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No Thank You: George Karl's Curious Book Complicates a Complex Legacy

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMarch 6, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach George Karl of the Sacramento Kings reacts during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on December 28, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For a memoir meant to provide answers, former NBA coach George Karl's recent book, Furious George, sure raised a lot of questions.

Such as…

Why didn't one of his NBA confidants caution him about writing a score-settling book if he still entertained hopes of working in the league? 

Or…

Why would someone who beat cancer twice not delve into the subject until the end of the book?

And…

Why would someone who spent close to three decades coaching in the NBA be so willing to alienate people with whom he had bonded?

"The book should read 'Furious George' for the first 10 years and 'Frustrated George' all the time and 'Friendly George' right now," Karl tells B/R.

The book's 368 pages offer a worldview from Karl in all his unique ways—stubborn, arrogant, combative and somewhat hypocritical.

Several of his former players—some mentioned in the book, some not—believe "Frustrated George" wrote it.

"I think George always wanted to do a tell-all book," says former scoring guard Earl Boykins, who played over two full seasons under Karl with the Denver Nuggets. "He loves telling you how great of a coach he is, but he's not widely recognized as one of the greatest coaches. I think he thought, 'This is my way of getting back at all you who didn't recognize me.'"

Boykins cobbled together a 13-year NBA career with 10 different teams despite being 5'5" and 135 pounds. Karl, he says, made it clear he felt he knew more about basketball than anyone playing for, or against, him.

"The biggest difference between other coaches I had and George was his confidence," Boykins says. "He'd tell us all the time, 'If you play the right way for 46 minutes and do what I tell you to do, I can out-coach anyone in the final two minutes."

Boykins, now a high school coach at a town about 30 miles outside of Denver, had a four-year stretch where he averaged between 10 and 14 points a game. Three of those seasons were under Karl—even though the coach planned to ship him out when they first met.

DENVER - OCTOBER 12: Head coach George Karl and Earl Boykins #11 of the Denver Nuggets talk before practice at the Pepsi Center on October 12, 2005 in Denver, Colorado.   NBA TV visited camp to shoot the team's practice for a 2005 Real Traning Camp segmen
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"He said, 'Earl, I'm going to trade you because I don't like small guards,'" Boykins recalls. "But then he said he'd give me a chance to show what I could do. It never bothered me. I never put much stock in what you thought about me. My attitude was, 'Are you going to let me play?' But most players have never been challenged by a coach. Most guys didn't have to overcome what I had to overcome."

Karl wasn't always that direct, says Kendall Gill, who played two seasons for Karl in Seattle. Gill recalls warming up to start a game in Phoenix. When he walked back into the locker room, Karl was standing in front of the white board with the two teams' starting lineups written on it. 

"He just erases my name off the board and puts Nate McMillan at 2-guard," Gill says. "He didn't talk to me; he didn't say why he was doing it."

Gill is among those who found the book hypocritical for its attack of players being more consumed with money than how they played, a point Karl concedes.

"It's difficult to talk about because I'm rich and I'm rich because of basketball," Karl says. "It's crazy. But not talking about it isn't serving the game, either." 

But to hear Gill tell it, it wasn't just players who were preoccupied with getting paid. Gill recalls a conversation with Karl before the No. 1-seeded Sonics lost the final game in a best-of-five first-round series with the eighth-seeded Nuggets:

"I come out to warm up and he says, 'You know what really bothers me, Kendall? That Shaq can lose in the first round and still make $10 million in endorsements.' I was like, 'We're facing elimination and he's worried about Shaq's money?'" 

Unlike Boykins, Gill is mentioned in the book: "[His] joyless approach to basketball drove me crazy. When Kendall said he felt so bad mentally he couldn't play, I was incredulous. He can't play because he's in a bad mood? The team lied and announced that he suffered from migraine headaches. The doctors told us he had clinical depression. What the hell is that? Unfortunately, I was…uninformed about mental illness…Kendall got no sympathy or understanding from me."

BOSTON, MA - 1994: Kendall Gill #13 of the Seattle SuperSonics looks to pass against Dee Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics during a game played circa 1994 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

The report of migraines was not a lie, Gill says:

"I've had cluster headaches since I was eight years old. The weather in Seattle triggered my migraines. I'd have four or five a day when I was in a cycle. I'd be throwing up, passing out." 

