Commentary

Stay calm and coach 'em up

Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl lets go and learns the power of trust

Originally Published: April 30, 2013
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

George Karl Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAfter 25 seasons as an NBA head coach and two bouts of cancer, George Karl has finally found peace.

George Karl's office is the space of a man with a lot going on. Cluttered, not messy. The important stuff is where it should be. A picture of Karl and his son Coby hangs on one wall. A photo of his youngest daughter, Kaci, is above his desk.

Karl is 50 pounds lighter now than he was when the picture with Coby was taken. His gut is noticeably smaller. So is his neck, when he's not wearing a mock-turtleneck that covers up the damage left by radiation treatments for neck and throat cancer in 2010.

He doesn't read the kind of things you expect him to. There are basketball books in his office, sure. But there's also "The Happiness Advantage" and "The Biology of Belief." Karl loves books like this. Things that make him think and get his mind bouncing all over, connecting thoughts and ideas in new ways, making the world look just a little bit different than before. People, players, ideas, books, basketball. He loves anything that does that.

The brain-teaser on this Monday morning, and for the rest of the Denver Nuggets' first-round playoff series, is to try to guess how the Golden State Warriors will play without athletic power forward David Lee for the rest of the playoffs after he suffered a torn hip flexor in Game 1.

It was a heartbreaking injury. Lee is a good player and an even better guy. A man of faith and character who waited eight years to play in his first playoff game, only to see it all end after just 29 minutes.

Karl feels for him. He has been there, too. Bad things happen sometimes, the game humbles you, life tests you. You move on and past it. Which is exactly what the Warriors ended up doing, rallying around young guard Stephen Curry to win three straight games since Lee was injured. They've gone big, with center Andrew Bogut and forwards Carl Landry or Festus Ezeli. They've gone small, with Jarrett Jack as a third guard and Harrison Barnes at power forward. But mostly they've leaned on Curry, who has been transcendent in this series.

Now the pressure is on Karl and his third-seeded Nuggets as they face elimination in Game 5 Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center.

"Deep down inside, philosophically, I like having speed and quickness on my side," Karl explains. "Now they're going to add a position [power forward] where they might have speed and quickness on their side.

"Do I play with the same guys that we played? Or do we try to match?"

Years ago, these questions would have tortured him. He'd have worn everybody out trying to come up with solutions and adjustments. His angst palpable to his team, his grip on everything tightening.

It's part of what made him great. The intensity, the intelligence, the fire and the passion. "Furious George," they called him. Affectionately, most of the time.

It's also part of what made him sick. Not the cancer, per se, although Karl believes all that stress contributed to it. Just sick. Unhealthy, nervous, emotional and paranoid.

But on this day, the morning after Denver's Game 1 victory, he seems lighter. The flatscreen TV in his office is tuned to the X Games Foz do Iguaçu, in Brazil. He eats chips and freshly made guacamole as a skateboarder flies around an obstacle course.

"This is what I don't get," Karl says. "I went into the locker room yesterday and three of my players are watching this skateboard stuff. What in the hell is it? Why? … But I guess they have boards, too. Longboards."

He's about to say more, but doesn't. It's not important. None of his players are out riding those longboards right now. No one is falling off and getting hurt during these playoffs.

When people ask how Karl is different now, how surviving two bouts of cancer have changed him, or what all the ups and downs in his remarkable coaching career taught him, you point to moments like this, when he shoos away a negative thought before it has a chance to rattle around in his guts and take him down the rabbit hole.

"I think I give my mind more space to think the right way now than I did then," Karl says. "My ego and my anger and my hatred for losing, that possesses you and doesn't allow your brain to function in a correct manner."

There are still vestiges of the old George. Quirky things, like how he hangs his suits up after games, puts a box score in one pocket and his game tie in the other.

"I pull out the stat sheet later, and if it's a loss I throw the tie away," he says, laughing at himself.

"There's some superstition there, but it's more that I like the tradition. I like taking the walk after shootaround when I'm on the road. I like to take my nap.

"I used to have these little sayings -- just things that fell into my life along the way -- during the playoffs."

