Coach In-Your-Face — The Methods And Madness Of George Karl

By Glenn Nelson
The Seattle Times

Used to be that George Karl could poke his head into Lardo’s, wolf down a hunk of prime rib, throw back a brew and, satiated, enjoy the quiet stroll back to his condominium on the Payette River. Only a year ago, an entire summer passed in the slumberous Central Idaho resort town of McCall with the owner of a local grocery store believing Karl’s claim that he was “self-employed.” Yeah, right. If George Karl were self-employed, he’d drive himself crazy. That’s what a lot of people think, anyway.

Ah, but take the Seattle SuperSonics to 55 regular-season victories and the Western Conference finals, use 16 different starting lineups just because your gut tells you to, call Houston’s Kenny Smith a bigmouth and Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson a princess during the playoffs, and speak with a comportment that disarms your most vociferous critics and in a voice that caresses the airwaves.

Now you’re talking.

Now they’re talking, also pointing and rubber-necking, when Karl walks into Lardo’s. Now Ron from Olympia stops by the table and grasps his hand like he never intends to let go. Now a couple of locals ask if they can have their picture taken with him.

Now he’s George Karl, Coach.

It’s taken him most of his 42 years to really, really reconcile with that fact. Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, who played for Karl at Golden State, says his ex-coach “is the kind of guy you get the feeling still wants to play.” Karl knows what Floyd means. He doesn’t want to play play. He wants to be in the Game, more than anything else. To chase Winning and elude Losing.

Yes, these words are capitalized because that’s the way they sound coming out of George Karl’s mouth. He considers basketball in reverential terms. The Game gives back, he likes to say, what you put into it. Don’t disrespect the Game, he warns. See what happens when you do:

Late in the first half of a March 18 game last season at the Seattle Coliseum, Gary Payton, in the middle of a congested fast break, intentionally flipped the ball off the glass. Shawn Kemp, trailing on the play, grabbed the ball and tried to ram it through the rim in the same motion. He missed, but the Sonics were thumping hapless Sacramento by 11 points at the time.

Still, Karl had a snit, and benched the two youngsters for the beginning of the second half.

“This is the 1990s,” Payton snorted afterward.

“We’ve got to get more into fundamentals, the simple habits, rather than trying to make it onto NBA Tonight or Showtime or Entertainment Tonight,” Karl said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

Coach, defender of right.

It was a long, tortuous – often torturing – process, but, yeah, finally he’s that. Coach. Maybe Karl discovered that in the Continental Basketball Association or Spain or some other place his once-splintered reputation had scattered. Maybe. But he knows it in the most important place: his heart. And it dominates his existence.

That’s why George Karl high-tails it for two hours from McCall to Boise, to talk to kids at a basketball camp. And why he lets Ron from Olympia grip his hand – his fork-holding hand – while the meat on his plate gets cold. That’s all part of coaching, too. Part of giving back to the Game.

Shoot, that’s nothing, compared to 1980 in Great Falls, Mont., where Karl had his first professional head coaching job. Late that first CBA season, the owner bailed out and George and Cathy Karl paid the players out of their savings. The following summer, to make sure her husband still had a team to coach, Cathy sold season tickets and television and program ads and traded out for enough breakfasts, lunches and dinners to last two weeks of training camp.

“The NBA’s a lifestyle,” Karl says. “I don’t think you can be successful at it unless you are possessed by it. You have to have this passion to drive yourself, to make the commitment, to have the discipline, to basically sacrifice your existence.”

The Game seemed to take possession of George Karl near the end of his sixth-grade championship game. His team was ahead by a point with about 30 seconds to play. The other team’s point guard had the ball. Karl shoved him out of bounds. He’d decided that the kid could not shoot free throws and, at worst, might sink one to send the game into overtime.

No foul was called, and Karl’s team stole the ball to seal the victory. But that is incidental. Fact is, at 11 years old, Karl had already started to think like a coach.

His cutthroat competitive nature providing an edge, he also began to act like one.

“He’d do anything to win,” says Mitch Kupchak, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers and a longtime friend and former college teammate of Karl’s. “Run through people. Take a charge. From skill-type moves to hustle moves. Some guys don’t like that. Obviously, coaches do.”

During the 1975 ABA playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs are leading the venerated New Jersey Nets 2-1 in a best-of-seven series. Then-Spurs Coach Bob Bass is delivering an impassioned speech, imploring his players to avoid being intimidated by Net stars Julius Erving and Brian Taylor. Among the Spurs arrayed before Bass that Easter Sunday are Karl and Allan Bristow.

“Bass told us that we weren’t taking anything from those guys,” recalls Bristow, now head coach of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. “If they try anything, he said, start swinging.

“Well, George and I are the only guys listening.”

