Sports

An unusual route to an NBA executive’s job with the Pacers included a stint at Burger King

Ryan Carr, director of player personnel for the Indiana Pacers, visits Sumner High School with his son Austin, November 3, 2018.  He attended both Sumner High School and Rogers before being hired by basketball legends Bob Knight and, later, Larry Bird.
Ryan Carr, director of player personnel for the Indiana Pacers, visits Sumner High School with his son Austin, November 3, 2018. He attended both Sumner High School and Rogers before being hired by basketball legends Bob Knight and, later, Larry Bird. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Ryan Carr has spent almost two decades scouting NBA draft prospects with the Indiana Pacers, so he was asked to scout himself. How would he analyze his basketball abilities at Sumner and Rogers high schools?

“I would say scrappy,” Carr laughed. “Plays really hard. Tries to do what the coaches say, but he’s just not good enough. Nobody puts in more hours, nobody tries harder to be a good player but I’m 5-foot-7 and I probably weighed 120 pounds.

“That’s what I would say, and I might slide myself a couple places down the draft board.”

Carr acknowledges that even by NBA executive standards he doesn’t really fit the bill, considering his lack of playing experience and that he dresses like he does far more of his shopping at JCPenney than Armani.

Yet Carr, that scrawny former point guard, is the Pacers’ director of player personnel and the only person from Sumner or Puyallup in the NBA. He’s living what many would call a basketball fantasy in Indianapolis, where two of his greatest mentors and closest confidants are Bob Knight and Larry Bird.

“My life should be a fictional story, and I understand that,” Carr said. “I know that.”

His career is a template of persistence.

Years before Carr had a downtown Indianapolis office, he headed into his coach’s office at Sumner High to announce he was quitting the basketball team. He transferred to Rogers just down the road, tried out as a senior and didn’t make the cut.

Then his first job out of Indiana University was as an intern with the Pacers making $300 a month, at most. So a graveyard shift at Burger King helped pay the bills, even if it meant rarely sleeping.

“Larry Bird calls me in to his office and says, ‘What’s this I hear about you’re working at McDonald’s?’” Carr recalled. “I can’t believe I said this, but I swear I said this back: ‘Well, actually, Larry, I’m working at Burger King …’ ”

Bird said he’d make sure Carr made minimum wage in exchange for an end to this fast food gig.

“I don’t care if he had been cut from the cheerleading team in high school,” Bird said. “If he can do the job, he can do the job. We were lucky.

“I know down at IU they are not easy on those guys, especially when Coach Knight was there. We fully knew that Ryan was a little tougher than he looks. He had to be.”

Carr returned to Puyallup almost a year ago to be honored by the Rogers High basketball program, even though he never actually played for them.

“If you really want to do something, given an opportunity you have to find a way to make it work,” Carr said. “That’s always been the thing for me, and even to this day I’m still a little insecure about it all. I feel like I have to outwork the people who are doing my job with the other teams. I need to be more organized. I need to keep getting better. I need to find ways for our staff to be better.

“I’m always trying to prove something – not just for the glory of it all, but because I’m an underdog.”

****

Tim Thomsen was Sumner’s basketball coach when Carr played three years for him but they developed a relationship long before that through basketball camps and when Carr would show up in the gym by 6:30 every morning for workouts.

“He was not given any physical skills or abilities,” Thomsen said. “Short, slow, couldn’t jump, but fundamentally he could play the game and I was trying my darnedest to figure out a role for him to keep him going. It was just so frustrating for him.”

And Carr said this was a time when it wasn’t cool to be the unathletic guy excelling in the classroom like he did. At least not at Sumner.

“For a little scrawny kid who was trying his hardest and was a perfectionist, it was tough,” Carr said. “I got so frustrated, so much that I walked into Coach Thomsen’s office after practice one night and quit the team. I can’t imagine how frustrated I must have been to do that.”

Many of Carr’s friends were at Rogers, and he grew up attending coach Rod Iverson’s McDonald’s basketball camps with Iverson’s son, Kyle, an all-league guard who would become Carr’s best friend and eventually a groomsman in his wedding.

