by Shawn O’Neal, contributing writer

Ryan Carr is not one to lack for appropriate words or general eloquence. His basketball life has experienced enough twists and turns to provide many gifts and perhaps the most obvious is a deep perspective.

Every day is busy but life has provided plenty of time for thought and careful consideration.

Yet when he tries to sum it all up, he struggles to find easy words: “You just cannot make sense of it all. You just … cannot. There is no way … none of it. It just does not make sense. There are just all these different times people gave me a chance when they did not have to … and I just cannot explain it.”

Those who know the Rogers High grad, currently the Vice President for Player Personnel with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, struggle a bit less to explain Carr’s success and longevity. They’ll tell you nobody works harder. Nobody cares more. And – to hear those who know him describe him – few are as kind.

Carr is not a name everybody who follows the game knows well, but those who work in the game know him well. Perhaps more importantly, people who are widely recognized in basketball have seen something in Carr that has helped him continue his basketball journey.

Guys like Bob Knight, Larry Bird and Don Haskins – all in the basketball Hall of Fame.

Carr’s personal explanation for why he’s managed to build a career in a game he wasn’t much good at playing is complicated for some, but perhaps the most simple of all from his perspective: “Divine providence is a real thing for me and for all of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.”

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The easiest place to start with Carr is maybe where it could have ended: He was a junior at Sumner High and was over it. He was a swing player, according to coach Tim Thomsen, meaning he had two jerseys in his locker. One was for the Spartans’ varsity, the other for JV.

Carr’s love for the game was elite, but his talent wasn’t. He wasn’t a bad basketball player – he would get hot and win 3-point contests in camps against much better players – but he was a late-game sub for the Spartans, and the Spartans weren’t exactly setting the South Puget Sound League afire.

Carr wasn’t getting the time he wanted. Thomsen knew he worked hard enough to earn more, but was “short, small and slow” and simply not talented enough to get more. The minutes and shots he did get were based on how much his coach appreciated what he brought to the team beyond the stat sheet.

“He had the best attitude. He was the most humble, hardest working kid and he had great values,” Thomsen said. “I had been watching him come up through the ranks – even as an elementary kid we saw him – then as a middle schooler and then up to varsity. I knew him and his family and I really valued that and, when I got to know him — he was in my traffic safety class – I found out what a high-character kid he was. He really stood out back in those days when we maybe did not have a lot of high-character kids. But he was one of them.”

Which is what made the day Carr quit so shocking.

“I had gotten so frustrated I was like, ‘I am done …’ and I quit,” Carr said, laughing. “This many years later it is just hard to imagine how frustrated I must have been to do that. I did that in kind of haste and I went home and told my parents that I had been frustrated and they were frustrated for me. And they probably thought I was a better player than I was.”

Carr was a better student than a basketball player, but the mental math eluded him: A kid who could not get on the court for a mediocre SPSL team, transferred to Rogers, which was strong in the SPSL and beyond, stacked with seniors and headed for state. In 2024 the math is a bit easier for him to grasp. A big part of his current job is finding and evaluating players for an NBA franchise. A big part of that, he said, is elimination.

Carr might have been an easy elimination from a talent standpoint for Rogers coach Rod Iverson, but the intangibles Carr brought made for a tough day for all involved. For Carr it was heartbreaking, but it was not easy for the coach or his family. One of the biggest reasons Carr landed at Rogers was his relationship with the coach, and his son, Kyle. Carr had attended Iverson’s youth camps and was tight with Kyle, even when he was a student at Sumner. Being part of the Rams and getting to play with his friend was a big part of the appeal.

“He was already my best friend and I knew what a great guy he was,” Kyle Iverson said. “He clung to me at Rogers and vice versa.”

That moment of quitting, as hard as it is for 50ish Carr to contemplate now, was likely the first unlikely domino to fall in a series of them that winded through the home of virtual strangers, Bloomington, Indiana and El Paso, Texas and back again to Indiana, where he’s been for nearly 25 years.

From Sumner to the NBA, a story of basketball serendipity
Ryan Carr (center) with Tim Thomsen (left) and Rod Iverson.

Carr didn’t make the Rogers basketball team, but what he did get to do was far more aligned with the end game. His best friend was a dynamic guard who would take the Rams to state and go on to play briefly in college. And while Kyle was playing on the same Seattle Center Arena court as Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp – and Larry Bird, of course – Ryan was also there, on the bench, wearing a tie.

