The Princeton men’s basketball team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, a 15th seed from the Ivy League knocking off Arizona and Missouri before losing to Creighton on Friday night.
The Tigers’ tournament run should come as no surprise. Princeton has been a giant killer for years, first behind the father of Ivy League basketball, former coach Pete Carril.
Carril developed an offense that frustrated teams with precise backdoor cuts and pinpoint passing, and the Tigers pulled off a number of tournament upsets.
CBS is producing a documentary on the late Carril, who later took his genius to the Sacramento Kings, where he served as an assistant coach to Rick Adelman for 10 years, helping the franchise’s resurrection with Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Mike Bibby.
However, one of Carril’s most famous players never appeared in the NBA. What’s more, that player is known more for his sister, former First Lady Michelle Obama. Craig Robinson, before he was the President’s brother-in-law, was a standout at Princeton and then a fourth-round pick of the 76ers in 1983.
After playing professionally in England for two seasons, Robinson returned to the United States and became a college coach, leading Brown and Oregon State. He is now the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Robinson was a prospect out of Chicago when Carril began recruiting him after a camp in Wisconsin.
“I had a great camp and they started recruiting me and I was thrilled, but I really didn’t know what Princeton meant,” said Robinson, now, 62. “I know Princeton, Harvard, Yale. I didn’t know any of the other five schools in the Ivy League. I almost picked another school to go to, but my dad did one of those moves when you make the wrong decision and he doesn’t want to tell you. And he said, ‘Think about it again.’ ”
Robinson was an athletic small forward, and he headed to New Jersey believing he was going to play a major scoring role for Princeton. That was not the case.
“It was a huge adjustment because I always thought the best way to add value to your team was to score points and be fast and be athletic,” Robinson said. “Growing up in Chicago and playing basketball with Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, and Doc Rivers, you were breaking your man down if you could. If you couldn’t, you were jumping over them. I get there and [Carril] has to deprogram me. And I, for the first time, thought ‘maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was.’
“But when you are there with Coach every day, you start to see the game differently. He wants you to see the game differently, more like a coach, more from a global standpoint. Once you started to give yourself over to that, it became easy. When I finally gave myself over, the world opened up for me.”
Robinson earned Ivy League Player of the Year honors in 1981-82, but the Tigers finished tied for second in the league. Carril dressed down Robinson after that season, the coach acknowledging he did not vote for Robinson for Player of the Year.
“I was heartbroken, stunned,” Robinson said, recalling Carril’s message: “You need to do more for others, score less points, and help the other guys out, and we’ll win a championship.”
In 1982-83, Robinson’s senior season, he followed Carril’s instructions. He averaged fewer points but again was named Ivy League Player of the Year. More importantly, the Tigers won the league title and two games in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Boston College.
Carril was always brutally honest with Robinson, telling his parents during a recruiting visit to the Robinson home all the things Craig needed to work on to become a better player. Robinson’s father, Fraser, who worked for the city of Chicago despite dealing with multiple sclerosis, was impressed by that approach.
“My parents were like, ‘I like this guy,’ because everybody else comes in your living room and tells you how good you are,” Robinson said. “My parents were predisposed to liking Princeton because of the academics, but they really liked Coach Carril, and Coach Carril really liked my dad because of what he saw in my dad, he got up and went to work every day, and I know Coach Carril saw what a hard-working guy he was and just figured I would at least be a hard worker.”
What Robinson said he eventually learned was that the teamwork principles Carril instilled were just as impactful off the floor.
“So many people don’t catch that,” Robinson said. “Coach always said the person you are off the court is the person you are on the court, and vice versa. He was so right. The Princeton offense is a philosophy. Do something for someone else and it will come back to benefit you. That’s life. If we thought more like that as a society, we would be in a much better place.
“Most people think of the Princeton offense as passing, cutting, using up the shot clock, and I tell people when we ran the Princeton offense at Oregon State, we led the Pac-12 in scoring. And now it’s something that’s touched every level of the game, everybody in the NBA has got their big man running to the elbow now. It’s like, oh now all of a sudden it’s OK that it’s in the NBA. Coach Carril made a huge impact on the Kings. He got a chance to coach these much better athletes who they said couldn’t figure out the Princeton offense.
