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

And maybe, out of everything that is different about George Karl this season, this is one part he does not wish to change. Sure, he might be more mellow now, more comfortable with the life he's created for himself. But maybe he refuses to believe that there isn't a place for a guy who played the game like he once did—that grit and toughness should be enough to keep a spot on the team. Maybe that's why he was so disappointed when Coby was released—a cancer survivor with a sweet jumper who did whatever his coach asked of him, even if that meant parking his butt on the bench for 48 minutes a night and supporting his teammates. Maybe, because of that, he wants to instill a bit of the working-class Pittsburgh roots in all of his players, even if they don't want it.

Back at home a few hours later, Kaci Grace is stretched on her mother, watching Barney on a laptop. Karl is still fuming about his day. "I'm going to dream that J.R. shows up late for practice tomorrow, just so I can lock the door and not let him in. And then he's not going on our next road trip."

The next day, however, Smith arrives on time. He travels with the team to Los Angeles, but Karl benches him in a win against the Clippers. As of late January, coach and player had yet to discuss the decision, which the talking heads had mostly blamed on Karl's stubbornness.

But like Karl's career, there's a twist. What the beat writers and columnists and sports-radio bloviators and bloggers and fans don't know, or conveniently overlook, is the fact that maybe Karl wants Smith to succeed. Maybe, deep down, the coach thinks he can change his player's life, just as he's continually trying to change his own.

You see, Karl learned that J.R. Smith wants to make his parents proud, that he has plans to someday attend college during the off-season. First, he needs to find a school. His first choice is the University of North Carolina.

George Karl has already put in a call. Who knows? Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future, coach and player might finally have a reason to talk.