He hasn't done that this year, he says. Nothing has popped into his head.

"Except for one thing," Karl says, catching himself. "We had this shirt made up for the guys."

He fumbles around his desk looking for it, then realizes it's on his chair.

On the front of the shirt is one word: TRUST.


Of all the changes Karl has made in his life, this is the most profound. When he got sick, he had to step back and let his staff handle the grind. It was the only way he could make it through the exhausting sessions of radiation and chemotherapy.

Karl took a leave of absence in the second half of the 2009-10 season, even missing the Nuggets' first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, which Denver lost. He'd come into work as much as he could, oversee things, then entrust his assistant coaches to do the rest. Karl saw it as part of his treatment.

"You want to find that place of security," he says now. "There's this point where you have to convince yourself that you're going to be OK. You see your body deteriorating, you lose all this weight, you've got burns all over your face and your daughter looks at you like you're some monster."

Going into work, coaching, connecting with his team, focusing on a game -- not the fight for his life -- that made him feel better. Normal. Confident. That he'd be back here under good circumstances again. That he was still good at something.

That if he did what he could, all he could, it would be good enough.


Masai Ujiri thought he had some idea of what to expect from Karl when he was hired as Denver's general manager in the fall of 2010. He'd worked with Furious George as a scout in the Nuggets' front office from 2003-07, loved him, got him, and generally felt he understood him.

But the coach he encountered on this second turn with Denver had changed.

"I tell some of the players, 'Thank your God that he is like this now,'" Ujiri said with a smile.

"There's a big difference. He's calmed down. I think he enjoys it a bit more. He channels his energy in different ways, more positive ways.

[+] EnlargeAnthony/Karl
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillA long stretch of Melo-drama took its toll on Karl and the Nuggets.

"I think before he was more reactive. It wasn't necessarily anything bad, he just wore his emotions on his sleeve. You saw more of it. Now you see calm. He thinks about something, then he moves forward. He doesn't even give it the time of day."

Ujiri was only 39 when he accepted the GM position. Very young for the job, just like Karl, who was 33 when he got his first NBA head-coaching job in Cleveland in 1984.

Ujiri had never been entrusted with such power and responsibility. And this was going to be a doozy. The Nuggets' superstar player, Carmelo Anthony, wanted out. It would be Ujiri's job to trade him.

Complicating matters was Anthony's desire to be traded to the New York Knicks, and only the Knicks. Ujiri essentially had just one team to negotiate with, and 28 others to commiserate with.

There was a fundamental choice to be made before any talks began: The Nuggets had to decide what they valued. What was meaningful to them as an organization, what kind of team they wanted to be. And for that, they looked to Karl.

Ujiri studied Karl's great Seattle teams from the mid-1990s. The type of players he got the most out of. The types who didn't fit. The way he liked to play.

"The most impressive thing is his system," Ujiri said. "The way he coaches allows players to be very successful. Role players, star players, all kinds of players -- they all did well for him.

"When I came here [Nuggets owner] Josh Kroenke told me that, if Carmelo left, the type of players we wanted to bring in were young and energetic, who would fit with his system."

It was a conscious choice to aggregate talent and essentially shun the star-centric system. To prioritize speed, depth, athleticism, defensive ability and hustle over play-making and scoring talent.

Or, as Karl puts it, ''Why don't we just go get really good players and try to make 'em great?"


Karl was just a few months removed from radiation and chemotherapy treatments when he went back to work in the fall of 2010. He'd been declared cancer-free early in the summer, started eating solid foods again in August, and started coaching full-time in October.

Food didn't taste like it used to after radiation to his neck and throat. Neither did beer.

Taste was the least of his concerns, though. He'd beaten prostate cancer before, in 2005. He didn't want to try his luck with a third round. So he read everything, studied the issues, the biology and chemistry like he would break down film in a playoff series, and came up with a new game plan.

"I try and eat real food now," he said. "I eat stuff that's come out of the ground, or was an animal recently."

He made smoothies filled with fruits and vegetables. He started walking. He prioritized family time. He slept more. He left his job at the office as much as he could.

