George Karl is one of the most interesting personalities and endearing figures in the world of professional sports.
He’s funny in the face of adversity, he’s an incredible leader and juggler of NBA egos—Karl is a fighter, a warrior and a survivor.
Karl’s basketball history dates back almost as long as his 59 years on the Earth.
In 1969, when he was 18 years old, Karl moved from Penn Hills (Pennsylvania) to Chapel Hill (North Carolina) to play for the Tar Heels for four years. While there, he enjoyed success as the team won the 1971 NIT and made it to 1972's Final Four in the NCAA Championship.
In 1973, he was drafted in both the NBA and ABA, but opted to go to the ABA’s San Antonio Spurs, playing guard for a total of six seasons. For a backup baller, Karl was a good passer and hustled well on defense and the boards. A look at his career playing stats.
Then, in 1978 Karl scooted down the Spurs bench in his first coaching role, as an assistant at age 27. His first head coaching gig was with the Nuggets, the CBA’s Montana Golden Nuggets, where he would be the CBA Coach of the Year in ‘81 and ’83.
In 1984, Karl got first NBA head coaching gig, in Cleveland, and he took the Cavaliers to the playoffs in 1985. In ’86, he led the Golden State Warriors to their first playoff appearance in a decade and stayed there through 1988.
For the next four years he bounced back and forth from being the head man of the CBA’s Albany Patroons and Spain’s Real Madrid, including winning CBA Coach of the Year once again in 1991 after the Patroons went 50-6, winning all 28 home games.
The wonderful coaching was enough to get Karl back into the NBA, and he was arguably one of the top coaches in the Association during his seven-year stint with the Seattle SuperSonics. Karl’s Sonics, with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, were three-time Pacific Division champions and made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 1996 before losing to Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson’s Bulls dynasty of the 90s.
From 1998-2003, Karl was coaching in Milwaukee rebuilding a terrible team, and their 2001 squad came within one game of making it to the NBA Finals for the second time in his coaching career. After coaching the 2002 FIBA World Championships team for the USA, he took two years off.
But Karl couldn’t stay away for long, and he moved to the Mile High City in 2004, enjoying much success during his tenure with the Nuggets. He’s led Denver’s team to wins nearly two-thirds of the time (61.9 percent 292-472), including three division titles and six straight years of playoff appearances and 50 wins.
Tonight’s win is a major milestone—1,000 in all—it may not be the biggest of his career, but he does find himself in elite coaching company.
Karl is only the seventh NBA coach all time to reach into quadruple digits in the W column, joining Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, Pat Riley and Jerry Sloan.
Postgame, Karl described how he felt about the win in an interview where he looked somewhat emotional—mostly joyful and relieved.
“Well my reflections are basically back to my dad, my mom, grandma and grandpa, the people that got me into the business of being a competitor. And it’s a dream, it’s a dream that doesn’t come true very often. I never even dreamt it but it’s here and I’m very proud of the people I’ve been around in the North Carolina tradition. Being from Penn Hills, Pennsylvania guys like Donnie Wilson and Arnie Barr who spent many nights shooting jump shots with me. It’s just a lot of great memories and I’m just glad at the Nuggets organization that have given me the opportunity.
“I mean once you’ve been in it for a long time it’s got to be more about wins or losses.
“I’ve always said that friendships in sport are stronger that friendships in real life. Why I say that I don’t know but I really kind of believe that. Some of the player friendships are unbelievable; some of the coaching friendships are unbelievable. And I have to give it to Harry Welton for having the guts to hire me when I was 32 years old.”
And while coaching is inherently a results-oriented business, George Karl is much more than just statistics on paper.
Karl is funny, with a wit sharper than a tack.
When once asked, “What’s better, sex or winning an NBA game” Karl quipped, “You can’t win twice in one night.”
Karl is courageous.
Most NBA fans know about Karl’s most recent bout with neck and throat cancer, but not everyone knows he also battled prostate cancer in 2005 and that his son went through his own bout with thyroid cancer in 2006.
He was awarded the Jimmy V Perseverance award five months ago during the ESPY’s, in a fitting, tearful and moving speech that moves even the most passive viewer of sports.
Karl is humble.
He wanted to get the 1,000th victory out of the way as to not be a distraction to the team.
Before tonight’s game he said, “For me, I don’t like the spotlight on me, I like it on my team. I think there’s a justification for the spotlight to be on me. But yeah, it’s (been) way too long and we want to play NBA basketball.”
Karl is a players’ coach, a man’s man.
Before the current road trip he commented, "I would probably like it in Charlotte and get it over with and have some beers and keep our momentum going in a good direction.”
He’s the kind of coach that players should be comfortable popping a few bottles with, and he’s a person that would be truly interesting to share beers and stories with.
Karl’s a basketball purist—who learned about the game from the late Dean Smith in the 70s—who understands the game and the desire of players to simply go play.
He’s respected by players because Karl gives them a healthy amount of freedom on the court and he shows them respect back when they earn it.
He’s also respected by fellow coaches as one of the best in his profession.
The respect comes from his love of the game, his desire to teach how to play it the right way and to teach the life lessons that come with the lessons of basketball.
And in the end, George Karl should be regarded as just that—one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time.
But what makes Karl one of the greats?
His work ethic is second to none.
The man “coached” from home only days after being allowed out of his hospital bed and into his bed at home last April.
He can juggle superstar egos—those of players a third his age—with the best of them, and he’s done it with great success.
His strategy is simple but effective—let the players do what they do best and play while he reins them in playing and ego-wise.
Fittingly, on this night, it was Karl’s coaching that won the game for Denver.
As the Nuggets led in a close offensive clinic being put on by both Denver and Toronto, Karl pushed and willed his team to play some defense, and there were some signs of improved play by the team to end the first half. To wit, the Nuggets finished with the first half with a 15-4 run.
Then, in the second half Denver went on a 9-2 run, creating a comfortable lead that they coasted on until the final minute.
And the Nuggets didn’t let the win in Toronto (eerily the same place he won his 900th) come easy, as Karl was forced to call a timeout with 23.5 seconds left. He looked exacerbated but could finally breathe easy as Denver sealed the deal with the 123-116 victory.
Fellow 1,000 win club member and friend Larry Brown said of Karl three days ago, “He’s a terrific coach. His background has been pretty awesome, being coached by Mr. (Dean) Smith. I think he’s going to win a lot more games before he hangs it up.”
For the good of the Nuggets and the NBA in general, let’s hope Karl does continue coaching and maybe one day he’ll finally reach the lofty NBA Championship goal.
Either way, George Karl the man, the myth, the legend—deserves to one day be in the Hall of Fame—both in basketball and in life for simply being a wonderful human being.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being the Denver Nuggets and Denver Broncos Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com, Kurtzman is the CSU Rams Examiner, Colorado/Utah Regional Correspondent for stadiumjourney.com and a weekly contributor to milehighhoops.com.
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