As the seconds wound down at the Air Canada Centre Friday night George Karl was the center of attention. As players celebrated around him an emotional and humble Karl spoke about those people in his life who played a role in molding him into the successful and greatly respected coach who just earned career win number 1,000.
There are only six other members of the 1,000 win club, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson and Larry Brown. We know all of these coaches well as all of them are either active or relatively recent retirees.
Most of them are easy to classify in my mind. Despite his championship pedigree in Boston, the beer swilling Don Nelson would be the black sheep. Lenny Wilkens is the Hall of Fame all-American boy next door whose unassuming ways made him easy to brush past. Jerry Sloan is the grunt who works the trenches without recognition. Larry Brown is the drifter who loved to show up, teach the game and leave before expectations great too great. Pat Riley is the demanding brash general who does not worry about the attrition his tactics may leave in his wake. Phil Jackson is the slightly off kilter leader. He may appear to have more in common with the crazy guy who you see talking to himself on the street, but as strange as his ways may be, they almost always hit the mark.
Then there is George Karl who is probably the most fascinating of them all. Karl played his college ball under one of the great college coaches of all time at North Carolina, the incomparable Dean Smith. He was not an All-American like Wilkens, Riley, Nelson or Sloan, but was a good player who did earn a spot on the roster of the San Antonio Spurs after being drafted by the New York Knicks and the Memphis Tams. Karl had an unimpressive five year professional career with the Spurs. However, he was a good rotation player and the Spurs made the playoffs each of his five seasons.
After his days as a player ended courtesy of a blown knee he embarked on a one of a kind coaching career that would take him across the Atlantic and back, he would coach some great players and also face his own mortality not, once, but four times, twice for himself and twice with his son.
His first head coaching position came in the Continental Basketball Association, a league Karl would get to know very well in the 1980’s and early 1990’s thanks to three separate stints as head coach in the CBA with a trip to Spain as coach of Real Madrid sandwiched in between. Karl did get his first NBA job coaching for the Cleveland Cavaliers who as in his first season in Denver rode a strong finish to push a team who started out 2-19 into the playoffs. The Cavs failed to build on their strong finish in the next season. He then moved onto the Golden State Warriors where he was also able to take the team into the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Once again after a promising start Karl did not make it through his second season this team quitting when the team suffered because of some poor decisions by the front office.
Surprisingly enough, Karl did not break into the NBA for good until 1991 when he was hired to coach the Seattle Supersonics. He would lead the Sonics to over 60 wins during three of his six full seasons in Seattle, but the Sonics never won a title and Karl was dismissed despite winning 61 games in 1997-98. The coach would move on to Milwaukee where he would bring the Bucks to the brink of the NBA finals only to lose in the seventh game of the conference finals to MVP Allen Iverson who was at the peak of his prowess.
He would go on coach the 2002 World Championship team which would be the first to suffer a loss while using NBAS players. Back in Milwaukee the Bucks would never again reach the heights they did in 2001 and thanks in part to feuding in the media with his players Karl was fired. It was clear to everyone that George was a tremendous coach, but sooner or later his competitive nature tended to get him into trouble.
George was out of basketball when the Nuggets underachieved to start the 2004-05 season and it became painfully clear Michael Cooper was not the answer, Stan Kroenke reached out to a man who he had known up until then as only a business partner. The result was George Karl became the new coach of the Denver Nuggets. He wasted little time making sure young star in the making knew what was expected of him and it was only a matter of time before the team responded and ripped off an incredible 24-2 run after the All-Star break.
It was soon after that Karl entered his first bout with cancer. The battle with the disease helped him refocus his life and helped him become even more dedicated to his family. The disease prompted good changes in his personal life as his bout with prostate cancer was successful. The real blow came when Coby was found to have thyroid cancer. While his own fight with the disease helped him reprioritize his life, his son’s experience seemed to remove the passion George felt for basketball, and understandably so. Karl seemed to be a far cry from the old Furious George who used to stalk the sideline. He was criticized for not arguing with the referees enough or being tough enough on his players as it appeared the inmates were running the asylum.
As time passed, Karl seemed to find a healthy balance between caring enough on the court and not caring too much. His passion appeared to return, largely thanks to the trade of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups. Karl was once again coaching with purpose and he helped build the Nuggets into a contender. After a trip to the conference finals Denver was poised to challenge the Lakers for Western Conference supremacy in 2010 when Karl announced he was once again facing a battle with cancer.
His announcement proved to end any chance the Nuggets had of achieving their potential as a team as he endured an even more physical draining face off with throat and neck cancer. Once again he proved to be a fighter and a survivor.
Through it all, Karl has showed significant growth as a coach and a human. He loves the game and cherishes every moment he has with it. You can see the appreciation he has for his accomplishment, yet it is also a sign of growth. An interview in 5280 magazine article recounts how Karl would get faxes from Dean Smith pointing out his use of “I” and “me” should be “we”. I will admit early in his time in Denver I recall hearing Karl talk about “my team” and it always irked me.
You will not find any talk like that come out of George’s mouth anymore. The number one topic he wanted to talk about leading up to his 1,000th career victory was how he very much wanted to get the win so the focus could go from him to his team.
The number one criticism of Karl is he has never coached a team to a championship. He has coached tremendous teams and special players, but come playoff time things simply never worked out in favor of Coach Karl and his teams.
One frequent argument amongst basketball aficionados is whether or not a player had to win a ring in order to be considered great. The same argument is held about coaches. No, George Karl is yet to win a ring, hopefully he will someday soon whether it is with the Nuggets or somewhere else. However, the road he has traveled has made him someone I deeply respect and even if that title never does come to fruition, George Karl has become a coach I believe any player should be happy to take the court for. His experiences have made him a wise and open individual who is ready to share what he has to help others, on the court and off.
This post reads a bit like a career obituary and that is certainly not the case. Karl still has a great deal to give to basketball. His story bears repeating because in 1991 when he was hired to coach the Sonics, no one would have imagined he would become only the seventh coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games. His journey of struggle, failure, redemption and ultimately triumph is one we should all look to for encouragement and hope.
Congratulations Coach Karl. May you live a long and fulfilling life and may another 1,000 wins await you.
Here is George’s interview with Scott Hastings of Altitude immediately following the game.
Ryan McNeill over at Hoops Addict was kind enough to send along video of George Karl meeting with the media after the game and he also has footage of his interviews with some of the Nuggets players to get their reaction. A big thank you to Ryan for passing along those links.
Andrew over at Denver Stiffs has a very interesting one on one interview with Coach Karl that you should read. I think this is one of the most amazing blogging stories out there. A fan starts a website dedicated to having the coach fired and now two or three years later the two are friends.