Gill has them under control now as a Chicago Bulls TV analyst, he says, but back then the migraines were treated with a combination of ice, oxygen and a drug administered via a shot in the shoulder. The shots were supposed to be limited to two a day, but Gill sometimes gave himself as many as seven hoping to curb the symptoms. After several sleepless nights, he finally took a few days away from the team. 

"George didn't know the details," Gill says.

Despite the misunderstanding—as well as Karl saying Gill "hated me"—Gill says, "George was one of the best coaches I ever played for. He should be in the Hall of Fame. He should've won several championships. His ego gets in the way. Hell of a coach. Questionable person."

Karl's ire is not reserved for players. He also complains in the book that the GMs who employed him didn't always keep him in the loop on pending moves. And perhaps that was by design. Two executives who worked in the league during Karl's tenure say that he had a reputation for not being able to keep a secret.

In the case of his book, however, Karl kept his secrets perhaps too well, declining to disclose the book's contents to any confidants before publication, although several cautioned him when they simply heard he planned to write a book.

DENVER - OCTOBER 12: Earl Watson, Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets listen to head coach George Karl before practice at the Pepsi Center on October 12, 2005 in Denver, Colorado.   NBA TV visited camp to shoot the team's practice for
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"'Are you sure you know what you're doing?'" Karl recalls them saying. "'Are you sure you want to do this?' They were worried about what it might entail, and they were probably more right about it than me."

"Furious George" made an initial splash, in part because of derogatory comments he made about Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and former power forward Kenyon Martin, both of whom played for Karl in Denver. Karl blamed being raised without fathers for their shortcomings as players.  

Kenyon Martin is among a handful of players who felt betrayed by Karl's comments about them in his book.
Kenyon Martin is among a handful of players who felt betrayed by Karl's comments about them in his book.Noah Graham/Getty Images

"I think we did some things poorly and could've written them better," Karl says now. "I said the father rip thing poorly. To bring that topic up and not elaborate on what I was thinking in more detail was shallow on my part."

Those critical of the book have portrayed Karl as simply too irascible and out of touch for the times, a condemnation that another long-time coach, Phil Jackson, also has faced in how he's handled his current role as president of the New York Knicks.

That isn't a function of simply being old. How is it that the approach of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, 68—three years older than Karl, three years younger than Jackson and equally irascible and demanding—is considered as relevant as ever?

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 27: Head Coaches Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, left, and George Karl of the Denver Nuggets greet before their game on March 27, 2013 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Before you chalk it up to San Antonio's consistent title contention, think again. For all the talk of the Spurs being a dynasty, they've won one title in the last nine years. Coaches have been routinely fired of late after 50-win seasons, advancing in the playoffs and earning Coach of the Year awards. Karl wasn't re-signed after a 61-21 season. Jackson was let go a year after guiding the Lakers to the Finals—and his 11 championship rings haven't put him above reproach.

Popovich, meanwhile, is set to succeed Mike Krzyzewski as the U.S. National Team coach—a role that relies on his ability to help entice the league's brightest stars to sacrifice several offseasons for a taxing, ableit patriotic cause. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 2:  Head Coach George Karl of the Denver Nuggets (R) is greeted by Head Coach Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers before their game at Staples Center on February 2, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"At the end of the day, it's about how you make people feel," says Vinny Del Negro, who played for both Karl and Popovich during his 10-year playing career before he, too, became an NBA head coach. "And Pop makes people feel empowered and valued.

"We'd be in a meeting and Pop will ask us questions: 'What's your view on this?' He doesn't have to ask anyone anything. He has the answers. But it's not having an ego. It's thinking, 'Maybe there's another idea out there.' He doesn't think he knows everything. He's always willing to learn." 

A key distinction from Karl, Del Negro notes, is the selfless manner in which Popovich has worked to promote others, within the Spurs or to another organization.

Del Negro, Avery Johnson, Terry Porter, Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Jacque Vaughn, Brett Brown and Steve Kerr all are part of Pop's head-coaching tree. And Dennis Lindsey, Rob Hennigan, Sam Presti, Sean Marks, Danny Ferry and Dell Demps are all present or former GMs who spent formative years in the Spurs' organization. 

Gregg Popovich's willingness to listen to his players has allowed him to adapt to his players' changing styles and needs.
Gregg Popovich's willingness to listen to his players has allowed him to adapt to his players' changing styles and needs.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

"Look at how many lives he's changed, how many people have jobs in the league because of him," Del Negro says.

