Story Links

Jan. 11, 2002


On May 25, 2001, Rick Carlisle, the captain of Virginia’s 1984 basketball team, was introduced as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ President of Basketball Operations, said, “He will be the person to turn the fortunes of this franchise around.”

Carlisle himself said, “I look forward to being part of the success.”

That should come as no shock to Cavaliers fans, who heard Carlisle comment, “I feel I can make a contribution to the success of this year’s team” before the start of the 1984 season–the first season post-Ralph.

It was also a season in which Virginia, unranked in the preseason polls, advanced to the Final Four.

The 1984 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Virginia, with the graduation of three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson looming as a significant loss for the Cavaliers. The captain’s duties fell to Carlisle, a transfer from Maine who had played only one season in the blue and orange. As one of the captains of the 1983-84 team, Carlisle bore some responsibility to help the team refocus, set goals and then strive to meet them. A large part of his work would come off the court, but just as much he would be counted upon to lead the Cavaliers on the hardwood. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but this is exactly what Carlisle wanted–a challenge to make the Cavaliers a better team.

After his transfer, he stated that he did so “to play for a better team against better teams.”

Carlisle and his Cavalier teammates showed their mettle right from the start, leaping out to a ten-game winning streak. Sampson might have departed for the NBA, but there was still a great deal of excitement surrounding Cavalier basketball thanks to Carlisle and his teammates.

Just as suddenly, Virginia fortunes turned sour as the next ten games, all against conference opponents, were a tough stretch. Virginia went 3-7, including five consecutive losses in the middle of the run. A stretch of non-conference games wasn’t the answer as the Cavaliers went 1-2, putting them at 14-9 with four games to play.

Carlisle and his teammates closed out the regular season with four ACC games, including one against Wake Forest on Senior Day in 1984.

Carlisle told Daily Progress reporter Jerry Ratcliffe, “We [Virginia fourth-year class] want to go out winners.”

Carlisle took that promise personally, and he led the Cavaliers with 18 points as he wore the orange and blue for the last time in University Hall. A loss to Maryland put Virginia at 17-10 heading into the ACC tournament, seeded sixth. In the tournament, however, Wake got revenge and knocked the Cavaliers out of the tournament and onto the NCAA tournament bubble with a 17-11record. Getting into the tournament wasn’t going to be easy. Seventeen wins was by no means a lock, and Virginia’s only big wins came against Wake in Charlottesville and Louisville on the road. Sure, the Hoos played a tough schedule, but would it be enough?

The NCAA said yes, and seeded the Cavaliers seventh in the East. Looming in the distance were not only top-seeded North Carolina but also the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Indiana Hoosiers. First, though, was Iona, against whom the Cavaliers played a game that mirrored their season. A big first-half lead was quickly whittled away before the Cavaliers hit a leaning jumper to send them into the second round against Arkansas.

According to News reporter Jimmy Micco, “It would take a near-miracle performance to beat the Razorbacks” (3/13/84).

A captain’s job is leadership off the court–and on. If the Cavaliers needed a miracle, it was up to Carlisle to create it and finish it. And so he did. The Cavaliers held their own against the Hogs, matching them basket for basket the whole game. With the teams knotted at 49 at the end of regulation, the teams faced off in overtime with the Hogs getting the early edge. After Wilson tied the game with 1:32 to play off a feed from Carlisle, Virginia got a defensive stop as Ricky Stokes stole the ball and and got the ball to Wilson with time running down.

Wilson attempted a jumper with under 10 seconds to play, but the ball was blocked by Alvin Robertson–right into the hands of Carlisle, who buried the 10-foot jumper from the baseline to send the Cavaliers to the regional semifinals. Carlisle had provided the near-miracle to send the team to Atlanta.

The rest, they say, is history. The Cavaliers handled Syracuse with relative ease and then stormed back to upset Indiana 50-48 to advance to the Final Four for the first time in Carlisle’s career. In the national semifinals, the “over-achieving” Cavaliers took the #2 Houston Cougars to overtime before falling just short. While it was just shy of the obvious objective for the team, there was no doubt that Carlisle and the rest of the Cavaliers had far exceeded everyone’s expectations for the season.

The next season Captain Carlisle was drafted in the third round by the Boston Celtics, with whom he played three seasons, including the NBA Championship season of 1986. Carlisle then moved to the other side of the bench, becoming an assistant coach in the NBA for 11 seasons, making stops with the New Jersey Nets, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Indiana Pacers. Carlisle was a radio analyst for the Seattle SuperSonics last season before he was tapped by the Pistons for the head job.

“I think this is a great opportunity for me,” said Carlisle. “We have an excellent young nucleus in Jerry Stackhouse and Ben Wallace, and I think the future of this organization is very promising. I look forward to being part of the success.”

Sounds very similar to his comment 16 years ago.

Print Friendly Version