Rick Carlisle is different.
Different than any other pro athlete or coach I interviewed during nearly two decades as a sports writer.
In 2000, shortly after the Indiana Pacers had been defeated 4-2 in the NBA Finals by Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, I called the Pacers to request an interview with Carlisle.
Larry Bird had just stepped down as the Pacers’ coach, and Indianapolis Monthly magazine had asked me to write a story about Carlisle. He was a Pacers assistant and appeared to be in line to succeed Bird as head coach.
Much to my surprise, Carlisle called back promptly from his personal phone. That was different. Some pro athletes and coaches share their phone numbers with media members they’ve known for a long time and trust. But Carlisle and I had never met.
As I recall, we played phone tag for a couple of days before finally setting up a meeting for the interview. Normally, such a sitdown would probably be short — maybe 15 minutes — and would happen at the team’s facility, perhaps just before or just after a practice.
But Carlisle invited me to his house in Indianapolis (the Broad Ripple area, I believe) for the interview.
When I arrived, he was waiting outside the garage of his modest (by NBA standards) home. He greeted me with direct eye contact and a firm handshake and invited me inside.
In a room off the entryway sat an expensive-looking piano. When I asked Carlisle whether he played, he grinned and sat down at the piano.
He paused a moment, then placed his fingers on the keys. From memory, he played an entrancing piece of classical music that must have lasted five minutes.
My undiscerning ear picked up not a single mistake; to me, his impromptu performance sounded every bit as beautiful as a concert pianist’s.
Carlisle then showed me to his office for our interview. We talked for more than an hour. It’s funny, but today I don’t remember much of what he said about the Pacers or basketball in general.
I do remember that he asked about my life and my family.
That was different, too. Nice, for sure, but different.
As a player, Carlisle had seen limited action in the mid-1980s when the Boston Celtics reached the NBA Finals three consecutive years and won a championship. Bird, of course, was the star of those teams.
On the wall of Carlisle’s home office in Indianapolis during that interview in 2000 hung a photo that showed a shirtless Larry Legend riding a lawnmower.
When I remarked about the photo, Carlisle smiled and confided that Bird was at his happiest when mowing his lawn on a sunny Indiana day.
At the end of our interview, Carlisle walked me out to my car and invited me to call with any follow-up questions.
Carlisle didn’t get the Pacers head coaching job that year. Instead, Indiana hired Isiah Thomas.
Carlisle did land his first head position the following season and promptly turned the moribund Detroit Pistons into an Eastern Conference power. But after two years, he got sideways with Pistons management and was fired.
He then returned to Indiana as head coach and promptly lifted the Pacers to the best record in the NBA, setting a franchise record in the process. He lasted four seasons in that stint with the Pacers before the team’s fortunes flagged and he was fired in 2007.
The next year, the Dallas Mavericks snapped him up. He coached them for 13 years, winning an NBA championship in 2011.
After Carlisle resigned as Mavs coach this month, the Pacers signed him to return to Indiana as head coach.
My guess is that he’ll live in a mansion this time around and is unlikely to invite a sports writer he’s never heard of to his house for a personal interview.
But I don’t doubt that Carlisle remains different in many ways than the typical NBA coach.
In a copycat league where everyone seems inclined to imitate the latest champion, a coach with a different approach could be good news for Pacers fans.
Editor's note: Originally, this column misstated the number of games it took the Lakers to defeat the Pacers in the NBA Finals. That information has been corrected.