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Rick Carlisle makes an emotional return to Dallas

It was his first game back since leaving the organization last June.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was an emotional night for Rick Carlisle. The former long-time head coach of the Dallas Mavericks returned to the American Airlines Center for the first time after parting ways with the organization last June as the team underwent significant front office changes.

Now with the Indiana Pacers, the Mavericks paid tribute to Carlisle before Saturday’s game. In a lengthy video, the team highlighted Carlisle’s many achievements in Dallas, including coaching the Mavericks to their only NBA Championship. Carlisle was visibly moved–tears streamed down his face–as he watched the video and thanked the fans who gave him a lengthy ovation.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Carlisle said. “The only other time I’ve felt that kind of emotional moment was when we raised the banner for the first game of the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. It was the same kind of feeling, but I was not expecting anything like that. It was a wonderful gesture and much appreciated.”

Carlisle spent 13 years with the Mavericks, after joining the team in May 2008. He holds many coaching records for Dallas that will likely go unchallenged for many years. Carlisle owns the record for most regular-season games coached (1,033) and wins (555).

He also led the Mavericks to nine postseason appearances, two Southwest Division titles, a Western Conference championship, and an NBA championship.

“I was with him my first three years and learned a lot from him,” Luka Doncic said of Carlisle’s return. “So, it was a special moment. The tribute was really special to him, too. You could see it. And he deserves it.”

Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber echoed Doncic’s sentiments.

“The tribute video was very emotional, you could tell,” Maxi Kleber said. “You saw it in his eyes. I think for everyone who played for him, it was an emotional moment. Just seeing what he has accomplished and what he has done for the team is such an amazing story. Seeing it up there on the screen and seeing his reaction was emotional for everyone I think—the fans, the team, for everyone who was a part of that.”

Although the game didn’t go well for the Pacers–Dallas blew out Indiana, 132-105, carried by Doncic’s 30 points and 12 assists–Carlisle took time after the game to hug and embrace many of the Mavericks’ players and coaches that he knew so well.

Upon his departure from Dallas last summer, Carlisle made it clear who he thought should replace him as head coach. He said Jason Kidd was the man for the job. Kidd has turned Dallas into a defensive presence in his half-season at the helm.

“He’s done a tremendous job,” Carlisle said of Kidd. “His history here, as a player who was drafted here, a Hall of Fame player on a championship team here, I know the kind of warrior he is when it comes to winning and how smart he is. They’re a major threat in the West.”

While Carlisle’s Pacers fall in the standings, the Mavericks are looking to return to the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Carlisle took them there the previous two years, and if things stay on track for Kidd, he’ll get them there this year.

During his time in Dallas, Carlisle rarely got emotional. The memories of his time with the organization came pouring out Saturday, however. It’s understandable. He and the Mavericks are linked forever.

“It’s really the combination of over a decade of amazing experiences,” Carlisle said of his emotions. “Some of them were very tough and challenging, other ones very exuberant–periods where it was difficult for extended periods of time during the rebuild and so on. It’s hard to reconcile the whole thing in one moment like that, but it was very nice. I did not anticipate anything quite like that.”