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?
Even if the league as a whole, in his mind, has not gotten better.
"We've got this 'how-much' syndrome in basketball," Karl says after one practice. "Capitalism has taken over. Things have changed since I was growing up. All these guys have been coddled since the second they showed they had some talent. There's no desire to learn the history of the NBA, or the Globetrotters, how the drug culture almost bankrupted the league. Our depth of knowledge today is so shallow."
When Karl talks capitalism, it's not in the ironic, guy's-made-50-million-bucks-in-his-career sort of way. Instead, it's his Marxist instinct about the game. Every NBA team is stacked with guys who were the best players to come out of their towns, McDonald's High School All-Americans who signed million-dollar shoe contracts before they could legally pop Cristal at the club. But the best teams—the Lakers of the 1980s, the Spurs of the 2000s—have players who share their talent with their teammates, who know their place as a cog that will advance the game for generations of other kids.
"Honestly," he says, pointing to his players on the practice court, "I doubt if any of them know who Bill Russell is."
It's an overstatement, to be sure, but Karl's frustration with his team seemed to hit an apex in the offseason, when he rounded up his players and announced the team's new direction. "Sometimes George is criticized," Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin told me in January, "but we put him in that position a lot. I think we all decided we had to do a better job and get fans off his back."
Karl himself has asked Anthony, the team's best player, to raise his game on, and off, the court. There was the infamous "Stop Snitchin'" video shot in his home town of Baltimore, then the 2006 brawl in New York that brought a 15-game suspension, then a DUI arrest last year that Karl called "very de-energizing" for the team. "This season, we're walking him to the gritty, tough side of basketball," Karl says of his 24-year-old All-Star. "He respects that he has to make changes to his game. Sometimes there's a fight there, but that's no different than any other player. We all feel miserable for losing [multiple playoff matchups], and we want to change that. It's a lot easier when your best player leads."
Anthony's progression, however, is hardly Karl's most pressing issue. His biggest project is the 23-year-old J.R. Smith, an immensely talented guard who has been a pebble in Karl's sneaker ever since he arrived in a trade three years ago.
A few weeks after this season began, Smith showed up late for practice, put on his jersey backward, then half-assed his way through a workout. Afterward Karl did some interviews, then headed into a bunkerlike broadcast room, where he would tape a PSA on shaken-baby syndrome. Karl sat down and did a mic check.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, is J.R. Smith ready to start? I think we have the answer to that one."
Like so many high school stars who skipped college after Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant hit the jackpot in the 1990s, Smith was one of the young, highly touted players who went from high school prom to NBA millionaire overnight. Although his ability is unquestioned, Smith burned through goodwill quickly during his first NBA stop in New Orleans in 2004, then came to Denver—where he was quick to shoot and slow to learn—and his lackluster play culminated with a benching during the 2007 playoffs. Months after watching his team get bounced in four against San Antonio, Smith was involved in a New Jersey car crash that killed a friend (a grand jury declined to indict him on vehicular homicide charges), then got two speeding tickets and had his license suspended three times. A few months after the crash, he poured Champagne on a woman at a nightclub, spit on her, shoved her, and tore her dress. But Smith's head almost hits the rim when he dunks, and when he's hot he can drain three-pointers from anywhere on the court. Last summer, the Nuggets inked him to a three-year, $15 million contract.
After Karl's taping ("Please, please, pretty please, don't ever shake a baby"), I ask about his attitude toward Smith.
"I've been to personality clinics where they say that you have to come up with four positive things for every negative," Karl says. "But I'm not someone who is going to overanalyze what they don't have. If there's a void...love, whatever, I've got my assistants mentoring him. Look, J.R., he's got great parents, but it's like he has ADD. There's laziness, a lack of focus on a daily basis. In the NBA, everyone has talent. The game isn't about talent, it's about team."