George Karl is one inspirational human being.
As a one-time prostate cancer survivor in 2005, he’s also gone through the battle with the disease with his only son, Coby Karl.
Now, Karl’s old nemesis has come to haunt him once again. Though this time, he was stricken with neck and throat cancer while doing what he loves—coaching basketball.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure to read Rick Reilly’s piece entitled George vs. the Dragon , it’s a very intimate encounter between the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year and one of the NBA’s best coaches.
Karl gave Reilly unprecedented access during a usually completely private personal battle with the disease, and I’ll be using excerpts from that piece as we look into the toughest fight Karl has ever undertaken.
George Karl is entering the fifth week of his six-week cancer treatment, one of the toughest as described by his doctors. Apparently the first three weeks were relatively easy, followed by three difficult weeks of painful treatment, then three to four more weeks of utter exhaustion for the patient/coach.
This is Karl’s Tuesday two weeks ago with Reilly sitting alongside.
We're at Denver 's Swedish Medical Center . The helmet is actually a white, hard-mesh mask that fits to every contour of Karl's big bucket head.
“It makes you a little claustrophobic," the 58-year-old coach tries to say through the mask. "But what are you gonna do? Leave?"
Ordinarily, it’s the pressure from owners and fans to win games and championships that NBA head coaches feel, but Karl is no normal coach. He’s got all that plus the physically demanding and mentally draining radiation therapy as well.
Reilly continues, Suddenly, the huge gray machine whirs like a giant Transformer, turning sideways, first this side, then that, as though it's trying to decide how to eat him. Then it zaps his throat and neck lymph nodes, ravaging them. It gives him a radish-red rash that's covering his face, chest and back. I know. He shows me. He shows me many things I don't want to see. He's doing it because he wants people to know exactly what it's like. Wants to take the fear and mystery out of it for people .
Karl absorbs the machine's worst for 15 minutes every weekday, except on Wednesdays, when he does it for 30.
Then he goes to work.
A noble cause indeed, for a man that’s in such need.
Instead of reverting to a recluse, as many do with such a terrible disease, Karl wants everyone to know exactly what it all entails.
The horrible mouth sores that make his mouth look, …like he just took 100 bites out of a lava-hot pizza slice, and his head throbbing and his eyes hollow… and barely allow him to speak, let alone yell at his team.
We fear what we don’t understand, and Karl is taking some of the unknown out of this awful disease.
According to his hematologist, Dr. David Trevarthen, "On a 1-to-10 scale of the most painful cancer treatments, this is about a nine .”
But Karl won’t let it stop him.
Looking svelte, Karl returned to the Nuggets’ bench on St. Patty’s Day to lead Denver to a win, after missing four straight games due to treatments.
For the boisterous coach, the game was out of the ordinary since he could hardly speak.
Team star Carmelo Anthony said after the contest, “He (Karl) told us before the game he wasn’t going to do too much. He was going to let Adrian Dantley continue to do what he’s doing and he was going to chime in here and there.”
“It’s just good to have him on the sidelines with us. Even though he can’t say much, the message is getting to us.”
How can overpaid athletes with perfect health not give it their fullest effort every time on the hardwood when Karl is laid up in the hospital for daily treatments?
And at the same time, it seems the team he cares about the most is giving him energy and can take his mind off his poor health.
Backup forward Joey Graham explained it best, “He said before the game wins are the best treatment for him. Hopefully we can keep this team rolling and win a championship for him and he'll be completely healed. That's the plan.”
Basketball can be hell on a coach’s body, especially the throat and heart, but it’s turning out to have some positive effects as well.
And winning is what the Nuggets have been doing, going 5-2 in Karl’s absence; it’s a wonder they’ve done so well.
Then again, this Nuggets team has had their character tested and built through many injuries to stars this season. And now, this group of young, unruly, and wildly talented players has been galvanized to win for their “Kipper,” George Karl.
Ty Lawson Returns to Nuggets
George Karl isn’t the only hurting Nugget, although he is obviously in the most severe condition.
Starting power forward Kenyon Martin is currently recovering from Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy, and he is still hoping to return to the Nuggets at some point this season.
Whether that means the regular season or playoffs remains to be seen.
If Martin is back this year at all is still in question, and I’ve heard from an unconfirmed source that this relatively new treatment works 70 percent of the time. Although, a timetable for return is anyone’s guess.
Some good news on the injury front is the return of Ty Lawson in Saturday night’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, after 10 games missed due to a severe shoulder injury. Sure, he didn’t play, but the rookie backup point guard was suited up and available to play.
Then on Sunday night, Lawson tweeted about his Nuggets homecoming. “For the fans that asked me a million times when I'll be bac [sic] in action.... I'm playing next game.”
But his hopes seem to have been dashed as CBSsports.com stated otherwise.
Nuggets’ acting coach Adrian Dantley affirmed as much on their site, saying, “A.C. is a veteran. That’s why, when you have a basketball team, you want to have three guards. Ty got a little bit of action in the beginning. Then Ty got hurt and created an opportunity for A.C. to come in. All the guys know A.C. can play, and he’s contributed since he’s been here.”
So, while Lawson won’t be able to bring his nine points and 3.3 assists per game to Denver’s squad in the near future, it’s likely that the Nuggets’ coaching staff will work to get him in shape in time for the playoffs’ start, just under a month from now.
Despite missing Karl and others, Denver doing well
The Nuggets lost 102-97 to a surging Bucks team that has won 14 of their 17 games since the All Star break. The loss is significant because the Nuggets were on a two game winning streak, and it was their last game in Denver in 12 days as they start a five game road trip Tuesday in New York City.
Despite the loss Saturday, Denver has been stellar since the break as well. At 12-5, including a six game winning streak from March 3-13, the Nuggets have been hanging tough in the second spot in the Western Conference.
With only 12 games remaining in the regular season, playoff seeding is coming into play with every contest and Denver would love to catch LA in the first spot. But since that seems less likely with each game, there are some scenarios that could help the Nuggets.
If Utah (45-25) can take over Dallas (46-24) in third, it would help Denver since they match up better with the Jazz. The Nuggets lead the season series with Utah 3-1, and it seems likely that the Mavs’ improved lineup will benefit them against Denver.
But before anyone can think of playoff games, Denver will get their first chance to take on the new-look Mavericks in their last game of this current road trip.
The five-game roadie tips off in Madison Square Garden Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. MT against the Knicks (25-45). Then, the Nuggets travel to Boston Wednesday, over to struggling Toronto Friday, and a back-to-back against Orlando and Dallas Sunday and Monday.
Overall, the combined record of the teams is good for a 57.5 winning percentage, and this trip will be difficult for Denver, especially without Coach Karl.
Rich Kurtzman is a Colorado State University Communications Alumnus and a freelance journalist. Along with being the Denver Nuggets Featured Columnist here on B/R, Kurtzman is the Denver Broncos FC on NFLTouchdown.com and the Colorado State Rams Examiner on examiner.com.