Carr went through Rogers’ three days of tryouts, but the Rams had eight seniors returning. He checked the list on the locker room wall, didn’t see his name and bolted for the doors.

“I was crushed,” Carr said. “I remember that night for sure. I wanted to be good and I wanted to play so bad.

Except Rod Iverson had little choice but to keep him around.

“Me cutting him did not make me very popular in my own household mostly because of my son, and my wife was like a second mother to him,” Iverson said with a laugh. “I’ve been living with that decision for years.”

Carr helped as a manager, but Iverson learned he had more to offer. Eventually they had him taking value stats, tracking player efficiency and charting possessions. Carr basically became part of the coaching staff and was sitting with the assistants on the bench when they reached the state tournament that 1991-92 season.

Still, he’d bring his basketball shoes every day just in case Iverson changed his mind.

“He is really smart – really, really smart,” Iverson said. “Everything he was doing is all done through computers nowadays and Ryan was doing it all by hand. He was much more like an assistant coach than a manager and everybody loved him – he was just as big a part of that team as any player, even though he didn’t have a uniform on.”

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Ryan Carr, center, sits next to Larry Bird, right, and Dan Burke as part of the Indiana Pacers’ 1999 Boston Summer League. Carr attended Sumner and graduated from Rogers High School in Puyallup and now is the Pacers’ director of player personnel. Photo courtesy of Ryan Carr

****

That senior year cemented Carr’s career goal – he was going to be a coach someday.

Carr mailed letters to coaches at about 30 NCAA Division I powerhouses, including to Dean Smith at his favorite school, the University of North Carolina.

He was definitely not going to mail one to Indiana University. Carr just thought their coach was a little too crazy, even though Bob Knight’s Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in the country and on their way to a Final Four appearance. The only reason he relented was because Carr’s father is a Marine and Knight went to West Point, so his dad forced his hand.

Of all those letters he sent, only one school replied. So, of course, it was from Knight, touting Indiana’s exclusive sports marketing and management major that Carr could apply and interview for if he was interested. Certainly nothing was set in stone.

But Carr had an in he didn’t even know about. A friend and teammate of his at Rogers was a grandson of Ed Schindler, the founder of Renton-based Baden Sports. And Indiana University had a contract to use Baden basketballs.

What transpired after sticks with Carr to this day. He often asks himself who he can be an Ed Schindler to.

“I had never met him and I get this call and he’s like, ‘Hey, Ryan, this is Ed Schindler and I heard what you are trying to do,’” Carr said. “He said he was about to have dinner with Bob Knight and he could talk to him about me going to school there and helping the team.”

Carr received a call the next day asking if he could stop by Schindler’s house to talk about how the dinner went. He was handed back a thank you card he had asked Schindler to pass to Knight.

In it was a note: “Ryan, looking forward to having you work with us at Indiana. Bob Knight.”

****

Carr was vacuuming the locker room, keeping stats at practice, filming practice, breaking down film … such was the life of a student manager on a Big Ten championship team at Indiana in 1993 and a Sweet 16 team the next year.

“Fortunately Coach Knight never yelled or threw a chair at me,” Carr said.

And Carr’s roommate was one of the players, Bob Knight’s son, Pat, who would eventually go on to follow his father as a coach at Texas Tech. Now Pat Knight works for Carr as a scout with the Pacers.

And Bob Knight has always been in Carr’s corner. Thomsen headed to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit his in-laws for Christmas, so Carr went to Knight to ask about getting his former coach to a game.

“The seats were like five rows up in center court and we go down there and my wife and I are sitting next to all these farmer guys in big overalls chewing tobacco,” Thomsen said. “Well, these were Bob Knight’s hunting buddies. They all have Bob’s seats and they’re the best in the house. And Bobby Knight wanted Ryan’s basketball coach to have these seats. It was a lot of fun.”

Carr graduated and sent his resume to every NBA franchise and just about every college program, but he didn’t get a call back until months later from the Pacers’ Dan Burke. Burke is a fixture in Indiana as an assistant now under former SuperSonics player and coach Nate McMillan, but he stumbled upon Carr’s resume and he needed a video intern.

