KRAVITZ: Pacers' Seattle-born Carr lives out every Indiana boyhood basketball dream with passion and persistence

Ryan Carr is the Indiana Pacers Director of Player Personnel. (WTHR Photo / Bob Kravitz)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS - Every couple of weeks, I get an email from a high school or college student who wants to know how to get into the media business. After telling them to have a Plan B established, just in case they can't find a spot in a media world that is evolving and, in some cases, crumbling, I give them my advice.

I'm not going to do that today in this column. Instead, I'm going to tell you the story of Pacers director of player personnel Ryan Carr, whose come-from-nowhere story offers a universal primer on how to pursue a lifelong passion and turn it into a full-time job. I'm telling it because Carr's story not only provides a blueprint for those who want to get into basketball, but because his tale, an Indiana boyhood dream that happened to play out for a Seattle kid, should resonate for any young man or woman who has a passion to pursue their grown-up dream.

When Carr was growing up, he was a marginal, undersized basketball player who existed on the fringes of his Seattle-area high school team, but he had this overwhelming desire to someday become a college basketball coach. I can only imagine that scores, hundreds, thousands of young boys and girls want to grow up and work in the make-believe world of sports – why wouldn't you? – but Carr did more than wish and hope for a big break to reveal itself. He made it happen, made his dream (or some version of it) come true with persistence, selflessness and a stint at Burger King (more on that later).

His story begins in Seattle. His story has taken him to Indianapolis, where he has worked in a variety of positions with the Pacers. And where it takes him after this is anybody's guess, but someday he would like to be an NBA general manager.

If you're young and a dreamer, please take notes:

"My senior year of high school, I wrote letters to every Division I coach I could think of: 'Hey, I want to go to college, I want to learn to coach, what can I do?'" Carr said. "I sent out about 30 letters. I really wanted to go to North Carolina and work for Dean Smith. Well, the only letter I got back was from Bob Knight at Indiana. He said they had a manager program here for kids like me who want to get into coaching, so go to school at IU and call [Hoosiers trainer] Tim Garl to set up an interview. My dad was a Marine and my mom loved Knight. We were a hoops family and at that time, Indiana was on top of the basketball world.

"So I thought Knight was crazy. Smith was the guy I liked. But my parents encouraged me. To get back one letter out of all of those, no promises. As a naive 17- or 18-year-old, I thought there might be a chance.

"Then back to the theme of people who went out of their way for me, I had a high school friend, his grandfather owned [a company] who had Coach Knight under contract. I get a call before Easter, it's from the grandfather, Ed Schindler, 'Ryan, I heard you want to coach. I have a good relationship with Coach Knight and he's actually coming out to Seattle for a meeting and I'm going to take him out to dinner. Would you like me to talk to him for you?' I'm like, 'Yes, YES, YES!!! – absolutely.' So I asked him, 'Can I write another letter for you to give to him,? I'll run it by your house.' Again, I'm naïve, so I'm thinking Coach Knight will remember me. So I wrote a letter and gave Mr. Schindler a thank-you card. I waited a few days, and on Easter, he said 'Can you come down to the house?' So I drove to his house and Mr. Schindler hands me back the thank-you note. I said, 'No, that's for you.' He said, 'No, Ryan, open it,' and there was a handwritten note in there [from Knight] saying, 'Hey, Ryan, I'm looking forward to you working with us.'"

Carr chose to make the cross-country trek to Bloomington, and soon after his arrival, he found himself walking through Assembly Hall.

"I'd seen it on TV, and I remember the smell of walking in there and seeing the court and the feeling I had, the reverence for the place,'' Carr said. "And I was walking out and he [Knight] was walking down a ramp from his office. I'm this naïve kid and I walked up to him, 'Coach Knight, I'm Ryan Carr and I'm going to be a manager for you.' He said, 'Well, there's a bunch of kids like that here.' 'Mr. Schindler talked to you about me.' He said, 'Oh, you're Schindler's guy.' So he's got this big national championship ring and he pats me on the back of the head and said, 'Go talk to Garl.'

"It was very intimidating, and even when I still see him [Knight] today, there's still some of that. Four years, he was so good to me. He did an interview with me for one of my classes; I got an A for that. Pat [Knight] and I were roommates my senior year, so I got a chance to be around [Coach Knight] off the court. He's so smart, so inquisitive. One Christmas Eve, I remember him asking about my dad and family -- 'Tell them to come to any practice they want.'

