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David Aldridge

George Karl and Don Nelson enbrace before the St. Jude's reception prior to NBA Summer League.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

The inspiring story of George Karl

Posted Jul 12 2010 8:14PM

LAS VEGAS- -- There is so much that happened this week in the NBA that is worthy of a column, or two. And I know you simply cannot help yourselves; you can't get enough about LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh joining forces. (Does Bosh understand that is he not going to be Batman on South Beach? He's not even going to be Robin - maybe he's Commissioner Gordon?)

It was a seismic change to be sure, and they may write books about how everyone behaved this week, from superstar players, to agents, to managers and publicists, to jilted owners. Not many will come out well.


You will forgive me if I start elsewhere.

Where there was greed and excess run amok, and endless hype, and teams throwing money at marginal players like there was absolutely nothing broken with an economic system that the owners insist is broken, there was also Thursday night at the Hard Rock Hotel here, where, a little ways removed from the main Strip and the hedonism found therein, there was an ironic, wonderful reminder that humanity can do great things when good people commit to helping others.

The NBA's Summer League kicked off Thursday with a fundraising dinner for St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, honoring George Karl, making his return to the sidelines after undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments since last February for throat and neck cancer, his second bout with cancer in the last five years.

The NBA's involvement with St. Jude's is the work of Tom Penn, the former Blazers' assistant GM. Penn has been intimately involved with St. Jude's since his days in the Grizzlies' front office, and the fact that he was working his end of the LeBronathon for ESPN didn't stop him from hopping on a plane Thursday morning and flying across the country to be at the event. With the help of Warren LeGarie, the prominent coaches' agent who has developed the Vegas Summer League into the premier offseason league, and Albert Hall of HallPass Media, a brilliant young exec who is going to run someone's television network quite soon and seems to know everyone in basketball directly or indirectly, the dinner has become a significant event. (Full disclosure: those three have asked me to emcee the dinner the last two years, evidently reaching the bottom of their list of possible hosts.)

It was a wonderful evening, which helped increase the amount of money raised so far this year for St. Jude's by the NBA's players and teams to more than $200,000. There were messages of hope from a 17-year-old boy four years removed from his last chemo treatment, healthy and disease-free. There was the re-telling of the amazing statistical success St. Jude's has had in treating certain cancers: since 1962, the survival rate for children that come to the hospital with leukemia has risen from 4 percent to 94 percent. And Karl was the first recipient of an award for courage that will be made annually in his name.

About 40 pounds lighter, but with a firm handshake, Karl says he's ready to get back into the grind of basketball, with the late hours, the constant yelling, the incessant travel, all of it--despite still having sores in his mouth and a feeding tube in his stomach. He can eat smoothies and soups, and risotto, and some fruits, but not a lot more. Some days he has dry mouth, and the next, his mouth is filled with mucus. There's no way of telling.

But he's back. The drive, he says, is still there.

"It is so much in me," he said Thursday. "We're competitors. And I've always been proud of being a competitor. I've always been proud of never being on a losing team in the NBA, playing or coaching. But I want you to know, all of these great competitors out there, from Kobe Bryant, some of the people that I sat with in radiation treatment, and sat with in chemotherapy treatment, are better competitors than we are. Their odds of success are bad. What they have to put their body through on a daily basis, and what they are competing against at that moment, and to have a smile on their face and have a strength to their walk, and to be friendly to you, I had many days when I was looking at competitors, people who had toughness."

One in particular stood out among the 20 or so folks strapped side by side in the chemo ward.

"There was one guy that used to wear a college t-shirt, sweatshirts, to all of his treatments," Karl said. "He went through the same treatment I had to do. I got a bad rash, but he got a really bad rash, all over his face. And he was really, really tough to look at. And this guy, every day, came over and gave me a hug, every day, wanted to know how I was doing, every day wandered around and kind of got high fives, there was four or five other people in the room. And he always wore Michigan. I gave him crap about Michigan. And then he finally wore North Carolina, which was finally the right shirt. I remember him a lot of times."

Through those grueling six weeks, Karl's partner, Kim Van Deraa, did most of the heavy lifting. She was constantly updating her blog, getting Karl to and from his treatments and trying to explain to their 5-year-old daughter Kaci exactly why her father couldn't do the things with her that he used to.

"You're on a lot of drugs," Karl said. "So you don't have a lot of organizational thought process of what you're supposed to do. And people have to hold your hand. I'm thankful for the people I had."

He's already thinking about how to get his team back to where it was in January, when it was playing its best basketball and had the swagger and the confidence necessary to compete with the Lakers ("you just gotta go after them," he said. "They want you to play kind of a more finesse, rhythm, flow game. They'll beat most people if you let them do that. You've got to go after them"). He knows the Nuggets need a big man, with Kenyon Martin likely out for most, if not all, of next season. And he is already ruing how the Nuggets "cheated the game" again last season.

"That falls on my head," he said. "We've had these problems before. But now it's got to be just more black and white--c'mon, man, we're not going to do that. No. We're not going to take crazy shots. We're not going to blame the referee and give the other team a layup. And I thought, for me, as a coach, the energy to coach the right way has always been the Dean Smith mentality. So much of what Coach Smith taught us at Carolina was play the right way. And play as a team and play defense first, and every day try to get better and smarter as a basketball player. So I think there's an energy, or at least there seems to be a dream or a script in my mind for what I want to do next year."

