Tom Friend on George Karl, and Thinking About Referee Conspiracy Theories


Tom Friend has a pretty interesting article about George Karl in the current ESPN magazine. It focuses on George's relationship with his son Coby, who is not only an NBA prospect at Boise State, but is also, like George, a cancer survivor. The whole article is worth the read for insight into one of NBA's more colorful characters.

Here's a little tidbit about growing up the son of an NBA coach, from Karl's Milwaukee days:

One night, Bucks guard Ray Allen teased Coby’s friend Nick Moore for wearing loosefitting plaid pants, prompting Nick to say later, “We should TP Ray Allen’s house.” Boom, George slapped down a $100 bill without a word, and off went Coby, Nick and their pals to buy the Charmin. (“I guess Ray wasn’t D-ing up,” Nick says, “or George thought it was funny.”) The next day, Allen saw Coby and Nick and asked them to find the culprit. “Oh, we will,” they said.

You have to respect Ray Allen on this one, though: loose plaid is just wrong.

Some insight into George Karl's warm and fuzzy parenting (26 moves in 26 years for his family is just one of the indicators in this article that basketball was always George Karl's first priority) from shortly after Coby was diagnosed with thyroid cancer while in college:

Coby wasn’t going to ask him to come; that wasn’t his style. And when Larry Brown called to ask how he was, Coby wanted to say, “Better than you—you’re coaching the Knicks.” The kid didn’t want to be fawned over. But George was squirming down in Denver: I don’t think I can stay with the team. Cancer had grounded him. “I hate to act like I’ve matured, because I hate the word mature, but I’m not the man I used to be,” he says now. He headed to Boise right before Coby’s surgery, last March, and stayed for three days. He’d done it. He’d left his team. The doctors assured him Coby’s prognosis was excellent, but on the day of the operation, George broke down at his son’s bedside. “Stop being a wuss, Dad,” Coby said. “Shut the f— up,” George said. Two peas in a pod.

And finally, I remember being struck while reading Jack McCallum's book about the Suns that it was amazing that, after a blown call or two apparently cost the Suns a game against the big-market Lakers, Steve Nash is quoted asking his own coach if referee conspiracy theories are true.

I remember, as I read that, thinking, wow, if the reigning two-time MVP thinks the referees might be setting it up, then either the NBA has a more profound ref-image problem than it seemed (and it seemed pretty bad), or there really is cause for suspicion of the league rigging games. So often in life, I find the closer people are to the situation, the less they are willing to believe conspiracy theories--because they know the people involved, they have a sense of the nuance involved. They know that 99.99% of people just aren't capable of that kind of deviousness, and when you work with people every day, that is usually clearer than ever (a friend worked in White House in the early 1990s--he always told anyone who would listen that there was no chance big brother was watching us, because those people at the seat of power couldn't even check their e-mail). This Tom Friend article, however, seconds Nash's emotion, with a toss-off comment from another of history's Suns:

Sir Charles’ Suns and George’s Sonics squared off in the 1993 Western Conference finals, and after Barkley shot 22 free throws in a Game 7 win, he consoled George. In the process, he met the kids and Cathy, who said, “C’mon Charles, the league wants you playing Michael in the Finals.” Barkley, who liked the Karl family bluntness, answered, “I know,” and handed his game jersey to Coby.

I'd be interested in some serious polling to see what percentage of NBA players, coaches, executives, and fans really believe referees routinely tinker with games to achieve a desired outcome. If the number showes a reasonably high percentage (say 25% or more) of all those involved think there's a good shot the fix is in, then I'd like to hear from some top PR executives about what the NBA should do to win back the trust. Shouldn't we have some soul searching? Some frank discussion? Perhaps a special independent commission (and, undoubtedly, some teary resignations)? Can't we make officials sit on a podium and, with video rolling, defend their calls and non-calls? Because in an era of sophisticated fans who can read and write their own nuanced research into the topic, I have to believe that the NBA's denials, and general failure to address the topic with any meaningful nuance is hurting the game badly--whether there is any real game rigging or not.