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?
As Karl got to work turning around Denver's fortunes, Coby was killing opponents with his deft shooting. And then it all almost fell apart. A few months after arriving in town, Karl went to the doctor and learned he had prostate cancer. He had just had a baby girl, Kaci Grace, with his "life partner," Kim Van Deraa, his former secretary in Milwaukee. It was a turning point. Karl sat his two oldest kids, Kelci and Coby, down. "I made it clear that I cheated them," he says.
"We just sat there and listened," Coby says. "It was good to hear him admit fault. I think that meant a lot to us."
A few months later, Karl had surgery to remove the cancer, but that was far from his last fight. The next January, Coby went to the doctor to get a lump on his neck checked out. He had thyroid cancer.
Karl told his son that he'd quit and get to Idaho as soon as possible. "Dad took the cancer a lot harder than me, a lot harder than I ever would have expected," Coby says. "He'd be on the phone, telling me about this doctor or that doctor, and how I was going to get the best treatment in the world." George Karl did leave his team eventually, for three days, when Coby had surgery to remove his thyroid. He cried at his son's bedside.
"If anything, I think the cancer strengthened his daily intention to meditate," Kelci told me. "He's focused more time on reflection. He's less aggressive."
The memories of his son's battle, and of his own, still haunt him. "When my back hurts," he told me, "I don't think it's a backache, I think it's cancer." Kim says George slowed his life considerably after the brush with mortality. The two recently moved from a house in the Cherry Creek Country Club to a more modest, professional neighborhood in east Denver, with ranch-style homes, lots of children, and a park. It's hardly a neighborhood where you'd expect to find a guy making a few million a year. "George couldn't stand the thought of living in a gated community," Kim told me. Even Kaci Grace's early education, a Montessori school, was selected with social development in mind. "I wanted a school that had diversity, with black kids and white kids and Asian kids," Karl says as we drive to his daughter's school one afternoon to set up the gymnasium for a school event. "My time overseas really got me to appreciate cultures, how people live. It enriched my life, and I want Kaci Grace to have the same experiences."
We stop in the school parking lot and walk to the middle of a few buildings on the school's campus. Kim's already there, chatting with a friend. Karl looks at the ground, at a bunch of signed bricks that families donated for a school fund-raiser.
"Kim, where's our brick?" "It's there somewhere, George."
Karl begins scanning each row, line by line. A few moments later, he taps my arm. "Right there," he says.
Below his daughter's name is an inscription Karl added. It's his mantra, he tells me. It's a little corny, a little sentimental, but it brings a wide smile to his face:
Life is good.
George Karl might be a different guy from the basketball-obsessed Genghis Khan who just a few years ago prowled the sidelines, but he's still a coach unafraid to speak his mind. Four games into the Nuggets' 2008-2009 season, the team traded aging superstar Allen Iverson for another veteran, Chauncey Billups, a Denver-born point guard who won a ring with Detroit in 2004 and is considered among the best game-managers in the league. A few weeks after the trade, Karl did an interview in which he praised Billups: "For me, it's the efficiency of how we play," Karl told reporters. "There's less bad plays, more solid plays, and we still have good plays. But I think the elimination of the wasteful, cheap possessions that we have sometimes had 10 to 15 a game, they don't exist very much anymore." His words were perceived as a jab at Iverson's on-court decision-making abilities, which Karl says he didn't intend. Still, he admits that A.I. perhaps wasn't the best fit for the team. "He'd plateaued," Karl told me. "You don't want to be coaching a guy in his down years. When we made the trade, we got better."