“The list gets posted after cuts, my name’s not on there and I just bolt,” Carr said “I am bawling. What was super cool that night is that Kyle calls me just to check in, super gracious and kind. You gotta love a best friend who will say he disagrees with what his dad did and he said he was going to talk to his dad — that maybe there was something he can do.”

Meanwhile, Carr had to wake up the next day and go to school, face all the guys who knew he had not made the team and Rod Iverson, who was his U.S. History teacher.

“(That) was uncomfortable, but good for the process and he approached me about helping the team, coming to practice and being a part of it,” Carr said. “He knew me as well as anybody could at that time. His wife was like a second mom, his son like a brother … I was (at his house) more than at my own house.”

And so it began.

Carr brought his shoes to practice and would jump in when the team needed a body, but he was mostly a manager and ultimately became more like a coaching intern, tracking stats and sitting with the coaches during the games, sometimes offering thoughts on numbers he was asked to track. But when Rogers’ season ended in February, Carr was left to figure out next steps.

His stepfather was a retired Marine and admired Bob Knight, the iconic Indiana coach who started his career at West Point. Carr liked Knight just fine, too, but wasn’t initially all in on the Hoosiers. He knew he wanted to stay involved in basketball in college, but it would likely be as a manager — a real one, the kind who picked up laundry and fed balls back to players who are working on free throws.

He wrote dozens of letters of inquiry to the top college coaches of the era, including his idol, North Carolina legend Dean Smith. He was hoping to find somebody who would give him the chance in college that Iverson had given him at Rogers.

He got one reply, from The General, Bob Knight.

“It was a form letter and talked about how if I got into school there they had programs I could look into,” Carr said.

It was a glimmer of hope, and then came another. Carr’s friend from Rogers, Jamey Haigh, is the grandson of late Baden Sports CEO Ed Schindler … and Baden Sports happened to be the supplier of the Indiana Hoosiers. Haigh brought Carr to meet with his grandfather, who happened to be meeting with Knight in the near future. Schindler offered Carr an opportunity to write The General a note, and so he did. A couple of weeks later Carr was invited back to the Schindler home and Knight had sent a return note: “I look forward to working for you at IU.”

“That was it,” Carr said.

From Sumner to the NBA, a story of basketball serendipity
Ryan Carr and former Indiana U coach Bob Knight.

Carr showed up in Bloomington the next fall, eager to get started, and ran into Knight coming out of the basketball building and introduced himself.

“It was super surreal,” Carr said.  “I was walking up this ramp, he was walking down. I had never been so intimidated in my life. He was a huge man with this aura around him and I walk up to him and said ‘Hey, Coach Knight, I am Ryan Carr and I am here to be a manager for you.”

The legend didn’t miss a beat.

“He puts his arm around me and we are walking down the ramp. He says there are a lot of kids around here who want to be a manager for me. And I say ‘Mr. Schindler spoke to you.'”

“Oh … you’re Schindler’s guy,” Knight said.

“And he always wore a national championship ring and one of the things he would do as a thing of endearment is he would tap you on the back of the head but with that national title ring it would hurt, he gave me that tap and that was it.”

That was it, indeed.

Carr was given the foot in the door he needed and maximized every chance, eventually graduating from Indiana and getting a job as a video analyst with the Pacers, a job that paid far less than one might think, not nearly enough to live comfortably and led to one of the most movie-worthy moments of Carr’s feature-film reality. Carr supplemented his income by working at a fast-food restaurant. NBA legend Larry Bird, then the coach of the Pacers, found out about how his staffer was making ends meet.

He called Carr in to talk with him about his future and eventually agreed to bump his salary based on the fact that “we can’t have our employees working at McDonald’s.” To which Carr corrected him: “Actually Larry, it’s a Burger King.”

Carr kept grinding and eventually got the chance to do the thing he really wanted to do when he was offered an assistant coaching gig to be part of the staff replacing the legendary Don Haskins at the University of Texas-El Paso. He had met the UTEP head coach – Jason Rabedeaux – while at Indiana when Rabedeaux was an assistant at Washington State and Carr was the Cougars’ student host.

When Carr got to El Paso, Knight let Haskins know he was a good kid and to watch out for him if he could. That led to another of the game’s greats being a mentor to Carr and a few long rides in Haskins’ pick-up truck in the West Texas desert, where the old coach liked to go to clear his mind.

The stories and names could go on forever and Carr’s list of mentors and associates is a Forrest Gump-like journey through the game’s past 25 years.

“Every single one of them invested in me in some way and I am super grateful for that … and in different ways,” Carr said. “Coach Knight, certainly the Xs and Os and the art of coaching. With Larry (Bird) I learned just incredible self-control. With Haskins, I learned how to show respect and how to learn and how he wanted to give back and pass on the things he learned and loved about the game. Coach Knight was the same way.”