He told everyone about what he'd learned. He made plans to start a foundation that would promote patient advocacy and cancer research. The George Karl Foundation was founded two years later.

"I don't know where it's going to go yet, but so much of my beliefs are that the navigation of the patient needs more attention," Karl said. "The doctors are too busy, the insurance companies are too concerned about getting paid, the pharmaceuticals are into research and making money, the hospitals are trying to find the balance of all this."

He does what he can, then trusts it will make a difference.


Against this backdrop, the circus that accompanied the protracted trade negotiations for Anthony during the 2010-11 season seem trivial.

Karl nodded as he digested the information. Then Ujiri asked how he was doing, personally. Tears came down his cheeks.

Karl didn't see it that way. Every name that was brought up either publicly or privately was a person, with a life and a family being affected. He felt for his guys. Yes, this is a business. He'd been fired enough times to have learned that lesson. But there were good people in it. Good coaches who get fired every year. Good players, good guys who get traded for all sorts of reasons.

Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, a Denver kid adored by the city and one of Karl's favorite players, would ultimately be added into the trade to make the numbers work.

One day, in the thick of everything, Ujiri came down to Karl's office to give him an update. Karl nodded as he digested the information.

Then Ujiri asked how he was doing, personally.

Tears came down his cheeks.

"I think all of us got closer during that time," Ujiri said.

George KarlDan Levine/Getty ImagesKarl, here in 1998 with Seattle, was nicknamed "Furious George" for his intense coaching style.


For a while, the NBA Coach of the Year Award became a symbol of impending doom. Hubie Brown won it in 2004, but was out of a job by Thanksgiving. Mike D'Antoni won it in Phoenix in 2005, but was gone by 2008. Avery Johnson won it as the Mavericks' coach in 2006 and was fired within two seasons. Sam Mitchell lasted just a year in Toronto after winning the award in 2007. Byron Scott was canned by New Orleans a year after winning in 2008. Cleveland let Mike Brown go just a year after he was named Coach of the Year in 2009.

Since then, the award's recipients have fared a bit better. Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks (2010), Chicago's Tom Thibodeau (2011) and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich (2012) are all still gainfully employed. Still, you get why Karl, who has never won the award in his 25 years as NBA head coach, has been joking that he would prefer to finish second in this year's balloting.

"I'm one of 'em," Karl's good friend, Del Harris said. "I was coach of the year with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1995 and gone in '99. At least I made it more than the two years.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Karl
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe speedy, star-less Nuggets won 57 games in 2012-13, the most in Karl's nine years with the team.

"I believe the saying goes something like this, 'We really appreciate the work coach did for us. But now it's time to go in a different direction and we think the next coach will take us to the next level.'"

Good at building teams up, not good enough to win it all.

It's a rap that has followed Karl his entire career. He has won 1,131 regular-season NBA games, but never a championship. His 1995-96 Sonics team came the closest. After winning 64 games in the regular season, Seattle took two games off the 72-win Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. His 1992-93 Sonics, 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks and 2008-09 Nuggets all lost in the conference finals.

The characterization eats at him, but not like it used to.

Denver has won a franchise-record 57 games without a true superstar this season. They go 10- or 11-men deep on any given night, run their opponents off the court, and play the type of unselfish, joyful basketball Karl has always preferred.

"This team is fun to coach," he said. "I don't think many coaches use the word 'fun' to describe their teams."

He is one of the favorites to win the coach of the year award. And despite his earlier jokes, he would welcome the honor.

"It will mean something to me because I have a lot of respect for the coaching business," he said. "I think there's great coaches in this league, and there are great [assistant] coaches sitting next to the great coaches. They don't get the love that they deserve.

"There's so many coaches in this league that get fired after winning 50 games. Rick Adelman getting fired in Houston? Sorry, I can't buy that one. He was doing a hell of a job.

"So to represent coaches, maybe that will give me an opportunity to tell the world how great the NBA coaches are. You've got to work your tail off to be successful in this business. And even when you do, it doesn't mean you're going to win.

"You can have the perfect game plan and the referee makes a bad call or there's a bad bounce or the guy makes a lucky shot, there's a lot of things that can go wrong."


