Pete Carril of Princeton Changed Basketball, the NBA—And Me

YouI was in 1994 and my mother popped into my bedroom to give me a message. Pete Carril was talking on the telephone. It was a strange feeling. I was nervous for what the conversation would turn out to be, as well as a little astonished that this could actually happen.

By then Carril, the innovative Hall of Fame basketball coach who died, at 92, on Monday, was known throughout the hoops world as a near-slayer of giants: five years prior, on St. Patrick’s Day, his 16th-seeded Princeton team put a scare into top-ranked Georgetown Hoyas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Princeton lost, 50-49. But at a time when the college basketball powers-that-be were considering eliminating automatic March Madness bids for the small conferences, the Georgetown-Princeton game restored faith in Cinderella’s charm. This was the most-watched ESPN hoops game ever. CBS purchased the rights for the entire NCAA tournament. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is now an $8.8 billion enterprise, and the March office pools a national pastime.

It was an honor to have the opportunity to play in this. Carril recruited me to play for Princeton very late in my senior year of high school, and I’d be heading down to New Jersey come fall. There was one problem, the subject of this phone call: at 6’3″, 155-pounds, my dimensions were not optimal for banging under the boards with, say, former Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, who willed the Hoyas to victory over Princeton back in 1989. Forget Mourning: those dimensions weren’t ideal for going up against 99% of Division 1 players. Carril had a specific suggestion for me. I wanted to gain weight fast.

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

I laughed. Carril didn’t. Carril was a deadly serious man.

Carril had been viewed by me only the way many others outsiders saw him. His deliberate play style, which stressed passing and movement until a tired defense lost a shot, allowed a small team such as Princeton to keep up with Georgetown and Arkansas in four consecutive NCAA tournaments (1989-1992). As I’d soon discover, Carril was so much more. What he lacked as a nutritionist or a purveyor of modern-day “load management”—all his starters often played nearly 40 minutes a night—he made up for in viewing 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. You can share the ball. If you’re closely guarded, go backdoor. Don’t spend too much time reflecting on the past, because what does that really do for you in the moment, and in the future?

Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson—1982 and 1983 Ivy Player of the Year at Princeton—had Carril in mind when inviting her new boyfriend, Barack, to a pickup game in Chicago in order to size him up. If a guy is an a–hole on the basketball court, he’s probably an a–hole in real life.Craig was able to tell that the Obama guy was all right after having played with it.

Carill hated new-age technologies. “He didn’t understand computers or the people who used them,” says Bill Carmody, Carril’s longtime assistant at Princeton, who succeed him at the school and went on to coach at Northwestern and Holy Cross. But going back to the 1970s, Carill foresaw analytics before anyone—especially him—even knew what that term meant. His Princeton teams were essentially basketball’s version of the MoneyballOakland As. While finances constrained the small-market Oakland from competing with the New York Yankees for high-priced baseball talents, Princeton’s strict admissions requirements, and lack of athletic scholarships, constrained the Tigers from signing All-American recruits. Carril needed to find competitive advantages elsewhere. It was in an offensive that secured two of the best ways to score: easy backdoor layups and open three-point shots. He insisted on players that could make open threes, and who can throw precise passes to score those two-pointers, something that was often missed by big-time schools. Princeton’s teams almost never took contested mid-range two-point shots. These failed attempts resulted in their players shooting farther away than the more powerful defenders. These shots are worth an additional point. Carill’s math added up.

Once Carril left Princeton in 1996 after 525 career victories in 29 years there and one year at Lehigh —his last college win was a memorable 43-41 victory over UCLA that secured his spot in the Hall of Fame, and whose winning basket, a signature backdoor layup, plays on a highlight loop every March—he brought his philosophy to the NBA, as an assistant to the Sacramento Kings. In 2002, Carril’s Kings nearly met the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals; Nets head coach Byron Scott was also an assistant with Sacramento in the late 1990s, and he installed some of Carril’s passing concepts with New Jersey, who at the time employed the best passer in the game, Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd. An 2017 Wall Street Journal article pointed to Carril’s continued influence in the NBA: like Princeton, teams like the champion Golden State Warriors seek out efficiency through valuing the three-point shot, easy layups, and eschewing mid-range two-pointers.

