George Karl is a model of excellence among NBA basketball coaches. He is one of seven NBA coaches to win 1,000 games, and built the Seattle Supersonics, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets into top-flite teams.
Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post writes of the 60-year old cancer survivor that has his priorities in his life in place.
His sweat shirt matched the shade of his hair, systematically grayed over the years by missed jumpers and missed chances, travel and travails, cancer and Carmelo. George Karl is 60. But don't call him a "sexagenarian," because knowing George, he'd either give you that look he gives — the one when his piercing blue eyes makes you feel like a buffoon — or he would fire off a playful pun.
On this March morning, the Nuggets coach sat in his staff meeting at the Pepsi Center, where that evening his team would host Detroit, which is a bad basketball team. Karl has been doing this head coaching thing since 1984. But this morning, when a guest entered the room and asked the obligatory how-are-you question, Karl answered honestly: "Scared to death. Normal procedure."
The passion Karl pours into basketball is comparable to that of a classical composer, maniacally trying to out-Mozart Mozart. He is one of seven NBA coaches to win 1,000 games. And he's done so recently with an infectious personality, one that has fine-wined from bombastic to lovable. But this season has been wearing on the city's longest-tenured pro coach. His Nuggets, after a fast start, are battling for their playoff lives with two weeks to go, a team plagued by injuries and inconsistent play.
"It's been a hard year. I would phrase it close to ugly sometimes," Karl told The Denver Post this past week. "There are disappointments, there are failures, but there have also been some special games and special moments too. It's a balancing act. I always talk about good-bad players — I think I've been a good-bad coach a little bit this year.
"I stay away from the excuses and the rationalizations, but I get disappointed when I don't think I pushed the right buttons. As a coach, you're always looking for that sunrise, where everything is going to be better. This year, it doesn't seem like the sun has come up — we've been in Seattle, it's been cloudy."
In the mist, he looks at life through a lens focused by decades of coaching, glass sharpened by the perspective one gets when you beat cancer, twice.
"Staying healthy and my family, I think I'm pretty clear that those are the top two in my life and basketball might be No. 3," he said.
The survivor of throat cancer (three years this summer) has a zest. He philosophizes about karma and energy and those all-powerful basketball gods who watch from above with orange rims as halos.
He sometimes wears soccer jerseys to basketball practice. He challenges his players to half-court shot competitions after shootarounds. He overlooks common statistics and obsesses about intangibles such as "play-hard" and "team-ness," words he's invented. He can be found in the arena chit-chatting with anyone from a fan in the hallway to a Hall of Famer.
And he'll famously converse with the media, off the record, for minutes following a news conference, debating political issues and cracking jokes, all to the point that a radio host sarcastically joked last week, "Yeah, I had the same types of talks with Josh McDaniels too."
Ruler with a gentle fist
The boys were at B.B. King's in Memphis, on Beale Street, where talented local musicians appease the tourists with their effortless soulful sound. The sax caught Karl's ear. It reminded him of "Tossin' And Turnin', " the Bobby Lewis hit from 1961, when Karl was 10. Playfully, Karl said he wanted to hear the song, surely they'd know the song, it's a great song!
"But those musicians up there were born in like 1989," said Jason Kosmicki, the Nuggets' radio broadcaster and a friend of Karl's, who was at the table. "I went up to see if they knew it for George, and the guy looked at me like I had five heads. But that's the fun part about George."
When Karl is with Nuggets staffers, he's the boss, but he's also one of the boys. He loves holding court, off the court. He talks trash about his Pittsburgh Steelers (not so much about his Pittsburgh Pirates). He has nicknames for everyone ("Pretty Boy" for assistant coach Chad Iske, "Redneck" for longtime trainer Jim Gillen, "Pain In The (Backside)" for his favorite reporter). And no matter what the topic of conversation, he has an opinion, he will share that opinion and that opinion will soon become the prominent opinion.
Daughter Kaci Grace is closer to Nuggets coach George Karl's heart than any win on the basketball court or cheer from the crowd. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)no matter what the topic of conversation, he has an opinion, he will share that opinion and that opinion will soon become the prominent opinion.
