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A Boston sportswriter’s death, and a lasting impact on Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle

Rick Carlisle has a Coach of the Year award, an NBA championship, and is considered by many one of the brightest coaching minds in the league.Brett Davis/Associated Press

I received a call Tuesday from Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who said he hoped to write a story for the Globe about a Boston Herald sportswriter who had just died. It was a unique request, but Carlisle said Mike Carey was a unique man.

Carlisle spent much of Tuesday gathering thoughts about the longtime Celtics beat writer from former teammates and Hall of Famers such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Bill Walton. He submitted this touching collection of quotes, but it was his own written statement about Carey, who was 72 when he died from stroke complications Sunday, that stood out.


Long before Carlisle won an NBA Coach of the Year award in 2002, long before he guided the Mavericks to a championship in 2011, he was a veteran player just looking for one last shot. He’d spent three unremarkable seasons with the Celtics as a reserve, then had a brief stint in the Continental Basketball Association before joining the Knicks, playing one year with them before losing the next one to a shoulder injury.

He was turning 30 at the start of the 1989-90 season — still young in basketball years — but wondered whether his time was up. Early that fall, without a team to play for, he drove from New York to Carey’s home in Framingham to stay with him for a while.

Those were different times, and Carey’s relationship with the Celtics was certainly unusual. He would go out for beers with players after games, and eventually organized things like autograph signings for some of them. Carlisle once went golfing with Carey, McHale, and Danny Ainge in Los Angeles between games against the Lakers in the 1985 NBA Finals.

And now, Carlisle was staying at Carey’s home, wondering what to do next. He was partly there because Carey was a close friend, and partly because Carey always had an idea or an answer. This time was no different.


“He said, ‘Hey, why don’t I give Bill Fitch a call?' ” Carlisle recalled with a chuckle Wednesday.

Fitch had been hired that year to coach the New Jersey Nets, and Carey knew him from Fitch’s time coaching the Celtics from 1979-83. Carlisle sat and listened in as a Boston sportswriter tried to persuade an NBA head coach to sign him.

Longtime Herald sportswriter Mike Carey.Courtesy/Jeff Twiss, Boston Celtics/Jeff Twiss, Boston Celtics

“I was nervous,” Carlisle said, “and the conversation was, ‘Hey Bill, what do you think about Rick Carlisle? He’s your kind of player. He’s kind of like one of those old throwback Celtics-type guys. He’d be a good veteran guy in Jersey where you’ve got some younger guys.’ ”

Fitch and Carey spoke for about 15 minutes, and Fitch said he would get back to them. The next day Fitch called Carey’s home and offered Carlisle a training camp roster spot.

“Mike was just helping me out as a friend, which was so meaningful,” Carlisle said. “He was a giver and a guy that loved people and always wanted to help. It made him feel good, too. It was great, an opportunity of a lifetime for me.”

Carlisle made the Nets’ final roster but knew he probably would be expendable when forward Roy Hinson returned from an injury. He did not even bother renting an apartment, instead staying at the home of his future in-laws in Hoboken, N.J.


“So one day the phone rings — I joke with my wife about this — and my mother-in-law always kind of had it in for me," Carlisle recalled. "So when she answered the phone, she said, ‘Rick, it’s Coach Fitch,’ with a bit of a tone like, ‘He’s probably calling to cut you.’ ”

He was calling to cut him. But when Carlisle started to thank Fitch for the opportunity, Fitch interrupted. He had seen how Carlisle helped instruct New Jersey’s younger players, and he asked if he would join the staff as an assistant coach. He told him it would not be glamorous or high-paying, but it would be a good chance.

Carlisle had thought about coaching but had never expressed this interest to Fitch. He called Carey.

“I said, 'You’re not gonna believe this, Fitch just offered me a coaching job. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and I don’t know how to thank you. If you hadn’t made that phone call 5½ weeks ago and had a relationship with him where he trusted you, I’m not sure where I’d be right now.’ ”

Carlisle went on to work as an assistant with the Nets, Trail Blazers, and Pacers before being named the Pistons coach in 2001. He has been an NBA head coach every year since then, and is widely viewed as one of the league’s brightest minds.

Carey was a groomsman at Carlisle’s wedding, and their friendship endured. Carey helped Carlisle’s father write his memoirs. Whenever Carlisle came to Boston for games against the Celtics, he and Carey met up.


After leaving the Herald, Carey worked as a basketball agent, wrote several books and most recently was an adjunct journalism professor at Fisher College. He suffered a stroke last October, and when the Mavericks came to Boston Nov. 10, Carlisle took an Uber from Hanscom Airport to Westborough to see him at the hospital.

“He recognized me and we had a short conversation,” Carlisle said. “But it was clear that he was very much in an uphill fight, and I’ve said a lot of prayers for him since.”

Carey never married or had children and was not survived by any immediate relatives. When word spread of his death Sunday, a group text ignited among former Celtics such as McHale, Walton, Ainge, Carlisle, and Jerry Sichting. They shared their favorite memories of the sportswriter they all loved being around, and Carlisle wondered how his own coaching career might have unfolded without some help from a good friend.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.