Rabedeaux resigned unexpectedly after three years and the next guy in at UTEP was another character of the game, future controversial Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie. After one year and a lot of losses, Carr was ready to try something new, so he applied for a head coaching job a North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo. Of course, he was a top candidate and his reference list was rather unique: Knight, Bird and Tim Thomsen, his old coach at Sumner.

“(The North Kitsap AD) called me because he was afraid to call the other two,” Thomsen said.

When Carr told Bird he was expecting to take the job, Bird was supportive.

“That’s the thing about Larry,” Carr said. “He looks at things differently. Whether it’s (former Celtics coaches) Bill Fitch or KC Jones … or a high school coach, he doesn’t see much difference in what they are doing. Certainly, the NBA is the highest level, but he isn’t about accolades or any of that, it’s about the person and the work ethic.”

But when Carr told Bird he was going to take the job, in May of 2003, the Hall of Famer advised him to pump the brakes. Something was in the works for him and when it came through, he wanted Carr with him. News soon broke that Bird had been hired as the Pacers president of basketball operations and Carr was soon hired as a scout.

He’s been with the Indiana Pacers ever since.

From Sumner to the NBA, a story of basketball serendipity
Ryan Carr evaluating talent with Larry Bird.

By 2004, Carr had seen his share of things in the basketball world, but had never been to the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC, home to his favorite program growing up and named after the legend he idolized and hoped to one day work for. He was beyond excited, scouting a UNC-Florida State game for the Pacers.

There was plenty of NBA talent on the court — the teams would send a combined nine players to the league, including Bremerton product Marvin Williams. Carr was thrilled to be there but can’t remember much beyond what it eventually led to.

“Right before my 30th birthday, I get a chance to go to UNC for the very first time to see a game … to scout a game. I was super pumped and at that moment it was the coolest thing I had ever done. My 10-year old self was going crazy to see the banners and the jerseys … Jordan and Perkins, all of it. I was jacked … I was so excited. It was not a job that day … it was the pinnacle of life.

“I sat down and all of the sudden it was like I almost had a panic attack. I started getting cold sweats. It was really, really odd and I am having a hard time focusing on the game and I am certainly not enjoying it. I get done with the game and get back to the hotel. I remember nothing of that game.”

Ryan and his wife, Kim, had been married nearly four years. He arrived home from that trip and they sat and made a decision: It was time to find a church. Of course, the Carr’s treated searching for a church like he might treat tracking down a lead guard.

“There was all this sprinkling of Christianity in my life but it had never took … (In finding a church) I was on a mission. I did not know what made a good church or a bad church.”

Eventually, he and his family found comfort in faith and a community that helped him deal with some of the stressors in his life so that he could continue extending his basketball journey.

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Life hasn’t all been great for Carr. When his parents died within six months of each other and pandemic life added other anxieties, he leaned back into his faith community to help with depression. He also still has plenty of support at home in Pierce County.

He remains friends with Kyle Iverson, now an elementary physical education teacher in Puyallup.

“I am not kidding when I say this,” Kyle Iverson said. “Ryan Carr’s story needs to have an autobiography written and then made into a movie. I look up to that guy. He has made it to the top … he has worked hard at every single level that he has been at and I am so proud of him for showing that hard work pays off at the end. He is at the pinnacle right now.”

Or is he? Carr laughs, but can’t comment on what his definition of pinnacle is … perhaps being the general manager for a second edition of the SuperSonics should the NBA grant Seattle another team?

For now, Carr is focused on being a husband to Kim, along with being a dad to 12-year-old Bryn and enjoying the senior year of high school for his twins (Austin and Caitlin) – his most important responsibilities. After a rebuild, Carr has helped Pacers’ President Kevin Pritchard and GM Chad Buchanan build a team that coach Rick Carlisle can take into the playoffs with a chance to win a series or two, maybe more.

Carr said he is content, in all ways, but it’s also clear that he is pretty far from done.

“I still have hope that one day there will be a chance to be a GM of a team,” he said. “I would love to take all the stuff I have learned from all these people and see what I could do with it, but if it never happens … I have one of 30 jobs in the world like this and that’s not lost on me. It’s really hard to explain my life. You’d have to write it in a book, but nobody would believe it.”

Shawn O’Neal is a contributing writer for the Shanaman Sports Museum. A grad of Spanaway Lake High School (1991) and Washington State University, Shawn is a Senior Editor for Lindy’s sports and works for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

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