X

Marriage of George Karl, Kings a Union of Necessity, Even If Rocky Times Await

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterFebruary 23, 2015

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Once viewed as a conquering hero, the macho man is now a caricature.

Hunting and gathering is only for simpletons. The sweet spot has rightly shifted and settled into a heartfelt place where men should be in touch with their feelings, because there is indeed much more to life than getting a job done.

So it comes to pass that a man such as George Karl—with all that he has accomplished and earned as a basketball coach, twice having fought back cancer with the support of his longtime girlfriend and their 10-year-old daughter—is seen as a rather odd duck for wanting to work again at 63.

He could take it easier and live stress-free, be a better partner and father than he was before and color outside the lines of his rigidly scheduled basketball world.

He could, sure.

But there's something to be said for someone who knows his true self, someone who understands that he is drawn to work because it is at the crux of his existence. He can find other joys in life with his heart, no doubt, but he is happiest when he is working, building and mastering his craft.

Back in business as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings, Karl stood there Saturday night at Staples Center.

He was back on the carousel, the second night of a back-to-back set, in the arena where he brushed against his latest glory with the Denver Nuggets in their 2009 Western Conference Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Karl paused in the hallway before this game against the Los Angeles Clippers and just savored being back on the road and in this building where he'd labored so often. He stood on the sidelines for the majority of a solid first quarter against the Clippers and was still up and leaning against the scorer's table through garbage time in the fourth, when the Kings were nearly down by 30.

Feb 20, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl looks on during the fourth quarter of the game against the Boston Celtics at Sleep Train Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated the Boston Celtics 109-101. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szcze
USA TODAY Sports

The game, unlike Karl's inspiring debut Friday night in a home victory over the Boston Celtics, made clear some of the epic challenges he will face—with DeMarcus Cousins' unfocused and downright surly demeanor on full display.

Sure, Karl saved his one moment barking at referee Tre Maddox for the very time when Cousins walked past Karl. But Karl's brief hand gesture requesting Cousins play through the distractions represented the way the coach really feels.

After the 126-99 Clippers romp was official, Karl didn't reference his All-Star's name but did mention to reporters how the Kings' "frustrated" attitude had encompassed too much.

"It's a personality we've got to fight through," he said.

Karl was candid about the selfish, disconnected play he saw from players "thirsty" to get their own. He mused aloud, "How do we get our assist-to-turnover ratio to pro level?"

And when he spoke of the defensive disasters there had been, he still smiled.

He was back in his office, with a lot of work to do. He knew it. He was happy about it.

His family, the people he admits were his "angels" as he battled cancer, had grown annoyed with him around the house so much as his year-and-a-half NBA hiatus continued. He missed "the gym," and they all understood its pull on him.

Upon finally getting back in "the gym" with Sacramento, there was no doubt about how much returning to the sneaker squeaks and team dynamics meant to him.

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 20: Head coach George Karl of the Sacramento Kings gets a hug from a young fan prior to the start of the game against the Boston Celtics at Sleep Train Arena on February 20, 2015 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

"I don't think I have ever been that nervous for a practice in my life," Karl said.

The man loves to work, and there should be no shame in today's world being a man who loves to work.

There's a reason the oh-so-wise-and-worldly Phil Jackson keeps coming back to basketball, this very masculine corner of the world where he can be who he is most comfortable being. Jackson, now trying to be an executive in New York in a move that meant leaving fiancee Jeanie Buss behind in Los Angeles, hired as Knicks head coach a just-retired player named Derek Fisher who once insisted he was looking forward to an 18-year playing career ending and time with his wife and kids at home before embarking on his next venture.

This latest attempt with Sacramento means Karl, with 1,132 all-time NBA coaching victories, will soon pass Jackson (1,155) to rank among the top five winningest coaches in league history. Karl acknowledges he remains driven by never having won an NBA championship—denied with Seattle by Jackson's Chicago Bulls in 1996 and stopped with Denver by Jackson's Lakers in those 2009 West Finals.

Sure, there is some ego in this. There usually is with men deeply committed to their careers.

What is leading this charge, however, is Karl's belief that this is simply what he does.

"I finished [in Denver in 2012-13] as Coach of the Year," he said. "I was so excited with the things we were doing on the court, I had to get back and see if we could make it better."

Karl, who played basketball at the University of North Carolina, attended the Feb. 12 private memorial service for Dean Smith. Karl hadn't secured the Kings job then, but time after time, the tributes to Smith that day reinforced how well he taught his players to do things "the right way."

Never an NBA champion and never so revered anywhere as Smith was in Chapel Hill, Karl nevertheless has proved himself a legend in this field.

"Everybody in the locker room knows Coach's record," said Cousins, on record about his loyalty first to Michael Malone and then Tyrone Corbin as Kings head coaches this season but now a believer Karl might offer more.

The understanding was clear after Cousins and Karl's first loss together Saturday night. As is often the case when a player and coach are on the same page, the player will regurgitate to the media whatever postgame message the coach has just issued in the locker room. In this case, Cousins kept using the word—"habits"—that Karl underscored to convey how losing breeds more losing.

OAKLAN, CA - 1996: Gary Payton #20 talks with Seattle Supersonics head coach George Karl against the Golden State Warriors circa 1996 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Karl brims with pride at how he sparred with a young, volatile Gary Payton in Seattle, but they won together and Payton became one of Karl's best friends. The dream of likewise connecting with Cousins in Sacramento is irresistible to Karl.

Teaching other men the "right way" is what Karl yearns to do, and he's very good at it.

It's not so socially acceptable these days to articulate the depths to which Karl is motivated to do his job well, what with his Twitter campaigning and the sense that why, after all he's accomplished, would he take over a team that hasn't made the playoffs in nine seasons?

But it's not just a job.

It's more than a career.

This is Karl's calling.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.