After more than two decades in the NBA, George Karl is one of the winningest coaches in professional basketball history. Privately, he's finally become the man he always wanted to be. So why does everyone still think he's such a loser?
It's late November, deep inside the concrete bowels of the Pepsi Center, and Denver Nuggets coach George Karl and one of his players, Dahntay Jones, are arguing.
A few weeks earlier, Karl had slapped a $500 fine on the 28-year-old guard after Jones was late to the team plane and held up the flight to Oakland. Now Jones, stripped to his shorts in the team's dining room, is apoplectic. He thought he had a reasonable excuse: It was Election Day and he was stuck in line, waiting to cast a vote for Barack Obama.
"Five hundred, George? I thought you'd be proud! I was exercising my constitutional rights!"
It's a surreal moment, considering Jones will make nearly $1 million this season. Perhaps even more outrageous is that the Nuggets are 8-4 at the time of this argument—in what was expected to be a mediocre season—and this verbal battle is the closest Karl has come to the insubordination that has defined his tenure with this team.
"Five hundred?" Jones barks. "That's bullshit! You don't think it's good that I voted, George? Come on, that was our boy!"
For a moment, it looks like Karl—who stumped for Obama and preached all fall about the need to get out and vote—might back off. "You have a point," he tells Jones. But if this is a come-to-Jesus sort of moment, it's a short-lived conversion. Karl thinks little indiscretions like these are a harbinger of bad juju—karma, as the coach puts it—and Karl's had it with the bad karma.
"You should've voted absentee. That's what I did, and I wasn't late for the plane."
Jones shakes his head and laughs, but he's not done.
"And another thing, George, what did you promise me at the beginning of camp?"
"That if I gave it my all on defense, I'd get...." Jones pauses a few beats. "What?" Karl asks.
Now, the old George Karl—the guy who once booted a ball into the stands during a game; who angrily challenged a player to a game of Jeopardy! to prove who was smarter; who ripped a toupee off someone during an on-court fight—might have cut off the conversation right there. "Furious George" would have gotten in Jones' face, maybe pushed a table over. But not this time, not this George Karl.
"You know, Dahntay, you're right," he says. "I haven't kept up my end of that deal, and I need to."
There's another pause. "That's OK, George, whatever," Jones says. "And I'll take the $500 fine."
Jones begins walking out the door.
"Dahntay!" Karl calls. His voice drops. It is earnest and thoughtful and fatherly. "Hey, I know you're mad, but we've had some problems here in the past with respect, where some things have gotten out of hand. We can't have that happening again. It's nothing against you."
"That's OK, George. I'll pay $500 for Obama."
These days, George Karl looks more like a guy who got off the last bus from Albuquerque than the millionaire coach whose last losing season came during the Reagan administration. The guy's pushing two-and-a-half bills, and his gut stretches a pullover sweatshirt that falls over the waistband of his elastic gym pants. His Adidas shoes are scuffed. After two hip replacements and six knee surgeries, his walk no longer is a confident gait as much as the limp of a wounded elk searching for underbrush. He's got a nasty dog-bite scar on his upper lip. His facial features are swollen and tired; he has a wide forehead, bushy eyebrows, and long, graying hair in the back that's thinning everywhere else.
So it might surprise you that, of the 300-plus men who have coached in the NBA, only nine have more wins than him. This is the man who's taken four straight Nuggets teams to the playoffs—his only seasons with the franchise—giving Karl 17 postseason appearances in 20 NBA seasons. When he showed up in Denver in the middle of the 2004-2005 season, he won 32 of his first 40 games. Last year, he brought the Nuggets their fourth 50-win season in team history. And if that weren't enough, consider his basketball pedigree. He played point for the legendary Dean Smith at North Carolina, who played for Forrest "Phog" Allen, "the father of basketball coaching," who played for Dr. James A. Naismith—the guy who invented the game.
Here's the rub: Karl's got more than 900 career wins in the NBA, but he's never won a championship of any kind since he started coaching 31 years ago—not as an assistant, not as a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association, not in Spain, or with Cleveland, or Golden State, or Seattle, or Milwaukee, or....
In fact, none of Karl's Nuggets teams has gotten past the first round of the playoffs. If anything, his time in Denver has been defined by spectacular postseason meltdowns—of calling out players in newspapers, of young future stars afraid to take a shot for fear of being benched.
So here's George Karl, early this winter, sitting in a rolling chair along the far sideline of the team's practice court inside the Pepsi Center. The lights in the second-floor gym reflect off the wooden floor, the sounds of bouncing balls and squeaking sneakers fill the cinderblock room. "If you fuck with the game, it will fuck with you," he says as he sits in his chair. "If you mess with the game, it will embarrass you."
After four straight first-round exits under Karl, embarrassing only begins to explain the team's playoff performances. This season, it was clear, would prove whether Karl belonged in Denver.
Last summer, the Nuggets lost two key players—former defensive player of the year Marcus Camby, and sixth-man Eduardo Najera—to salary cutbacks. Karl had to endure those in the sports-talk echo chamber calling for team owner E. Stanley Kroenke to can his oversized keister. His ability and his heart were questioned. Where's the fiery old George from Seattle? Why can't he connect with his players? Has the game passed him by? A Denver Post column last April epitomized the feelings of an entire fan base: "If the billionaire owner of the Nuggets wants to pay coach George Karl for doing nothing, all we can do is watch as Denver gets rudely bumped from the NBA playoffs year after year.... Karl has not gotten it done. It's time to give somebody else a shot."