BOSTON — Jeff Green and P.J. Carlesimo were not fast friends. When Green came into the NBA as a rookie out of Georgetown in 2007, he found a coach with a reputation for being tough on players, who had an infamous run-in with a player a decade earlier and who was skeptical of Green’s ability to succeed in the NBA.
Yet as Green was going through his rehabilitation from heart surgery last year, his first NBA coach was one of a number of people he kept in touch with throughout the process. Green and Carlesimo may not have bonded right away, but since then their relationship has grown closer than that of most players and coaches.
“Like any player coming into the league, any relationship evolves over time,” Green said. “That’s what ours did. It took me a while to open up. I was new to really everything, and it took me a while, going into a foreign city in Seattle, new coach, new players, but he’s always been there for me.”
Carlesimo faced Green as an opposing head coach for the first time when the Nets faced the Celtics on Wednesday. Before the game at TD Garden, both Carlesimo — who was named interim head coach of the Nets after the team fired Avery Johnson in December — and Green offered kind words mixed with tongue-in-cheek criticism, in the way only close friends do.
“I thought, honestly, coming out of Georgetown, Jeff was not a good player,” Carlesimo said dryly. “His rookie year, he got excellent coaching and ever since he’s really taken off.”
Carlesimo was not just being facetious. He was very tough on the rookie, Green recalled, which fits Carlesimo’s public image. Despite a long career as a respected college and pro coach, Carlesimo might be best known for a 1997 incident in which Latrell Sprewell choked the then-Warriors coach in practice, left, then returned later trying to exact more damage.
“I wasn’t choking P.J. that hard,” Sprewell infamously told 60 Minutes. “I mean, he could breath.”
Green and Carlesimo’s relationship never came to that, but it was clear to Green that Carlesimo had not softened much in the 10 years since his episode with Sprewell. He pushed his team hard, even though the Sonics were a young team that would win only 20 games that season, with Green’s fellow rookie Kevin Durant averaging more than 20 points per game. Nobody ever questioned Seattle’s toughness or hustle under Carlesimo, however, and it is notable that both Green and Durant have spoken highly of Carlesimo’s impact in their early development.
Doc Rivers does not ride his players any less, according to Green, but the message is delivered differently. The now-Nets coach “curses a lot more” than Rivers, Green said, and his intensity is apparent in the way the Nets have played since the coaching change. The Nets went out and put the Celtics on their heels Wednesday night, attacking the basket on offense and out-muscling the Celtics in the post. Green cannot know for certain, but he has a feeling Carlesimo told a few of his players things they did not want to hear when he took over as coach in the middle of the season.
“He kept it real,” Green said. “That’s how I like it. I like people to keep it real and not beat around the bush, and that’s something he definitely did not do.”
It is interesting to wonder what their relationship would be like if Carlesimo came to be coaching over Green again someday. Not known for being warm and fuzzy, Carlesimo raved about Green as “a first-class individual” and called the forward “one of my most favorite guys I’ve ever coached.” Green appreciated every phone call he received from his former coach last winter and spring, when he wondered if he would ever play again and he discovered who his true friends were.
If they ever become player and coach together again, though, Carlesimo would most likely replace all that praise with a steady stream of four-letter words. And Green would want it no other way.