"He's a little bit of a renaissance man," Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt said. "I had a coach in college, Gene Iba, brilliant guy. We used to say — this dude knows a little bit about everything. We had a running joke about Mongolian bullfrogs. We were going to come to him and say, 'Coach, I'm doing a report about Mongolian bullfrogs,' and we envisioned him saying, 'Well, I'm glad you asked!' George knows a lot, he's experienced a lot, and as a staff, we all tap into George the man in a lot of different ways.
"We'll be talking about basketball and George will bring up his days in the CBA. And before you know it, somehow, we're talking about Yakima, Wash., and he's giving us insight: 'They have great cabins there. And a bed and breakfast!' "
Unlike many NBA coaching staffs, Denver's isn't made up of NBA millionaires. In fact, only one assistant coach, Ryan Bowen, played in the league. At the Pepsi Center, they joke that they have the shortest coaching staff in the NBA. The team doesn't have a huge budget for assistant coaches, so Karl grooms young coaches as well as young players.
"With George, I always say it's kind of a father-son relationship, as far as coaching goes," Iske said. "He allows good give-and-take. He's going to give you a lot of crap, but you can give him a lot of crap. If he doesn't give you crap or rip on you, then you need to worry. It's his way of showing appreciation and affection, ribbing, hitting, being a guy's guy.
"There's a lot I get away with, being able to say, that most coaches would put me in my place or knock me down a rung, if I tried to do that with them."
Nuggets assistants who have been on other staffs say that Karl's daily coaches meetings are different. It's a democracy. On that March morning before the Detroit game, the meeting was more of a dialogue, like friends at a restaurant chatting, with Karl puncturing the conversation with questions to channel the conversation:
• "How do we polish up our sloppiness without practice time and with people who play like they sometimes don't know each other?"
• "Who should start at center?"
• "How do we keep Tayshaun Prince's smarts out of the game?"
"He invites our opinions," Hunt said. "He'll go to the assistant video guy and ask, 'What do you see?' And now that video guy, he's now not just preparing a tape for one of the coaches or players — he's really watching, because if he sees something he thinks can help us win, it will be welcomed. I think it helps everybody want to do their job. Now you're not just punching the clock. You're now pouring yourself into your work. And he likes that."
When Hunt joined the staff two seasons ago, he came expecting to work for "Furious George," the coach who turned the Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks into top teams with his fiery dictatorial style. Hunt has seen little of that. Karl will playfully poke fun at, say, Ty Lawson during halftime, describing how elder reserve Andre Miller is outplaying the third-year point guard.
"He'll pump both of them up at the same time," Hunt said. "He uses everything in his tool kit. And I know the guys appreciate it, because they know he cares about them."
Staying in game, with edge
There are times when Karl's 7-year-old daughter, Kaci Grace, cries when he leaves for a road trip, saying between sobs, "I hate your job." Coaching is never a 9-to-5 job. But in recent years, Karl has proudly prioritized his life.
"I try not to put basketball ahead of my family ever now," he said. "I'm sure they still think I do sometimes. ... But when I'm at home, I try to stay grounded. When I go home, I don't do basketball from 2:30 to 8 p.m. Then I'll start with film and game preparation."
In the time between, he'll find himself at a family dinner or on a soccer sideline or at gymnastics class, watching Kaci grow.
Asked if his medical scares gave him this perspective, the coach said: "No question. There's no question. There's a point where I get too wild and crazy and I'll say, 'It's silly.' It's silly to make yourself sick or feel unhealthy because of the game of basketball, which I did many times before."
Karl's trust in his staff, he said, helps him balance his life. He has said he wants to keep coaching until his son Coby, a pro basketball player overseas, can join his staff as an assistant. Karl signed a three-year extension last spring. The front office supports him. And he adores most everything that is Denver and Nuggets, even during a season that has tested his patience.
"I don't foresee me getting out of it, as long as I feel I have an edge to be a good coach," Karl said. "To be honest with you, I think my edge is a higher standard than most coaches in this league. I tell my staff all the time — I'm not happy just being good. ... I still think I'm a person who needs to get better every day. One of my philosophies is — have a peace to what you've done and challenge yourself to be better in the future.
"My life is, come on, I can't complain about my life. I can complain about my health, but not my life. It's how do I take the next hours, days, months, years and make them special?"