"My four years there, we won a Big Ten title in 1993, a Sweet 16 the next year and my junior and senior years, first-round exits. I graduated with Brian Evans; we still joke around, we feel like those teams weren't that great, but we still finished second or third in the Big Ten every year. Those were the standards of what IU basketball was back then. He was a savant, a brain made to coach basketball. I got a crash course in basketball for four years and you couldn't pay enough for that as a basketball junkie. It was a clinic every day."

I've heard from way too many young hopefuls that it's all about who you know, and there's a modicum of truth to that. Knowing people helps you get a foot in the door. Sometimes, it gets you an interview, or it helps spur an editor to look at your written clips or your on-air work. But in the end, it's about talent and work ethic and passion, and either you have those qualities or you don't.

Carr was a sponge during his time at IU, and still held on to the dream of coaching, preferably at the college level.

"So I got out of school in 1996, sent out resumes to every NBA team looking for internships and jobs, or trying to find a college job as a grad assistant,'' he said. "I actually had a job lined up with Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma, but at the last minute in August, that fell through for whatever reason. I'm still not sure why. I was kind of left hanging.''

He interviewed for a job at the RCA Dome. He looked and looked. Eventually, he accepted an internship with Tim Knight, Bob's oldest son, doing work on high school All-America games. Then, in the summer of 1997, he realized he couldn't pay the bills. Good fortune, though, kept following Carr around. That summer, Larry Bird signed on to coach the Pacers, and in September, Dan Burke, currently a Pacers assistant, called Carr to see if he had any interest in being a video intern.

"He said, 'Hey, I was going through some old resumes here and came across yours; would you be interested in interviewing?'" Carr recalled. "I interviewed with Dan and that went well, then I talked to [then-assistant coach] Rick Carlisle and he wanted me to diagram some plays. I didn't do them exactly the way he wanted me to do them, so I thought he hated me for sure. They said they would let me know in a week."

A day later, Burke called and offered the job.

The pay?

Thirty bucks per home game.

"I look at the schedule, if we have a good home slate in a month, that's about eight games, 240 bucks," Carr said. "It was way less than working for Tim [Knight] but I couldn't say no.''

But there was a problem. He had to pay the rent. He had to eat. He needed gas money. You knows, the basics.

Enter Burger King.

"They wouldn't even let me handle money or the food,'' Carr said of his time there. "I'm pretty sure I'm the only person in the world to get a degree from IU who took a job as a porter at Burger King. That's a fancy name for a guy who scrubs baseboards and mops the floors, hauls boxes and changes letters on the sign. But the job allowed me to go to work at 5 or 6 a.m., be done by noon, be at Market Square by 1, be there until 1 in the morning and pay the rent. It was perfect.''

He still has that Burger King nametag.

At the time, Burke was the only Pacers employee who knew about Carr's Burger King moonlighting, but apparently, Burke spilled the beans to Bird and Donnie Walsh.

Then, during the 1997-98 season, Bird called Carr into his office. Carr was nervous; why would Bird want to talk to him? Did he screw up?

"Hey,'' Bird said, "what's this about you working at McDonald's?''

"Actually, it's Burger King.''

Bird replied, "Well, I'm going to talk to Donnie; we need for you to give your best here.''

Carr got a raise and he kept getting raises, slowly moving up the Pacers' organizational depth chart.

As we sat in Carr's office at the St. Vincent training center, the Pacers director of player personnel smiled.

"I always say I stole every Indiana boyhood dream,'' he said. "Me and Pat [Knight] are the only ones I know who worked for those two [Knight and Bird]. It's very special. It means a lot to me that hopefully I've gained their trust and I've exceeded their expectations."

Carr worked for the Pacers for a few years, then fulfilled his childhood dream of coaching in college, latching on as an assistant at Texas-El Paso. After that, he was ready to become the head coach at a Seattle-area high school – he had letters of recommendation from Bob Knight and Larry Bird, for crying out loud – and he was ready to accept it until Bird came calling again. He wanted Carr on his staff once again.

More than a decade later, Carr is the director of player personnel, and has aspirations of one day becoming an NBA general manager.

So I asked him, if you had students in front of you, what would you tell them?

"That it's a balance of persistence without being aggravating,'' he said. "Showing how bad you want it and how much it means to you without coming off like you already have the answers. Most of all, it's about doing it without any expectations. When I took that [Pacers video] internship, it was never with the idea that I'd end up in player personnel. It was because it was an opportunity to do something I love doing. I wasn't going to not do it because I couldn't make any money."

Take notes, kids.

Because if an undersized basketball junkie from Seattle could do it, anything and everything is possible.

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