Late in the first quarter, Karl dogs Taylor up and down the court. Irritated, Taylor starts flinging elbows. In the second quarter, one lands on Karl’s chin, re-opening an old wound. Blood flowing, Karl starts tossing punches. A brawl ensues.

In ABA annals, the incident is known as the Easter Day Massacre.

“George was the kind of player you wanted to slug,” Bristow says, “because he was always in your face.”

WHICH WOULD HAVE MADE GEORGE KARL the kind of player that George Karl now loves to coach. “There are real, true workers and there are competitors and there are just real possessed players,” he says. “Larry Bird was a possessed player. He had eyes and an anger or passion to kick your butt. Magic Johnson had the same type of passion, but it wasn’t an angry passion. It was more of an entertaining passion, a dominance by skill rather than a dominance by intimidation. People do it in different ways, but the ones who have it – you know.”

It was never a question with George Karl, best remembered as a player for taking a charge from George McGinnis that was so vicious it flung him from the free-throw line to the basket standard.

That is the same George Karl who grew up in a blue-collar, white-flight suburb of Pittsburgh called Penn Hills. He is the son of Joseph, who is now 88, and Edith, who died of pneumonia in 1980. The best word Karl’s older sister, Peggy, can come up with to describe her parents is “quiet.” They also were so unassuming that when George was playing pro basketball and had a bit of money, they turned down his offer to fly them to Hawaii. They asked for a new furnace instead. They simply felt more comfortable with that.

Joseph Karl, according to his son, was a total non-athlete. So imagine the family’s surprise when George started dominating the baseball diamond, and doing it with flair. And when he later took up basketball, in the fifth grade, and began demonstrating a similar proficiency in that sport. Nevertheless, the summer before George was to enter the 10th grade, Joseph talked to him about looking for part-time work, to start socking away some dough for college.

“But I’m going to get an athletic scholarship,” George declared, undeterred by the absence of corroborating evidence.

After pondering this for a few days, Joseph offered a compromise. George could work on his basketball. With the emphasis on work.

“The day one of your coaches comes and tells me you’re not working hard,” father told son, “is the day you are going to find a job.”

So far as anybody knows, Joseph Karl still is waiting for that day.

In high school, George Karl started breaking into the Penn Hills Junior High gymnasium to get his basketball fix on weekends. In junior high and high school, he teamed with Donnie Wilson in a backcourt nicknamed Ham and Eggs. Guess who was Ham? They were the breakfast of champions, going undefeated in junior high and advancing to the regional finals during Karl’s senior year at Penn Hills High School. The whole while, Karl seemed to be on a mission.

“He’s got a burning desire for basketball,” says Roger Brobst, Karl’s junior-high coach. “It’s like it’s part of him. Sometimes it worried me that basketball was so important in his life.”

Yet Brobst and others also recognized that basketball provided a furnace where Karl’s competitive fires could burn freely. A high-school All-American, he got his athletic scholarship, as he had vowed to his father. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith and his assistant, Bill Guthridge, were actually scouting another player at a summer all-star game. When Karl stole the ball from that player the first two times down court, Smith and Guthridge turned to each other and asked, “Who’s that?” After finding out, they outmaneuvered Maryland’s Lefty Driesell and Pittsburgh’s Tim Grgurich, who now is Karl’s assistant with the Sonics, in a hotly contested recruiting skirmish.

Karl’s hellbent, dive-into-the-scorer’s-table approach earned him the nickname “Kamikaze Kid” and, in the estimation of the coaching staff there, made him one of the most popular players in North Carolina history.

His was a borderline cockiness rooted in persistent overachievement. Karl was a natural athlete, but the higher the level he played, the more guys there were who were bigger, faster and could jump higher. Karl made up the difference by working harder. Eventually that edge wore thin, and, in trying to keep pace during three years in the ABA and two in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, the already bad-backed Karl ran his knees into a state of disrepair.

But the game changed after Karl entered the coaching ranks. Coaching was something that not only satisfied his competitive appetite, but it was a great equalizer, a place where confidence, feel and work ethic often brought even greater rewards than it did on the court. Extrapolating ego from playing to coaching, on the other hand, is a delicate matter because coaches are managers of people as much as anything else.

There had been little time to ponder the transition. Karl served two years as Doug Moe’s assistant at San Antonio, then coached Montana of the CBA for three years, winning Coach of the Year honors in two of those seasons.

In 1984 the Cleveland Cavaliers made Karl, then 33, the youngest head coach in the NBA. He took the success-starved Cavaliers to the playoffs but was fired the following year. The next year, Karl took Golden State to its first playoff berth in 10 years and finished second in Coach of the Year balloting. He resigned with 18 games left in the following season amid rampant rumors that Don Nelson, the team’s general manager, had undermined his old buddy to pave his own return to coaching.

