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?

March 2009

Even for a tough guy like Karl, the criticism stung. During the previous season, Karl felt like he was spending too much time fending off barbs. Privately, he wondered whether the front office folks were just waiting to fire him. So if Karl seemed paranoid, it was with good reason. The 2007-2008 Nuggets cost Kroenke more than $80 million but imploded when the stakes were highest. Though Karl kept his job (he's signed through next season at $3 million per year), the offseason cost-cuts were perhaps a message from Kroenke and his staff: We don't need to spend big-time cash if your team is only going to survive one week in the postseason.

Since coming to Denver in 2005, George Karl, who's now 57, has privately struggled through his own nine circles of hell: prostate cancer, his son's thyroid cancer (and its relapse), and his realization that he had given everything to basketball and hardly anything to his family.

But this offseason was different. Despite the seemingly endless second-guessing from sports columnists and fans, he finally started to feel at peace. His daughter, Kelci, gave him his first grandchild; he moved from a posh Denver neighborhood into one more akin to his blue-collar Pittsburgh roots; he had a bum hip replaced. All of these things got Karl to thinking about what he calls "soulful wisdom," a person's ability to recite more than just meaningless facts, a way of connecting one's teachings to a deeper significance. "During the summer," Karl's agent and friend Warren LeGarie says, "George became a different man."

At training camp this summer, Karl gathered his team and told them things were about to change. No more crap. "I've done it your way for three years, and it hasn't worked," he said. "Pretty and cool doesn't win games. Gritty and tough does."

Everyone on the team knew their coach knew something about gritty and tough.

To appreciate George Karl, you must first know little Georgie Karl, the kid from Pittsburgh.

It was there that a schoolyard bully beat eight-year-old Georgie pretty good. Georgie showed up crying outside his family's razor-thin, three-story house. He had a bloody nose and a scratched face. Grandpa Patterson was standing in the doorway: You're not comin' inside until you settle things with that boy. Georgie sniffled back a tear. The lesson couldn't have been more clear. Little Georgie wasn't supposed to back down from anyone.

Georgie's own dad, Joseph, was a ditto-machine repairman who worked while Mom stayed home and doted on Georgie and his older sister. Grandpa, a natural athlete, imparted toughness and recognized early on that there was something special in his daughter's little boy.

While Dad knew a lick about sports, Grandpa seemed to know everything, especially when it came to basketball and baseball. He and Georgie played catch all day. Then when Dad put the first basketball hoop in the backyard, they played all night. Grandpa showed Georgie how to hold a ball for a shot—hand back, elbow up, and then flick it, so all those black lines on that ball spun backward like a pinwheel. They practiced dribbling, layups, jumpers. Soon, the little kid was a big scrapper, whipping kids at the gym. Georgie had made a name for himself as the neighborhood spitfire.

When Grandpa died in 1960, Georgie's dad pulled his boy aside and promised that he'd do everything he could to continue Grandpa's work. What the Old Man didn't know about hoops, he more than made up for by working hard and leading by example. In the Karl home, honest work and toughness were beautiful gifts.

From his father, Georgie learned that talent wasn't enough. The lessons served him well when he became George Karl, one of the country's most highly sought high school guards. He had more than 100 colleges interested in him, but Karl settled on the University of North Carolina, where Dean Smith was his coach. At Carolina, Karl studied political science and psychology; he grew his hair long, protested the Vietnam War, and enjoyed a reputation as a burgeoning gym rat, the guy who dove for loose balls and would take charges from guys eight inches taller than him. Joseph Karl wasn't impressed. He wanted to know that his kid was listening to his coaches, so he called Coach Smith three times a year, just to make sure his boy was earning his scholarship.