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?
For the first time in his adult life, Karl was no longer in basketball. Back at home, with more time than ever on his hands, he began to take inventory of his life. His father was ill, he wasn't married, and he hardly knew his son.
I first met with George Karl just before the regular season began, at the Pepsi Center. I waited for him inside the practice gym, where one of the Nuggets' spokespersons approached me. "This is probably the worst day for you to talk to him," the guy said. "Coby was just cut by the Lakers."
It wasn't much of a surprise. Coby Karl had played sparingly for Los Angeles: During the playoff series against his dad's team last season, Coby logged just two minutes on the court.
The hurt in Karl's eyes was plainly visible when we met outside the locker room awhile later and headed to his Cadillac Escalade.
Sorry to hear about Coby, I said.
"That's OK. You know, I think dads take this stuff harder than the sons."
We climbed into his Escalade. The radio was tuned to a sports-talk show, and it droned in the background while I tried to make small talk about his son's possible landing spots.
Could he sign with another NBA team?
"Not right now. All the rosters are filled. He'd have to wait for an injury."
What about overseas? Those guys make a boatload of money....
"I'm not sure about his opportunities there. I'm sure he'll check that out."
I was searching for questions when his son's news was broadcast to the rest of the city: "Coby Karl, son of Nuggets coach George Karl, was cut...." It was one of those moments when everything slows down and you can see the split second of impact. Neither of us said a word.
Over lunch, Karl opened up. "Ten years ago, I didn't know where my family life would be. I used to be that guy who'd be calling the league office during the day, just to talk to someone like Jerry West. I was completely motivated by my contacts, not by my family. Now my family's the dominant part of my life."
In the summer of 2000, Karl and his ex-wife bought Coby a house outside Milwaukee so he could stay in the same high school rather than be shuttled between parents. Karl lived there part of the year. In time, Coby realized that he had the same heart and talent and love for basketball that Pops had growing up. George Karl saw that his teenage boy was growing into a man, that Coby had developed into a tremendous athlete. But he didn't know how to say it. "Coby and I were drifting apart, and I was letting it happen," Karl says.
Three years later, after Karl lost his job in Milwaukee, Coby had already walked onto the team at Boise State University. Karl had gotten part-time work as a studio analyst for ESPN, which hardly filled his time the way an NBA schedule did, so he bought a townhouse in Idaho.
Karl played poker with Coby and his friends, covering the boys' losses when games carried into the night. Coby and his father studied game film together. After games, Karl took his son to Chili's and they'd split a piece of chocolate cake. "Those two years were a gift," Karl says. Coby couldn't believe his father had changed so dramatically. "It was something we'd never had, a regular father-son relationship," Coby told me. "For the first time, I saw that he finally was able to detach from basketball. In all the other places he'd been, he was consumed by it, 24-7."
When Denver came calling in early 2005, the Nuggets had gone through two coaches that season and produced only 17 wins. Still, there was reason for hope: Carmelo Anthony was coming off a season in which he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting; the team was returning the core of a young starting lineup; and in the offseason the Nuggets added New Jersey's All-Star forward, Kenyon Martin, for whom the team traded three first-round draft picks. With their relationship on the mend, Coby told his dad it was OK to go.