Karl’s first four years as an NBA head coach established a first-year- boom, second-year-bust pattern. His ego didn’t appear able to handle success. What’s more, talk began in Cleveland, and continued at Golden State, that Karl was an out-of-control drinker and party animal.

Though a clause in his contract with the Sonics forbids him from drinking during the season, Karl bristles at suggestions that his drinking had been a problem. “I’m a happy drinker,” he says. “When I go out and have a few beers, I want to have a good time. I want to laugh, tell jokes, be a goof, be a clown. I’ve never gotten in a fight. I’ve never gotten in a confrontation. I’ve never had a DWI. I’ve never been arrested. None of these things. Someone wanted to make that an issue.”

The damage was done. In a way, Karl did little to control it. His ego, he concedes, was the real problem in Cleveland and Golden State. “In my past, I said, `(Bleep) perceptions. I know who I am. I’m a good guy.’ That doesn’t work,” Karl says. “Perceptions are part of our profession. Right or wrong, you must understand how you’re being perceived.”

Because he didn’t, Karl landed back in the CBA, the only place that would have him. The Warriors were still paying off the final year of his contract, so Karl didn’t need to coach for the money. But he needed to coach for himself – to discover if he could muster the discipline and humility to do it right. He began to learn that, really, in Spain, where he coached Real Madrid.

Early in Karl’s first season, Fernando Martin, the king of Spanish basketball who played briefly for Portland in the NBA, was killed in an automobile accident on the way to a game. “From that day on, the emotional part of the team went up and down all season,” Karl says. “And I realized then how I could have an effect on the team when I, myself, was emotionally unstable.”

The next year, in Albany, then-Patroons assistant Gerald Oliver noticed that Karl “seemed balanced, that probably he had accepted his own self.” Possibly because he had, Karl guided the Patroons to a 50-6 finish, a record for all of professional sports. The next year, he went back to Real Madrid. There, things got so bad that he and Cathy decided, on New Year’s Eve, that he wasn’t returning to Spain the following season.

The way Cathy Karl figured it, “When one door closed, it seemed like a better one always opened. I don’t think he would have grown as much as a person. It was like shock therapy for him.”

AN OCEAN AND a continent away, just south of where George Karl’s sister and father had settled, the Seattle SuperSonics were similarly in need of a jolt. Behind the mellow lead of K.C. Jones, the Sonics were a languishing, underachieving bunch. With the club drifting at 18-18, President Bob Whitsitt fired Jones and launched a search for a more firebrand coach. Karl had caught his attention years earlier.

Despite getting only one positive recommendation from his league sources, Whitsitt bucked conventional NBA wisdom and gave Karl another chance. Once again, Karl worked his magic, taking the Sonics to a 27-15 finish and playoff upset of Golden State. Last season, he snapped his boom-bust pattern by taking the Sonics just five victories short of an NBA title.

And now he’s got four more years, worth about $2.5 million, on a contract. What’s more, last year both his 14-year-old daughter, Kelci, and 10-year-old son, Coby, spent an entire year at the same school – a first for the nomadic Karl family.

The Sonics hit the heights with Karl cajoling them to play “wild and crazy.” And that they did, their creative energies spilling into every avenue. This is a team where the head coach and point guard swapped curses before a national television audience. One where a power forward defends point guards and a center shoots three-pointers. And one that leads forward Michael Cage to the conclusion that life under George Karl is “Loony Tunes.”

Often, the madness seems devoid of method. Karl prepares hard to develop parameters that will guide him through the eye-blink, decision-making process of an NBA game. He is, truer to the souls of his college colleagues, a seat-of-the-pants coach, beholden to well-honed instinct and feel for the game. He might give a player 40 minutes one night and five or, even, none the next because some sixth coaching sense tells him to.

Spontaneity, versatility and the element of surprise are weapons that many coaches shun, but George Karl reaches for them often. He always wants to be proactive, forcing the action, rather than reactive. In times of failure, most coaches will cling to their “systems” and blame players for lack of implementation. Karl eschews “systems” in favor of “philosophies” and believes that it’s a coach’s job to do something when things go bad. That he is willing to try things most others wouldn’t is a sign not only of creativity, but also of a man who is secure with his abilities.

Didn’t Gerald Oliver swear that George Karl was more balanced? Well, a guy who can juggle egos and agendas while crossing a tightrope over the hot coals of big-time professional sports has to have some equilibrium. And that’s a switch.

THESE DAYS, Karl still orders up a Diet Coke and a couple of painkillers after each game, win or lose. After the losses, well, sometimes Karl’s mood is so bad that writers warn each other that “one of George’s kids died tonight.” This, believe it or not, is an improvement.

“I used to worry about George jumping off some bridge when we were in Cleveland,” Cathy Karl says.