“Chris Webber and Hedo Turkoglu all revered him, and to see that imprint on the NBA was really fun for us Princeton grads.”
ONE AND DONE
Hardy enjoyed short Boston stint
Jazz coach Will Hardy spent just one season as a Celtics assistant under Ime Udoka, but he came away with positive experiences and great friendships. Hardy was one of the first candidates for the Utah job after Quin Snyder decided to step down, and he has led the club to a surprisingly strong season despite being in rebuilding mode.
Danny Ainge took over the Jazz basketball operations approximately six months after stepping down in Boston, and he moved All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in trades that netted multiple first-round draft picks and prospects, including defensive stopper Walker Kessler.
Hardy, along with the Kings’ Mike Brown and the Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla, are the leading candidates for NBA Coach of the Year.
“[Being in Boston] has been a big part of my experience in the NBA, although it was only one season,” Hardy said. “Before that I was in San Antonio for 11 years. It was a big change for me and my family. For my wife, it was her first time living outside of Texas. It was an unbelievably fun season. A lot of really great relationships were either built or built upon.
“These are all moments of the NBA, where we all cross paths with different people. There are some nights where you’re going to maintain that same competitiveness, but it feels a little different when you look down and see a lot of people you care about. But I promise you that when the ball goes up they won’t care about me in those 48 minutes.”
The Celtics experienced a topsy-turvy season with Udoka as coach. They began 18-21, which included several heartbreaking losses and late blown leads, before going 33-10 and earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics defeated the Nets, Bucks, and Heat, before losing to the Warriors in six games in the NBA Finals.
“We had a lot going on,” Hardy said. “We had some injuries. COVID was still alive and well. We had a variety of lineups. We had a new coach. People always talk about players learning the new coach, but the new coaching staff has to learn the players, too. As the season went on, everybody stuck with it. Nobody blamed anybody else. Everybody just kept working.
“And things just fell into place. We got some good health, which allowed us to have some continuity in terms of how we were playing every night and who we were playing every night. With that came some good play and then the belief built. Everybody then went into being bought in. There’s some good fortune in there, for sure. It’s just a reminder that things can change. Eighty-two games is a long time. There is circumstance and context to everything. For sure it wasn’t just one thing that clicked and everything took off. It was a variety of things that fell into place.”
Hardy and Mazzulla formed a strong friendship during that one season, and they remain close.
“He’s an incredibly diligent worker,” said Hardy. “He’s an incredibly loyal person to people that he cares about: the Celtics organization, his family, the players that he works with. He’s a machine. The guy brings it every single day and I think his competitiveness is something that we really bonded over. I learned a lot from Joe in those meetings and arguments and time away from the court.”
The staff consisted mostly of associates of Udoka, with holdovers Mazzulla and Tony Dobbins. They meshed so well that Udoka’s assistants remained on the Celtics’ staff this season despite his abrupt departure.
“It’s not just meetings and games, there’s all this dead time at the hotels and on the bus and on the plane, thousands of conversations in one season,” Hardy said. “[Mazzulla] has a really sharp basketball mind. There’s no doubt about his tactical ability. He also had a good sense for general leadership, like when to push, when to pull, when to love a guy, when you get on him. You can just see with the relationships he has with the players in Boston. You could see the level of respect he carried with everybody in the locker room from the first day he got there.
“I care a lot about Joe. He’s a good friend. It’s crazy that it was only a year. When I look back at it, Joe and all the other guys, the staff, the players, it blows my mind, it feels so much longer because of the relationships were so much deeper than that.”
Carter, Mazzulla show their love
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said one of the reasons why he reached the pinnacle of NBA coaching is the guidance of Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Bob Huggins.
Huggins coached Mazzulla at West Virginia and has sent several players to the NBA, including Bucks guard Jevon Carter, who has been a pleasant surprise after being waived by the Nets last season.
