diet. I tried the ham, cheese and six-pack combination once or twice, but they didn’t really sit. I never gained enough weight to be a serious player in college. But I can trace most of the good things in my life—friends, wife and family, career—to Caryl’s decision to give me a chance. He called me “Bones” my freshman year and it stuck. I swear some friends and classmates still don’t know my real name. And while it’s not a great name for an aspiring hoops player, I’d be happy to try to get out of it in middle age.

Thanks, Coach.

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