“The day he loses those highs and lows is the day he should quit,” says Terry Stotts, a Sonic scout who played for and worked as an assistant to Karl in the CBA. “He enjoys winning. The day he can stand losing, he’s lost something.”

Karl agrees.

“Winning is the best coach in basketball, and Losing is the worst coach in basketball,” he says. “There are a lot of great coaches, because of Winning. There are a lot of good coaches who are not called good coaches, because of Losing.”

And him? Now he’s Coach. More balanced, they say. More secure.

But, really, only Karl’s presentation has changed. Place some parsley beside a hamburger patty, and you can call it a hamburger steak. It’s still a hamburger, maybe a little more palatable. In the CBA, he once kicked a ball, soccer-style, into the stands, missing by mere inches the head of a game official with whom he was having a dispute. Now, a sarcastic comment might suffice. At Golden State, he smashed Joe Barry Carroll’s locker-room stall and challenged the enigmatic center to an IQ test. In Seattle, he simply didn’t play another philosophical misfit, Benoit Benjamin, and the issue was quietly resolved with a trade.

Karl thinks deep thoughts about the game he coaches. And he, more than most, sees his players as more than mere Xs and Os. So the way his teams play is a far less complex matter than how. George Karl’s teams will play hard and play hardest on defense, hoping to create missed shots or turnovers, which will allow them to run up the other end of the court and try to score. Simple. How they manage this with enough frequency and intensity to be successful is quite another matter.

Pick any part of a season, and you can find players with an intense dislike for Karl. At the same time, you also can find those who will applaud his genius, mainly for uncovering theirs. Karl now has benched Shawn Kemp, the team’s featured player, in two straight seasons. While disagreeing with the coach for the benchings, Kemp also said he appreciated Karl’s challenging him to become a better player. Early last season, Ricky Pierce wasn’t happy about being phased out of the Sonic offense in favor of younger players. Yet later, with the younger players pacified and his 34-year-old legs rested, Pierce became the offense and carried the team for half a season.

Part of George Karl’s genius is recognizing the zero-sum aspect of team sports. For one athlete to flourish, another often must flounder. To give (minutes, shots or points), one must take. Make the right player or players happy often enough, and everyone at some point is happy and, most important, the team is happy and best-served. This is why stars rarely bubble to the surface on Karl’s teams, and why elements of his teams often appear to be bickering and out of control.

Whether it’s handling his players or dealing with the press or making a move on the court, Karl constantly is trying to provoke a response that he can exploit. By deploying that most volatile of factors – passion – he plays a most dangerous game.

KARL TURNED MUCH of the basketball world on its ear when he benched Kemp and Derrick McKey with nine games left last season. Rarely had such a viable contender seemed so unsettled with such proximity to the playoffs. Yet in addition to lighting a fire under the young forwards, the benching paved the way for newcomer Sam Perkins to replace longtime incumbent Michael Cage at center by the time the playoffs began. And, in their own inimitable, awkward and sometimes unattractive style, the Sonics went three rounds in the NBA’s four-round championship tournament, going the distance in each.

Unlike most coaches, Karl inventories a different arsenal before taking his army into battle. He believes teams win games with intimidation, mental concentration and composure. So Karl often talks about The Face, that look of concentration that the best players have. The Face not only provides clues to the player’s state of purpose, but just as importantly gives off the right vibes to an opponent.

“I don’t think Ricky Pierce is an angry warrior every night on the court,” Karl says, “but he knows he’s got to show that to be successful.”

This belief can be one of George Karl’s more endearing contradictions, however. The guy who believes you have to look like you’d rip someone’s heart out to win also is the kind of guy who loves walking into a joint and buying a round for the house. The kind of guy who’s liable to scribble his home phone number (his real one) underneath an autograph, then say, “If you’re in Seattle for the weekend, give me a call. I’ll get you a couple of tickets to the game.” The kind of guy who, like everyone else, would rather wear a sweatsuit and baseball cap to the game.

This also is a coach who likes to end his practices with most of the team betting on trick shots. He is a master of two – a half-court bomb with his back turned to the basket and a half-court bouncer.

“It means a lot to me, but we’re still playing a game that was devised to have fun,” Karl says. “If coaches take that totally out of the game, they’re probably not going to be successful.”

George Karl, above all, is a man who believes that playing hard, or working hard, is a talent. It is a talent that he possesses. “If you play hard,” he says, “you will find out what you are.” That, he has done all along. And now he knows what he is.


Not NBA Coach. Or college Coach. Just Coach.

“I want to coach a long time in the NBA,” Karl says. “I also know that there is a point where the NBA cannot satisfy my dreams. I want to be a coach. And if the game keeps changing what a coach is, then the great challenge of coaching the best every night might not be worth it.”

For now, the basketball gods are smiling. George Karl knows it, maybe better than he knows anything else. The only thing he might know as well is the other side.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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