While Karl has had four former disciples become head coaches—Sam Mitchell, Nate McMillan, Terry Stotts and Dwane Casey—he also has been accused of angling for jobs before they've actually been vacated, a level of self-interest frowned upon within the coaching fraternity.

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 1: Head coach George Karl of the Sacramento Kings speaks with Head coach Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers prior to the ame on March 1, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

In an interview with New York Magazine's David Marchese promoting the book, he also put Stotts, now head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, in a tough spot by speculating the team's struggles this season might be due to a lack of leadership from star point guard Damian Lillard. Karl said he has since texted Stotts but Stotts did not respond.

"He just let it go," Karl says.  

The harsh reactions by Anthony and Martin weren't fueled by Karl's pop psychology alone. A league source says that those two players, in particular, felt betrayed because of their role in having Karl's son, Coby, on the Nuggets at the end of the 2010 season. Then-GM Mark Warkentien suggested to Martin and Anthony, the team leaders, that it would buoy Karl's spirits to have his son on the roster as he fought his second bout with cancer. They agreed and Coby was signed to an unspecified deal in April for the remainder of the season.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21:  Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl (R) playfully greets his son Coby Karl #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers after their game at Staples Center on January 21, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"It's about family at that point," says Martin. "Did we want him on the team? No. Did he deserve to be on the team? No. But we did it for George. It was bigger than basketball."

That summer, Karl received the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPYs, recognizing his fight on behalf of all cancer victims. Martin says he was the only member of the Nuggets organization to attend—and he did so despite wearing a brace after undergoing knee surgery.

"Ain't nobody else supporting you and then you're going to talk about me like that?" Martin asks. 

MILWAUKEE - JANUARY 28:  Head coach George Karl of the Denver Nuggets talks with Kenyon Martin #6 during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center on January 28, 2005 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Nuggets defeated the Bucks 106-100.  NOTE TO
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The two crossed paths again last summer at an annual offseason training camp in Las Vegas run by former Karl assistant Tim Grgurich. They spoke briefly, but there was no mention of the upcoming release of the book.

"I kept it cordial," Martin says. "I had nothing against George personally, but then you show me the other side of you."  

Though a key memory for Martin, Karl's bouts with cancer aren't addressed until page 195 of the 228-page book. He has considered writing a separate book about it.

"If you go off on that subject, I don't think a chapter or even three chapters is enough to explain everything in detail," he says.

Indeed, it is a complicated issue, even for his former players. Boykins remembers one story that didn't make the book. When Coby was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, George approached Boykins, as he knew he had survived the same condition. 

DENVER - APRIL 19:  Head coach George Karl of the Denver Nuggets talks to his teammate Earl Boykins #11 during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 19, 2005 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.  The Nuggets won 119-115. NOTE TO USER: U
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"He came to me on the team plane and told me he was scared and worried," Boykins recalls. "I said, 'George, worrying doesn't change anything.' I told him how I dealt with it. I met with Coby."

Boykins holds no ill will toward Karl, because he never took what he said seriously.

"I always looked at him as an angry old man," Boykins says. "I thought, 'There's no way you can believe the things you're saying.' Anything outside basketball, I always thought he was saying it to get a reaction. A coach develops an environment where he excels best. I think he felt comfortable going back and forth with people."

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 1:  Head Coach Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers and Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs share a laugh before their game at Staples Center on December 1, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  The coaches are
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In contrast, Popovich never works with ulterior motives, according to del Negro:

"Pop is going to sit you down and tell you, 'This is what I see, this is what we expect, this is what we want.' and if you can't accept that, then you're not going to be there very long. He's a great personality reader. He does a great job of knowing what buttons to push."

Despite the fallout, Karl says he is not convinced the book sabotaged his shot at another head-coaching job, and he may be partly right. One owner, on condition of anonymity, said that Karl "had no chance of getting a job before the book. Drama queen."

Meanwhile, Popovich keeps rolling along in San Antonio, adding to his legacy. Should he never write a memoir—and he has been approached plenty of times to do just that—he is sure to be captured in those written by others.

If Boykins is right, that is precisely the recognition Karl hoped to enjoy himself but never did—inspiring him to write a book that may now discourage anyone from giving it to him. Ever. 

     

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.

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