Sports: George Karl Has Come a Long Way

The Denver Nuggets’ head coach won the NBA’s coach-of-the-year award for the first time in his long career. But what’s more impressive is his transformation as a man.
May 9 2013, 11:40 AM

Major congratulations are in order for Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, who was named this week as the National Basketball Association’s coach of the year. For all the daggers he’s perhaps rightfully faced after his team’s flameout in the first-round of this season’s playoffs, the elegance he displayed at his press conference Wednesday exemplifies the kind of person he has become.

When I met George for a profile I wrote for 5280 in 2009, he was a man on a mission. He had a young daughter, a young team, and he was determined to leave behind the pieces of a disjointed past that had sometimes haunted him. He had been a hot-head, a know-it-all for much of his life. "Furious George" was how he was known. But now he was beginning to change. His son Coby’s successful battle with thyroid cancer—and his own with prostate cancer—had made him take serious stock of his life. Because of that, it molded him into what seemed to be a wholly different man: more caring of others, more concerned about his legacy—not simply as a coach, but as a person.

Fast-forward a couple years following his second battle with cancer and George has seemed to step further into rarified territory. He has evolved once more. Here is a man who has been to the brink and back, who has appraised his life and found peace with who he now is. And from his emotional press conference this week, it’s clear he’s nowhere near the me-first George Karl who used to stalk the sidelines for Golden State, Seattle, and Milwaukee. That George is long gone, replaced by a man who is comfortable with who he is; who has only things to prove to himself, to his team, and to his family. We wish we could all be so lucky.

I saw George in the Nuggets’ locker room before Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors—a game Denver would lose and would send the team into the free-fall that prematurely ended its season. The coach saw me, smiled, and shook my hand. The only thing I thought to tell him was that he looked good. “Really good,” I think I said. He smiled again and thanked me. From the sound in his voice and from the serious look in his eyes, I could tell he meant it. He knew I could see the man he had become.