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?
Smith rewarded Karl's hustle. He was injured early in his freshman season and underwent back surgery, but he came back the next year and earned a starter's spot. Karl helped win the National Invitation Tournament when he was a sophomore, then brought UNC to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament the next year.
The New York Knicks drafted Karl in the fourth round in 1973, but Karl instead went to the San Antonio Spurs in the rival American Basketball Association. "I signed my contract for $150,000 over three years, and I called my dad right after," Karl says. "The phone goes real quiet. He says to me, 'Do you know that's more money than I've made in my lifetime?' He was happy for me, but he was also making the point that I'd better earn every dollar of that."
Karl would make his name as a hard-charger off the bench—the "Kamikaze Kid"—who got by on guts and courage. He once punched "Pistol" Pete Maravich during an exhibition game, then tore off a guy's toupee in the ensuing brawl.
For five seasons Karl scrapped and fought, but a blown knee eventually limited his court time. By 26, Karl had hung up his high-tops. He held on as an assistant coach in San Antonio—where he got married and had his first daughter, Kelci—then three years later was in Montana, as head coach of the CBA's Golden Nuggets. His son Coby was born; Karl won the league's coach of the year award twice, and brought consistent wins to Montana, even if his team's owner couldn't make consistent payrolls. Before the Golden Nuggets went belly-up in 1983, Karl was paying players out of his $18,000-a-year salary. He took home $6,000 that year.
Even without a championship, Karl proved he had the chops to succeed. His big break came the next year when the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers asked him to be the head coach of a franchise that hadn't been to the playoffs in seven years. The team responded to Karl and made the playoffs in 1985. By the next season, though, Karl's schtick had worn thin: A few weeks short of the regular-season finale, Karl had only 25 wins and was fired.
A similar script played out in California soon after, when Karl led a formerly awful Golden State Warriors team to the playoffs (after losing a second-round game Karl famously ripped up a player's locker), then saw his team fall apart the next season. Night after night, it was the Pistol Pete fight relived—meaningless battles for the sake of the fight. "When you're young, you think anger is a teacher," Karl says now. "But anger is a door-slammer, and you don't know how to use it when you go into the job. You think passion for basketball means anger."
Karl was only 36 years old; his career was falling apart, and his personal life suffered. Exiled from the NBA, the family bounced around European leagues and the CBA for the next three years. At home, family life was strained, and his relationship with his son was almost nonexistent.
The Karls moved again in 1991, this time to Seattle, where they stayed seven seasons. Karl made one trip to the finals as coach of the SuperSonics, in 1996, but lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games. Though his teams averaged 59 wins a season, Karl was dumped three years later amid ownership complaints that he hadn't won the Big One. His wife filed for divorce a year later.
The Milwaukee Bucks snapped Karl up in 1998 and eventually gave him a $7 million-a-year deal—at the time, the richest contract given to any coach in any sport—after he led the team to its first playoff appearance in seven years. Two seasons later, he got the Bucks to within one win of the finals. Karl was King Midas all over again. Still, he found himself slipping back into the old "Furious George" caricature. He complained when Doc Rivers, a former player with no coaching experience, landed the top job in Orlando. He blasted his star players—Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson—saying they only wanted to make "sure they get their numbers." Every few months, faxed newspaper stories would come across Karl's desk, with handwritten notes from Dean Smith. "Every quote where I said the word 'I' or 'me' he circled and wrote, 'Don't you mean 'We?'" By then, though, it was too late. After two mediocre seasons, Karl was gone.