Another incarnation, another George Karl
The latest coaching incarnation of George Karl is becoming another must-see story. Denver is 21-6 since he replaced interim coach Michael Cooper.
Seattle Times staff columnist
PHOENIX — When George Karl took over the Denver Nuggets, he found a team that had lost its way, lost its will. The Nuggets weren't enjoying basketball. The games had become chores.
In late January, back in Milwaukee, which was the last entry in Karl's basketball résumé, he prepared to address his new players before the first game they would play under him.
He wanted to tell them about his history with Milwaukee. Tell them how poorly it ended for him. How disappointing it had been and how much he wanted to beat the Bucks.
"You know," he said this week, "give them a 'Win it for The Gipper' kind of speech because I had coached there."
But in the locker room, before the game, he looked at his players and saw nothing. No fire. No excitement. It looked to Karl as if the team had been numbed by all the losing.
"They looked so miserable, and so my whole talk was on the game being so much fun," said Karl, as he sat in the lobby at the Ritz-Carlton surrounded by friends and his daughter, Kelcie. "I told them, 'You guys have to get this cloud out of here. Y'all have it. You choose to make it miserable.' Then we were down double digits in the fourth quarter, and we come back and win it. What a story."
The latest coaching incarnation of George Karl is becoming another must-see story. Though the Nuggets lost 123-114 last night to the Phoenix Suns, a potential first-round playoff opponent, Denver is 21-6 since he replaced interim coach Michael Cooper.
Karl even orchestrated his premature exit last night, getting a pair of technicals with 42 seconds to play, the second after he walked into the paint to perform a mini-Lou Piniella on official Rodney Mott, giving us just a glimpse of vintage Karl.
"Somebody should have filmed me my first few days here," said Karl, who had been working as an analyst for ESPN after leaving the Bucks after the 2003 season. "My voice was cracking. It was giggly. I had a team that was down and depressed and miserable, and they couldn't bring me down, man.
"There was no way. I just kept telling myself, 'I get to go in the gym and coach basketball. And all my stories are new.' It was so incredibly bouncy."
Similar to the way he did it in Seattle, Karl is working at making the game fun again. The results are in the numbers.
"There are a lot of similarities," said Karl, who led the Sonics to a 27-15 finish after inheriting a 20-20 team in 1992. "Athletic. Young players. Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton in Seattle. Carmelo Anthony here. Good veterans. I had Nate McMillan there and I have Andre Miller here. My first three games here, Andre Miller coached the offense. We looked like a basketball team not because of me. He was making the calls.
Karl left Milwaukee feeling bitter. Feeling let down. He never found a way to communicate with Anthony Mason. Mason, not Karl, became the dominating personality on the team. Mason helped erode Karl's control. And, as the season dragged on, Karl began to feel lonelier and lonelier.
"In the late 1970s, I interviewed with (Portland coach) Jack Ramsay for an assistant's job," Karl said. "He told me, 'Being a head coach is a very lonely business.'
"I didn't know what he meant. I thought that being a head coach, you had this huge basketball family. You have 12-13 players, five assistant coaches, equipment managers, film guys, trainers. You have like 30 people.
"But Jack said, 'Every game you coach, you're by yourself.' And I think that time, when the team started disintegrating in Milwaukee, that was a very lonely time. It seemed to me like a lot of people abandoned me."
Karl was making $7 million. He was the highest-paid coach in all of pro sports. But his team was playing .500 basketball, and the game he loved to coach began to torture him.
"I don't think winning half your games is a bad year, but it's a bad year for a $7 million coach," Karl said. "When you become the highest-paid coach in pro sports, you can't win, unless you win everything.
"But when the only support you get is your paycheck? Come on, that doesn't turn George Karl on. That's not me. And for people around the nation to label you a money guy. I mean, I've got three friends and every time they see me they ask, 'Is there anything on your body that you paid for?' "
Some portions of Karl's personality are beyond change.
But even after head-coaching stops in Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle and Milwaukee, he remains a work in progress.
One major change, Karl said, he owes to his son Coby, who recently finished his sophomore year playing point guard at Boise State. Karl bought a condo in Boise, and before he took the Nuggets job he watched almost three-quarters of Coby's games in person.
"When I was out of basketball, there was a side of me where the passion to get back in coaching started growing again," Karl said. "But there were a lot of nights when I walked out of the arena after doing a game for ESPN, happy that I wasn't back in there. Happy that I didn't have to take what we did there back home with me.
"But the difference was Coby. The freedom to love the sport through your son. It opened up my head. It cleared my soul just to sit there and watch him play. It felt so free to share that deep father-son bonding love with the game that you love. I don't think I will ever be a grounded coach. The games are important to me. But watching Coby makes me realize that there are a lot of things more important."
The evolution of George Karl continues.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
email@example.com | 206-464-2176
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