Carter is a bulldog defensively and also has become a premium 3-point shooter (41.5 percent). Carter said Huggins motivated to him to be a relentless defender and the 6-foot-1-inch guard has earned the reputation by picking up opposing guards full court.
“Before I got to West Virginia, I thought I played hard,” Carter said. “He made me unlock another level of playing hard. With him, I thought I played hard, but there was another level I didn’t even know I had that I could play harder. He just brings out the best in his guys and if you’re willing to work, he’s going to push you to be great.”
Carter was a second-round pick of the Grizzlies and bounced around to the Suns and Nets before finding a home with the Bucks. He credits Huggins for his perseverance.
“That’s all he wants to do. He wants to push his players to be great, show you how to become a winner,” Carter said. “If you keep that with you, the sky’s the limit. Look at Joe Mazzulla, look at me now, look at ‘Deuce’ McBride, Da’Sean Butler, guys that come from underneath him, you just have this kind of work mentality to go be the best and go beyond.”
Huggins, 69, coaches with a scowl and has been tabbed as unpleasant because of his facial expressions. Mazzulla said that does not describe him as a coach or his compassion for players.
Huggins joined West Virginia before Mazzulla’s sophomore season. Mazzulla played 114 games as mostly a reserve point guard until he assumed the starting role during his senior season. He helped lead the Mountaineers to the Final Four as a junior with a victory over a Kentucky team that featured future NBA All-Stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Mazzulla leaped into head coaching at Division 2 Fairmont State before joining the Celtics as an assistant in 2019, and he said it was the guidance of Huggins that motivated him to seek NBA coaching positions.
Mazzulla was considered a top coaching prospect in NBA circles after his first season under Brad Stevens in 2019. Mazzulla said he still keeps in close contact with Huggins, who is the winningest active coach in Division 1 men’s basketball.
“He gets a bad rep because of how intense he is during games, but he’s one of the most thoughtful, one of the most relationship-oriented coaches that I know,” Mazzulla said. “What I learned from him is how to build relationships with your guys, how to be accountable, how to be tough on them. At the same time loving them on and off the floor. And if you ask any of his former players, they all love him. You just know he has your back. You know he wants you to be the best and I’ve taken a lot of how he manages talent, how he manages his relationships, and used a lot of that.”
Celtics PR maven Jeff Twiss has only missed seven home games in 42 years and one of those was this past week when he attended a memorial service in Indiana for former sportswriter and Pacers PR staffer David Benner. Benner made coming to Indianapolis a great experience for visiting reporters and was always filled with dry, humorous jokes. He died in February after a long illness. Pacers legend Reggie Miller spoke at the ceremony and it was a kind sendoff to one of the league’s most distinguished gentlemen . . . There have been recent issues with game officiating, including during the third quarter of the Warriors win last Wednesday in Dallas when Mavericks players walked to one side of the floor for an inbounds pass believing they possessed the ball after a timeout. Instead, it was Warriors ball and Kevon Looney received an inbounds pass and scored an easy layup with no Maverick within 40 feet. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a longtime critic of officiating, has filed a protest. Meanwhile, the NBA fined superstar Luka Doncic $35,000 for making money gestures with his hands twice during the second half. Doncic had real issues with two calls, including a play in which Looney appeared to push him in the back before a rebound. This came a few weeks after Toronto’s Fred VanVleet criticized official Ben Taylor for being biased against him. Taylor has seemingly been demoted by the NBA since . . . The Clippers dodged a major bullet when Paul George was ruled out for only 2-3 weeks with a sprained knee, an injury that was first considered potentially season-ending. The Clippers are going to prepare for George to return in the playoffs. It’s been an injury-filled and disappointing season for the Clippers, but the hope is they can make a run as a healthy team. Russell Westbrook, added as a starting point guard after being traded by the Lakers and waived by the Jazz, had fit in nicely with his role. Kawhi Leonard is beginning to resemble his pre-injury form, while Norman Powell is expected to return from a shoulder injury before the playoffs. The Clippers could be a sleeper team in the postseason.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.