“It was long, long hours and we didn’t have the space for a big room like those guys get now,” Bird said. “Back then it was not a glamorous job. It’s a tough job. I don’t think I could ever do it.”

So Carr was hired to work from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., making $30 per home game.

“So in a good month you make $300 if there are a ton of home games,” Carr said. “I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? You can’t pay rent on $300.’”

Burger King was across the street from Carr’s apartment … with hours available between 2 a.m. and noon.

So he got a job as a porter. He couldn’t touch the money or food, but he could spray down the parking lot, scrub base boards, mop floors and change the letters on the sign.

“I had this great Big 10 college degree …” Carr said with a laugh.

Some of Carr’s friends were making big money as consultants. If Carr hadn’t got that letter back from Knight about Indiana then he said he was bent on his other option – heading to Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound to work on a law degree and work for coach Bob Niehl.

Instead, Carr was working in a closet with the Pacers, scrubbing food off the floor at Burger King – and getting about four hours of sleep every night.

“I’m trying,” Carr said. “But I’d just think, ‘Dang, I’m working every day 20 seats from Larry Bird. It’s worth a shot.’

“I was never caught up in the immediate gratification. I never really had that, anyway, because I always had to try so hard in everything. So this? I was a happy camper.”

The only people who knew of his second job were his parents, girlfriend (now wife) and Burke, until he was told Bird wanted to see him in his office right around Thanksgiving.

Carr had talked with Bird before but not like in an actual one-on-one. “I was so nervous,” Carr said.

“He tells me, ‘Well, we need you rested to do a good job here for us. I’m going to talk to (Pacers general manager) Donnie Walsh to get you at least making something.’ So Larry told me I could quit at Burger King and the Pacers ended up paying me minimum wage.

“And I’m pretty sure no one has ever been happier to make minimum wage in their life.”

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****

Carr has never asked, but he thinks that Burger King job was what tipped the scales in his relationship with Bird.

Carr won’t ask, so I did.

Bird immediately thought back to his own small-town experience growing up in French Lick, Indiana, well before he was basketball royalty.

He recalled when he dropped out of a local junior college, took a job working for the city and once a week drove a garbage truck, cut grass and painted benches. You know, before he headed to Indiana State, was drafted sixth overall by the Boston Celtics, won three NBA MVPs and two Finals MVPs.

“You got to do whatever you can to survive,” Bird said. “If it took Ryan working a part-time job at Burger King to have enough to live on, that’s what you had to do. I look up to people like that – a ton. Heck, my mom worked two jobs, going from one shift to the next. That’s how you do it.

“At least Ryan had the comfort of being inside at Burger King. I had to be outside in the snow in French Lick,” he laughed.

After a year with the Pacers Carr was promoted to video coordinator. Some of the others at his position around the NBA had included Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel, Mike Budenholzer and Rick Carlisle. All eventually became NBA head coaches and all had either college or NBA playing experience.

Then there was Carr, the guy who hadn’t played since his junior year of high school. The guy who was cut his senior year.

He was part of the Pacers’ back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 1998 and 1999, when they lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in seven games and then the Knicks in six.

“I became pretty close to the players, especially my internship year,” Carr said. “Both Jalen Rose and Travis Best would have me come over to their house and hook up a computer or something and give me a couple hundred bucks. Guys would go out of their way to do some really nice things for me and to include me. It was a great experience.”

After that 98-99 Pacers season Carr went with a friend of his to help coach at UTEP and replace hall of fame coach Don Haskins.

A year later Bird retired from coaching despite being fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals. He later returned to the Pacers in 2003 as their president of basketball operations and wanted Carr back with the Pacers, too.

Carr said it was either that or take the job he applied for at North Kitsap High School as their boys basketball coach (oh, he listed Bird, Knight and Thomsen as his references for it).

“He just said, ‘You’re going to come back to Indiana.’ I didn’t even know as what,” Carr said. “I flew up to Indianapolis and a few days later I finally asked him what he wanted me to do. He said he wanted me to scout.”

