Friday, February 20, 2009

The Ball's In His Court

The athletic facilities at Princeton University feature names that basically fall into three categories.

There are the ones named for benefactors who donated money for the facility as an acknowledgment of the role that their own athletic experience played in their development (Roberts Stadium, Powers Field, DeNunzio Pool, Weaver Track, Shea Rowing Center).

Then there are the ones that are named for Princeton athletes who died tragically young (Jadwin Gym, Myslik Field, Baker Rink). There are also some named after classes (Class of 1952 Stadium, Class of 1895 Field). The lone outsider is Clarke Field, home of Princeton baseball, which is named for the longtime coach.

This Saturday, a renaming ceremony will occur that completely falls outside the pattern, as the game court at Jadwin Gym officially becomes "Carril Court." The change is, of course, to honor Hall-of-Fame basketball coach Pete Carril, who won 514 games and 13 Ivy League championships in 29 years on the Tiger bench.

It is only fitting that if one facility is to be named differently, it is after Pete Carril. In the history of Princeton athletics, there has never been any one else remotely like him.

He was born into what he often has called "poverty," the son of a steelworker in Bethlhem, Pa., who according to the son "never missed a day in 40 years." Taking that work ethic, he came to a University where privilege and wealth are often the rule – "basketball is a poor man's game," he'd say, "and my guys have three cars in the garage." – and he spent 29 years here as sort of the conscience of the institution.

On his court (long before it would bear his name), priviledge was earned one way - through hard work. He could be gruff, salty. TigerBlog has seen him more than once rip his own shirt off his body during a practice, with the two sides dangling like an unzipped sweatshirt.

His premise was that he and his guys (as he'd call them) wouldn't use any perceived limitations as an excuse. Through hard work, they'd be able to compete, to win, to be the best they could be, to give in his words "a good account of ourselves." He'd scoff at those who said his teams were successful because of the system, choosing instead to talk about how his players could dribble, pass, shoot and defend. "It's a simple game," he'd say. "You pass. You cut. You go backdoor once in awhile. You guard your guy." Or, when asked once what the difference in a game was, he calmly said "they have guardable players, and we guarded them."

TigerBlog has written more about Pete Carril than any other subject, been around him in the context of a newspaper reporter, a radio announcer, a sports information contact and, since he left Princeton, in the unofficial role of media liaison for those looking to get in touch with him. TigerBlog has heard him say things to players that were so inspiring and at other times so caustic that either could move the recipient to tears. "God blessed me the day that kid walked into my life," he said of one player. "If I asked everyone in this locker room to write down one word that best describes you," he said to another player, "I'd get back 15 pieces of paper with the word a------ written on them."

Of the 50 funniest comments TigerBlog has ever heard, Pete Carril probably said 25 of them. Some of them are legendary postgame comments. Some are rated R, or way worse.

Others were while traveling. One time on a plane back from an in-season tournament, TigerBlog sat in the middle seat of three. Directly in front were assistant coach Bill Carmody on the aisle, Coach Carril in the middle seat and an elderly gentleman at the window. Carril and Carmody were working on a crossword puzzle, while the elderly man peered over their shoulders. "10 down should be "so-and-so," the old man said. "Hmmph," Carril sneered. "14 across should be "so-and-so," the old man said. Again, Carril snarled. "7 down should be ..." Before the old man could finish, Carril, then somewhere around 65 years old, cut him off and said "Yo, Pops, when I want your help, I'll ask for it."

Pete Carril is the without question the most charismatic person TigerBlog has met. All conversations end when he enters the room. His voice lingers after he's gone. He's a kindler, gentler person these days than he was 25 years ago, 15 years ago even. Still, he sees through the phony, has no time for it. "There's a difference between working hard and pretending to work hard," he said once during a game, and then followed up by pointing to the other team and adding "and that team is pretending to work hard."

He's come a long way from Bethlehem, from his days as a high school coach. He's not a tall man. He never played a minute of professional basketball. He never reached the NCAA tournament's quarterfinals, let alone Final Four, let alone a championship.

The overwhelming majority of his life was spent riding on buses, not flying on charters. He carried his own bag. He didn't wear a fancy suit. He didn't have one eye on his current job and his other on the next career move.

Yet there he is in Springfield, in the Hall of Fame, as much a member of that exclusive club as anyone, as Magic and Bird and Jordan, as Russell and Cousy and Wilt, as Dean Smith and John Wooden.

Tomorrow night, Princeton will step away from the norm to honor Pete Carril by naming a court after him. Many of his former players will be on the court with him at halftime.

Like many of those former players, TigerBlog could live to be 100 and will never forget Pete Carril, his legacy, his words, his work ethic and what TigerBlog learned just by being around him for so long.

More than anything, though, TigerBlog will remember him for daring to expect the best of his guys, daring them to want to achieve, defying them to forget any excuses. "What good is being Spanish," he'd say, "if you can't chase after windmills?"


Anonymous said...

nice job on your comments about pete carril.

i hope you will post a list of teh princeton ballers who were on hand for teh ceremony. fun to see a lot of recognizable faces, but some of te names are not coming to mind....

Anonymous said...

Guess Blogster is oblivious to the fact that while L. Stockwell Jadwin was indeed a fine Princeton athlete, the gym wouldn't bear his name if his family had not left more than $27 million to the University. This helps explain why there is a Jadwin Gym as well as a Jadwin Hall for academic purposes about 120 yards north of the gym.
Money talks at Princeton. Otherwise, the Dorrance Courts might not also sport the Carril Court.