Carlisle Reaches Out to O'Neal

by Conrad Brunner

September 3, 2003

Rick Carlisle doesn’t expect Jermaine O’Neal to abandon his feelings for Isiah Thomas. In fact, the new coach of the Pacers believes his predecessor will continue to serve an important role in the development of the franchise’s star player.

Carlisle, hired Wednesday, has spoken by telephone with O’Neal, whose angry protestations of Thomas’ firing last week has sparked concern in the front office.

Carlisle said he understands O’Neal’s feelings.

“Let me say this and be very clear about it: there’s nothing quite like your relationship in your first job with your best player,” he said. “When I was in Detroit, Jerry Stackhouse and I were very close. We still talk on a regular basis.

“I told Jermaine that I understand what Isiah Thomas means to him, not only as a coach but as a mentor, as a friend and as a father figure. I will in no way, shape or form try to replace that. Isiah Thomas will continue to be an important part of Jermaine’s life and his basketball life and development.”

Carlisle and O’Neal aren’t strangers. Carlisle was an assistant coach in Portland in 1996-97, when O’Neal was a rookie.

“Let’s remember this: Jermaine is an extremely talented player but this guy is only 24 years old, which seems staggering to me,” Carlisle said. ”He’s been in the league seven years. And seven years ago when I was in Portland with him in his rookie year, he was the youngest player ever to play in an NBA game at that time. So he’s grown into a man very quickly. I’m hopeful at some point that we’ll be able to talk about basketball.”

O’Neal, who played a key role in leading the U.S. to the gold medal in the Tournament of the Americas Olympic qualifying event, which concluded Sunday night in San Juan, PR, will return to Indianapolis soon to meet with Carlisle and President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird. O’Neal has said he felt deceived by management, and never would’ve signed his reported seven-year, $126 million contract last month had he been told Thomas might not return as head coach. He stopped short of asking for a trade, but made it clear it was on his mind.

“I talked to Jermaine last Saturday and I told him when he gets back in town we need to sit down and discuss some of the issues that he has,” Bird said. “I’ve been very firm all along, even when I took the coaching job: if we had players that weren’t happy here, we would try to do our best to move them somewhere but we expect something good in return.

“Hopefully Jermaine will think about this and play this year and have a great year for us. Then if he wants to leave town next year, we’ll have to talk about it. But hopefully he’ll be here for the end of his contract.”