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Upon retiring in 1996 after 29 years as the highly successful head coach of men’s basketball at Princeton, Pete Carril ’52 thought he would spend a few nights at the home of his former Tiger protégé, Geoff Petrie, to offer the NBA’s struggling Kings a few pointers on backdoor cuts and other basic roundball concepts, and then return to his favorite hangouts on the East Coast.

Nine years later, he’s still in Sacramento.

A legend in both the college and professional ranks, Carril continues to add spit and polish to an offensive system that for the past several seasons has ranked among the NBA’s most prolific and appealing. At their best, the Kings are offensive clinicians, their style contrasting sharply with the one-on-one isolation shtick that has characterized the professional game for the last decade.

The Carril scheme is old school, influenced by the aging, enduring, and still-influential instructor. He schools the players by day, tutors them at night. Backdoor cuts. Chest passes. Body and ball movement. The longtime confidant of Petrie — now the Kings’ president of basketball operations – has been a fixture on coach Rick Adelman’s staff during the organization’s emergence as one of the NBA’s elite franchises, and Petrie dreads the day his former Princeton coach really, really, really decides to retire.

Fortunately for the Kings, Carril seems incapable of giving up the clipboard. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after that. Maybe never.

“I go year to year,”’ he says, laughing.

How to account for his passion? What’s the allure of a game played by millionaires in shorts and sneakers, many of whom haven’t the slightest sense of Carril’s lofty place in history (he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997) or appreciation for all he has accomplished (he retired as the winningest coach in Ivy League history, with 13 league titles and 11 NCAA tournament appearances)? Is there any explanation other than this: The man is a basketball lifer, someone soothed by the rhythmic pace of the game and all it entails?

“Of course it helps that we’re winning these days,” Carril says, “but when I first came out here, the team wasn’t very good. I thought I’d be here three years, and then go back home. It was tough. Not everybody could catch the ball! There were a lot of dropped passes. I dreaded seeing the players go to the foul line because I knew they weren’t going to make the shots. We had one good player, Mitch Richmond, and everything was built around him. And Sacramento at that time was not a haven for players like it is today. I always felt bad for [ex-coach Garry St. Jean] Saint. He liked a couple of the things we did, but for the most part, he depended on Mitch. Eddie Jordan [Saint’s successor] liked my stuff a lot better. He runs a lot of the same stuff with the Wizards in Washington, with those two guards. The system works a lot better when you have guys who can pass.”

One of the most intriguing elements of this entire experiment – how does a purist coexist peacefully in the pro game? – is the fact that Carril overcame a lousy introduction to the NBA and grew to love the league. During a pre-draft tryout camp in Orlando back in 1991, he coached a team of college prospects who were auditioning for an arena full of NBA executives. For an entire, horrific weekend, the players dunked, hurried jumpers, played little defense – indeed played very little of the type of basketball that Carril for decades demanded of his scholar-athletes at Princeton.

Not surprisingly, he swore he was finished with the pros. And then Petrie called in 1996, asked him to give it another try, promising to surround him with players who might actually pay attention. In the ensuing nine years, Carril has in fact worked with some extraordinary players, among them Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, and Chris Webber. Often, he coaxes the stars to remain after practice, and can be observed shuffling around the court as he directs players to spots on the floor. A few of the Kings appear impatient, eager to leave. Others are attentive, seemingly delighted by the attention.

“I always heard there was not enough teaching in this league,” says Carril, who played for another legendary coach, Butch Van Breda Kolff, at Lafayette, “and it can be hard. You get some guys who don’t want to listen. But then you have guys who hang on every word. I remember when I first came here, Geoff told me, ‘Some things you have to ease up on.’ I was always very intense and demanding. I like things done with precision. I like guys that work hard. I have little tolerance for dealing with guys who don’t work hard. Sometimes you have to forget about that in the NBA. I’d never thought about it . . . but if I was 40 or 44, I could coach in this league. I might not last long,” he laughs, “but if I wasn’t so happy where I was, I could have done it.”

More than anything else, the connection with Petrie keeps Carril bonded to the Kings. The two are more like father and son than mentor and star pupil. They share the best wine and most of their dinners. They share their deepest personal and professional thoughts. And as he has throughout most of his life, the longtime Kings assistant will rely on his instincts to tell him when to walk away.

“I’ll go back East,”’ he says, “because that’s where my roots are. My closest friends are there, and I have my favorite hangouts. That’s where most of my memories are. But these have been great years, too. I think of the series with the Lakers, even a victory earlier this year against Minnesota. Who knows? You can never plan ahead.”

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles