Pacers blowout win pushes Carlisle past mentor

The Pacers' 133-111 blowout on Monday seemed relatively insignificant, but to Rick Carlisle, it was very significant. His 939th victory as a head coach pushed him past his mentor, Red Auerbach, on the all-time wins list.

Indiana Pacers v New Orleans Pelicans
Indiana Pacers v New Orleans Pelicans / Sean Gardner/GettyImages

In mid-June of 1984, Red Auerbach, then general manager of the dominant Boston Celtics, removed his cigar from his lips long enough to select a promising guard from the University of Virginia in round three of the NBA draft. 

On an otherwise quiet Monday evening in 2024, the Indiana Pacers coasted to a 133-111 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, leading to that Virginia guard’s reflection on Auerbach after surpassing his win mark as a head coach. Rick Carlisle is now 12th on the all-time wins list with 939, and Auerbach is 13th with 938.

“...I’m really grateful to Red for drafting me in the third round almost 40 years ago,” Carlisle began. “When you get drafted into the NBA, you get a shot. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in my playing career [and it] led to a coaching opportunity.”

Auerbach, one of basketball’s most decorated coaches, led the Celtics to nine NBA titles as the lead man on the bench. After eight straight titles with his dynasty in green, Auerbach took the short walk from the head of the bench to the Celtics’ front office in 1966. It was there that he would go on to craft the rosters of seven more NBA Champions.

Carlisle was a piece of one of those NBA titles, playing alongside Indiana native Larry Bird throughout his Boston tenure. Carlisle’s Celtics teams appeared in three straight Finals series – 1985, 1986, and 1987. Though Boston defeated Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in 1986, they were bested by their Los Angeles foes – the L.A. Lakers – in both 1985 and 1987.

Carlisle would go on to round out his playing career as a reserve for both the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets from 1987 to 1989. In 1989, New Jersey coach Bill Fitch offered Carlisle a spot on his bench, but he’d be wearing a suit instead of a Nets uniform. 

He would then tour the country as an assistant coach, making stops in Portland with the Trail Blazers and reuniting with Bird in Indiana in 1997. 

Carlisle would be part of two pivotal Pacers seasons – first in 1997-98 as they pushed Michael Jordan’s Bulls to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, and then in 1999-2000, when Indiana would make its sole NBA Finals appearance. 

Bird lobbied for Carlisle to be his replacement when he left coaching, but the head coach title fell to Isiah Thomas. After narrowly missing out on his first head coaching gig, Carlisle took a sabbatical over the 2000-01 season. 

“I took a sabbatical year 2000-2001 [and] did some broadcasting work with the Sonics,” Carlisle said. “And when we were in DC I had a chance to go to Red's office and talk to him privately about things to really focus on as I was trying to make that [head coaching] jump. And he had some very important observations.” 

Carlisle landed his first head coaching job with the Detroit Pistons in 2002, where he amassed the first 100 wins on his way to the magical 939 that pushed him past his mentor. 

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“He was a man of great wisdom,” Carlisle said as he reflected on Auerbach. “One of the great competitors in the history of the sport…this is a great opportunity to remind people of the standards that he set. No one should ever forget.”