There's a lot Karl would do differently if he could. There's also a lot he would do the same way and just hope the ball bounced differently the next time.

Those around him every day know he can reference games and situations from 20 years ago off the top of his head.

Harris has been one of his closest friends for more than 30 years. They met through Don Nelson in the mid-1980s, joined up with the now-late Rick Majerus, and turned into a wildly entertaining, endearing band of brothers.

"There's hardly a situation that he hasn't thought about," Harris said. "You're not going to catch him off guard with many questions. He will attack it from many different angles."

I needed to be humbled, and I was. I'm sure I was more fiery or confrontational or demanding. I had an insecure ego. I was a young guy. A lot of people thought I could coach, but I didn't know how to handle the responsibility of coaching.

-- George Karl

Their conversations can go on for hours and hours. Basketball is only one of the subjects they delight in.

"A lot of guys have answers. George has questions," Harris said. "It's really more difficult to come up with good questions than good answers. But George is probably a genius IQ guy. He's just brilliant."

Karl blushes when he's asked about his IQ. He can't remember when it was, but he thinks someone tested him once and it came out in the 140s. Anything over 125 is considered highly gifted.

He's changed so much now, you forget there was a time he was considered arrogant and egotistical. When the Bucks paid him $7 million a year starting in 1998-99, it only added to that reputation.

That contract made Karl the highest paid coach in any sport. But it wasn't the kind of validation he sought. It wasn't what was going to make him happy. It wasn't him. He says the contract sat on his desk for six months before he finally signed it.

"He became, I thought, a really great coach in Seattle," Harris said. "It took getting fired a couple of times to help make him that."

Harris chooses his words carefully out of respect for his friend. As it turns out, there's no need.

"I needed to be humbled, and I was," Karl said. "I'm sure I was more fiery or confrontational or demanding. I had an insecure ego. I was a young guy. A lot of people thought I could coach, but I didn't know how to handle the responsibility of coaching."


To understand just how much Karl has evolved, you have to wrap your head around what he did during the four years he spent in exile after the Warriors fired him.

While he waited for an opportunity in the NBA, he coached the Albany Patroons of the CBA and Real Madrid of the Euroleague. Whenever he could, he went back to the people he had worked with in Cleveland and Golden State and asked for their honest opinion of him.

He asked people that knew him what he needed to work on, where he needed to grow, how he'd rubbed them the wrong way.

To some, that kind of self-flagellation would be crushing. Karl knew he could take it. He wanted to hear it.

"I was trying to learn how I wanted to coach," he said. "The first couple of years I was coaching like Don Nelson and then I was coaching like Hubie Brown and then I was coaching like Larry Brown. I didn't have my identity."

Finally, in his last season coaching Real Madrid, Karl said he "had the guts to do what I wanted to do."

It was the start of a long journey on which he learned how to trust himself.


Karl doesn't hide much anymore. Ask a question and you'll get an answer. In fact, you'll get more than you asked for. Interviews with Karl are part group therapy, part sudsy night at the local bar with a group of old friends.

You can be that honest when people already know what they think about you. When nothing anyone says hasn't been said before. A Bay Area reporter recently asked about Karl's reputation for being a heavy drinker when he coached the Warriors. He just asked it. No softening of the question, no apology for bringing up old wounds. And Karl was fine.

"I've never been a mean drunk. I've never had a DUI. I think I'm a responsible person when I drink," Karl said. "But I was a big guy, I could drink eight or nine beers. And when I went to Seattle, [then Sonics president] Bob Whitsitt asked me to put a clause in my contract that I wouldn't ever drink in public. I did.

"But you know in those days you had to go to the bars to watch games. The bars had the satellites. Nellie would have a keg of beer right next to him."

You think it must be cathartic for Karl to open up. But he's like this all the time. Always open, always real and raw.

The difference now is that he doesn't let the wrong things wound that heart. He has learned how to protect it, and save the best part of himself for what really matters.

His team matters. He trusts them now.

His life matters, and so he fights for it.

His family matters, and so he cherishes it.

The rest, he has let go.