Bob Myers, the Warriors’ general manager was a reserve player on the UCLA team which lost to Princeton 1996. I was also a reserve for that match, for the Tigers. Myers was 4 minutes ahead of me. He’s seen Carril’s influence up close. “I will never forget losing to Pete’s Princeton Tigers my junior year at UCLA,” says Myers. “His team’s back door cuts and passing out of the high post are something that the Warriors and the entire basketball world has benefitted from.”

After a win against the UCLA Bruins, Princeton Tigers guard Sydney Johnson is joined by Pete Carril (coach) after a celebration at the RCA Dome. Princeton won, 43 to41.

Jamie Squire /Allsport—Getty Images

‘You’ll Miss’

When I got to Princeton, I also soon learned Carril wasn’t for everyone. Upon his retirement from Princeton back in 1996, he admitted he was “a little too rough, too severe” for a then-younger generation. The son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, Carril sometimes held the privileged background of some players against them, even if they didn’t completely deserve such animosity. Most were simply trying to win at basketball. He drove some players to quit, and in quieter moments in later years, would admit he’d handle some relationships differently.

But damn if he wasn’t entertaining. One of our players threw an errant pass in practice that cracked Carril’s glasses. In anger, one of our players tore his shirt and exposed tufts gray hair on his chest. The drill was resumed with his crooked frame still on his face. He was a smoker during practice. Indoor track teams that shared the same gym had to race through the smell. Carril once told a player he planned to write the word “layup” across his own chest. He’d dare the player to punch him. “You’ll miss!” he screamed.

Carill, who was a “Little All-American” at Lafayette College in the early 1950s often played basketball at lunchtime, well into his 60s. A funny set shot by Carill somehow ended up in the net more times than usual. A football coach suffered a ruptured ligament during a game and began to writhe in pain.

Carill came over and embraced him. “I suppose,” he said, “this is a bad time to tell you you traveled.”

A friend suggested he ask about potential recruits. A friend informed him that the recruit had had a difficult summer. Carill took a deep breath and sat back down in his chair. “Frankie,” he said, “we play in the winter.” He wanted our biggest player to get faster. He had our youngest player chase him around for half an hour. “Catch him!” he’d yell. “CATCH HIM!!!”

Before or after many practices, he’d go “down the line,” pointing out the fatal flaw of each and every player, in front of everyone else. These exercises often included ranting and screaming and using colorful language. When I was helping coach my son’s 7th-grade basketball team a few years back, in a private moment with him I channeled Carril, and acted out what he would probably say about each of his 12-year-old teammates—and him. He laughed.

And damn if he wasn’t right about a lot of stuff. It is counterproductive to focus on the past. It is a sign of weakness to not take a charge or jump after the ball. All you need is courage. He’d add five-to-10 feet to a player’s shooting range by encouraging him to shoot the ball while rising in the air, instead of at the peak of the jump. That way, you get better leg strength. (Stephen Curry has never played for Carril. He shoots as though he does.

After Princeton’s current coach, former Tiger player (and teammate) Mitch Henderson, was hired for the job in 2011, Carill handed him a card. It said, “Think. See. Do.” Carill stared at him for five seconds. “It felt like 30,” Henderson says. “It was one of those, ‘are you f-cking listening?‘ looks.” Message received. He’s won 63% of his games at the school.

He was right probably about my diet. I tried the ham and cheese and six-pack combo once or twice, but it didn’t really sit. Although I gained enough weight over the years to play college basketball seriously, it was not enough. But I can trace most good things in my life—friends, wife and family, occupation—to Carril’s decision to give me a shot. He labeled me “Bones” my freshman year, and it stuck. I swear some friends and classmates still don’t know my real name. And while that’s not a great name for a wanna-be hoops player, I’d love to try to get away with it come middle age.

Thanks, Coach.

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