Bird and Carr’s relationship and friendship grew more from there. Carr was promoted to the Pacers’ director of scouting before the 2009-10 season. Even after Bird stepped down last year, Kevin Pritchard, the former Portland Trailblazers GM, promoted Carr to director of player personnel.

How could someone like Carr go from Puyallup to buds with Larry Bird, one of the NBA’s all-time pillar players?

“To this day, it’s absolutely unbelievable,” Carr said. “There’s no way, no time that it ever feels completely normal being around him.”

pacers_executive_main.JPG
Ryan Carr, director of player personnel for the Indiana Pacers, visits Sumner High School with his son Austin and wife Kim, November 3, 2018. He attended both Sumner High School and Rogers before being hired by Bob Knight and, later, Larry Bird. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

Still, he can’t afford to get too caught up in that.

“One of the cool things that Larry said when I first came back to scout for him, he was like, ‘I’m going to pay you to tell me what you think. I don’t want you to tell me what you think I think. I don’t want you to tell me what everybody else thinks. It’s OK for you to feel differently than everybody else, I want you to say that,’” Carr said.

“He said it’s his job to take the voices and figure that all out, but he told me it’s really important I tell him what I think. So that made it pretty easy for me, actually.”

But that’s easier said than done.

“I don’t like guys who when I get into a meeting with my scouts here and the first thing the guy says is, ‘Well, how do you like this player?’ I always tell them, ‘I pay you to give me that information,’” Bird said. “It doesn’t matter what I think because if I tell them who I like, they all like him. Everyone in the room likes him.

“Ryan has never been that guy. And he’s never been a guy who says, ‘Well, we should have taken this player,’ like looking in hindsight. Ryan is the guy who whoever we take, that’s our guy and he’s 100 percent behind it because we’re all in this together.”

****

Iverson said he never imagined that kid he cut would make it as big as Carr has. As successful as Iverson’s coaching career was at Rogers, he never coached a Division I player.

But looking back Iverson now sees the signs. Carr was a straight-A student, had a sharp mind and impeccable work ethic.

“He’s taught me to never underestimate people,” Iverson said.

“Ryan doesn’t exactly pass the eye test, even as far as basketball executives go – just being honest about that. He’s a little guy. But, boy, you talk about a person who humbled himself every place he went. And his biggest advocate became Larry Bird. He loves Ryan.”

Carr called Iverson a few years ago asking if he’d take some time off from teaching to travel to Indianapolis and watch the Pacers’ training camp and stay at Carr’s house.

“He introduced me to Larry and all these big-time people,” Iverson said. “I watched practices like I was a little kid in a candy shop. But it shows you something about Ryan. He didn’t stop extending himself just because he had made it to the big time.”

Now Carr is in charge of ensuring the Pacers have every bit of information available on potential draft prospects. Every day he’s either at a college game, NBA, G-League or overseas. He most enjoys his trip to Australia, but he’s also been to 15 European countries to scout.

“I see a lot of people who aren’t willing to go the extra step, give you that extra effort,” Bird said. “And for some of them it works out and some of them it doesn’t. But, boy, I believe that if you put in that work, sooner or later it’s going to work out – that eventually somebody is going to notice.

“You don’t run into guys like Ryan. Ryan will be a lifetime friend. That’s just how it goes. We’ll be hooked up together forever.”

Carr said he’d like to one day be a GM, but it’s never lost on him how fortunate he is for his current role.

His Burger King nametag rests at his desk ... just to remind him.

“Tim Thomsen and Rod Iverson are people who have meant as much to me as Larry Bird or Bob Knight,” Carr said. “They’re equals in my story, just like Ed Schindler. They’ve all provided opportunities for me that I never deserved.

“This was a one-in-a-billion chance. It’s a way longer odds than winning the lottery to have this career coming from where I did and all of that. So it’s a big deal to me to try to give back and try to make a difference with this. It’s not about me, it’s about the people who have helped me and chosen to help me and done so many things. Like I said, it’s fiction.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677; Twitter: @TJCotterill

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