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Pacers T.J. McConnell on flight with coach Rick Carlisle: 'Exhilarating, scary, fun'

BOSTON -- T.J. McConnell had originally planned to fly commercial. Rick Carlisle had originally planned to fly Tyrese Haliburton. But the NCAA Tournament worked out in such a way that McConnell got to see his college coach and close family friend reach the Sweet 16 thanks to his NBA coach's skill as a pilot.

McConnell told the story of his flights with Carlisle to Greensboro, N.C. on Sunday for Xavier’s second round game against Pittsburgh and then to Charlotte for the Pacers’ game against the Hornets on Monday to Pacers sideline broadcaster Jeremiah Johnson, but he and Carlisle shared more detail during the rest of the road trip. If his current head coach wasn’t a pilot, McConnell wouldn’t have been able to make it to Greensboro in time for Xavier’s game. And if Pittsburgh hadn’t have beaten Iowa State, Carlisle would have had to find a way to take two point guards to Greensboro.

Carlisle has been flying for about a decade. According to an August, 2015 ESPN.com feature documenting his mid-life commitment to becoming a pilot, Carlisle purchased a CirrusSR2 Turbo -- a single-engine airplane -- in July of 2014 and by the following year had logged more than 180 hours of training, and he's maintained the pursuit since.

When the NCAA Tournament bracket came out and Tyrese Haliburton saw that as the No. 6 seed in the Midwest, Iowa State was due to play on Sunday in Greensboro, N.C. if it could reach the second round, he asked Carlisle if he could go to the game. Carlisle suggested he could do the flying himself.

"I was the one who started the plan," Haliburton said. "I asked him permission to go and he said he would come with me."

Carlisle cooked up a plan with Mike Matthews, a former North Carolina-Asheville basketball player who works for Cirrus Aircraft and actually sold Carlisle his plane and served as his trainer when he began his pursuit of a pilot's license.

"He's the regional sales rep for the Vision Jet, which is a single-engine jet, which is a super-cool thing," Carlisle said. "If you're old enough to have ever seen the Jetsons, it's like flying around in one of those. He's a CSIP, he's an instructor, so when I fly with him, I can fly left seat and be pilot-in-command supposedly."

The Cyclones lost 59-41 to Pittsburgh in the first round, however, so that meant Haliburton would simply fly with the team to Charlotte. However, even with his starter's team out of the tournament, Carlisle found reason to give a ride to his backup point guard.

McConnell played at Arizona and his No. 2 seed Wildcats were stunned in the first round by No. 15 seed Princeton. But he’s very close with former Arizona, and Xavier, coach Sean Miller, who is a big reason why McConnell is in the NBA in the first place.

The McConnells and the Millers are arguably the most prominent basketball families in the greater Pittsburgh area. The region is known historically as a football hotbed, but it has produced plenty of notable basketball coaches even if it’s not home to that many great basketball players. T.J.'s father, Tim, has won six district championships as a high school boys head coach and three district championships and a state title in four years as a girls basketball head coach. His aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, was an All-American at Penn State, an Olympic gold medalist, WNBA player, state champion girls basketball coach and a college women's coach at Duquesne and then Pitt. Miller’s father, John, coached at Blackhawk High School where he won four state titles and seven district titles. Sean played at Pitt before becoming a coach and, of course, his younger brother Archie played at North Carolina State and went on to coach at Indiana before he was fired in 2021.

The Millers and McConnells go back decades, but T.J. didn’t get to know Sean until McConnell decided to transfer from Duquesne after two years and Miller gave him a shot to play point guard at Arizona. McConnell started for the Wildcats in back-to-back Elite Eight runs. The two formed an extremely close bond as McConnell went from being an unheralded three-star recruit to a two-time All-Pac 12 guard and NBA prospect. So even though Miller was fired two years ago over NCAA sanctions, McConnell’s loyalty for Miller followed him to Xavier. And given the chance, he absolutely wanted to see Miller play against this own alma mater.

"I'm going to support him," McConnell said. "One of his assistant coaches was in my wedding. There's a lot of ties there from Arizona and obviously me and Sean are close on a deeper level. ... We're that close that it's like family. My family has known his family for a long, long time with my dad and his dad and Archie and Sean and my dad's sisters. In Pittsburgh, if you know one of them, you know all of them."

So McConnell booked a flight not knowing what time Xavier’s second-round game would be after the Musketeers beat No. 14 seed Kennesaw State 72-67 in the first round. The earliest flight he could get out of Indianapolis was around 8 a.m. and he had a layover in Charlotte before flying into Greensboro around noon. When he approached Carlisle, the coach noted that the plan was a little convoluted and asked if he wouldn’t just rather hitch a ride with him.

"We had these tentative plans, so I called Mike back and said, 'Hey are you still interested in doing this?'" Carlisle said. "T.J.'s really close with Sean Miller. And he said, 'Yeah, I already asked my wife's permission, so we're still good if you guys want to do it.'"

McConnell was thrilled and it helped that he was able to cancel his commercial flight and get his money back. It was especially fortuitous once the second round-schedule came about and Xavier-Pittsburgh tipped off at 12:40 p.m. as the first game of the day.

"If it wasn't for Rick, I wouldn't have been able to go to the game," McConnell said. "I knew he had a flying background, but I didn't know if he was serious about the jet or not. He was."

McConnell knew Carlisle was a pilot, but was impressed with how smooth he handled the plane.

"It was a lot of emotions," McConnell said. "Exhilarating, scary, fun. It was really impressive. Landed. Pretty much flew the plane with the help of his pilot friend. It was impressive to say the least."

The arrangement ended up being convenient for both parties. McConnell got to watch Xavier beat Pitt 84-73 to advance to the Sweet 16 (where they lost to Texas) and was back in Charlotte not long after the rest of the team

But what if Iowa State had won and ended up playing Xavier in the second round? In such a small airplane, would Carlisle have been able to take both men?

“I don't know if I'm getting into those hypotheticals," Carlisle said. "That would have been interesting."

But ultimately, he probably wasn't leaving one of them on the tarmac.

"I think the answer's probably yes."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Rick Carlisle originally scheduled flight to Greensboro for Haliburton