He will try to take it easy physically this summer, and hope that his doctors can get the mucus in his throat under control to the point where he can handle the normal duties of coaching. Coaches have to yell to be heard in 20,000-seat arenas. They have to yell to be heard on the practice court. They have to yell because sometimes they have to yell to make a point to their players. It is not a small thing in their business.

"They feel the throat will come back and be strong," Karl said. "There will be days where it will probably be weak. But I'm excited to coach, get in the gym and be in the summer league and just try to thank a lot of people. There's no way I can thank them individually, but I can't tell you how many people really, deeply, soulfully communicated friendship to me in a way I've never felt before. And maybe I'm getting old. But I really appreciate some of the calls from people who I haven't talked to in a long time."

He will have some heavy lifting in the weeks to come, but he's ready to push. It was really, really good to see George Karl again.


Okay. LeBron.

The great Roger Ebert wrote that movies aren't about what they're about; they're about how they're about what they're about. And that is what bothers so many people around the league about James's path to South Beach: it's not that he opted to play for the next few years with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. No one can be critical of three great players opting to play with one another, in a state with no income tax, in an organization that has gotten it done before. It would be like ripping Randy Moss because he wanted to play with the Patriots.

It's how James and his brain trust handled the process. It's how James made everything about him the first week of July. The notion that James needed a one-hour special to raise funds for the Boys' and Girls' Clubs is ludicrous; he could write a check for 10 times whatever he raised in the special. It only made him look worse, hiding behind a charity to justify taking an hour to explain what could have been explained in 30 seconds.

The only conclusion is that the special was the grand conclusion of three years of believing that a simple decision on where to play basketball had to be raised to the level of national emergency. What other point could there be? We must stop traffic because we can; we must make this all about LeBron because there are entities that will enable us to do so. Now, it's hard to believe that he's done any permanent damage to his brand--winning a title will erase most of the ill will James faces nationwide, though much of Cleveland will never forgive him--but it was all so unnecessary.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh join forces with Dwyane Wade. But you probably already knew that.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

What would have been wrong, one team executive wondered, if James had simply gone to the Cavs on July 1st and said the following: "Look, I don't know where I'm going, but I'm going. Out of courtesy to you I am letting you know that I have no intention of re-signing here, so you can start planning for next season with that in mind." To the best of my knowledge, the Cavaliers still thought when the ESPN special began Thursday night that they were in the running. No matter what he wanted to do, leaving his team hanging like that was wrong.

"The only thing, and I mean the only thing I disagree with is....If he knew somewhere else was the destination. He should have spared Cle," wrote James's former teammate, guard Mo Williams, on his Twitter account Friday.

James could have still had his ratings - grabbing show on ESPN, he could have still built up national suspense about his intentions. But the Cavs wouldn't have been led along and believed -- as they did earnestly at the beginning of the week -- that there was a real chance that James would be coming back to Cleveland.

Even if that were true, that does not excuse Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, whose pedantic, hilarious screed Thursday night was its own petulance writ large. For seven years, James was Anthony Fremont, the kid/monster in The Twilight Zone episode that had telekinetic powers and ruled the adults of--ironically--Peakesville, Ohio. He could make them into hideous creatures or "wish them into the cornfield" if they thought or said bad things about him. And the Cavs--and, by definition, Gilbert--let it happen.

Their fear of displeasing James was so great, they allowed him privileges that went well beyond the court. His friends and associates were given great seats and jobs and generally had the run of the joint, and trades and moves were made with James's thoughts in mind. (Not always: James desperately wanted Jason Kidd when the Nets made him available.) Yes, that goes on in other places with other stars, but those places didn't have an owner screeching at the top of his Comic Sans about what a traitor James was. (Gilbert's second crack at criticizing James, with SI's Ian Thomsen, was much better.)

Sunday brought a bit of a sea change with a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that detailed the years-long process by which James, Wade and Bosh dropped hints and flirted with one another, their intentions obvious. There ws no smoking gun, but there was at least a pattern that many wonder if the league will pursue.

The Raptors have opted not to pursue tampering charges themselves, but they are very curious if the league is going to take a real look at the implications of the Plain Dealer story--that James, Wade and Bosh have spent several months, if not years, thinking and planning about playing with one another. In Cleveland, I'm told, there are questions being asked internally, and the Cavaliers expect the Plain Dealer story to generate more questions.

Was there tampering? I don't think so; how can players tamper? Their promises don't carry any weight; they aren't management and they aren't ownership. It would be different if Riles told Wade 'tell LeBron we'll pay him the max' in February of 2008. But there's no evidence of that and it would be impossible to prove anyway. The key, it seems to me, is the role played by Nick Arison, the son of Heat majority owner Micky Arison, who met the trio as an intern for USA Basketball, according to the Plain Dealer story, and now is now Miami's vice president of basketball operation.

As former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker once famously asked about another topic, what did Nick Arison know, and when did he know it?

Until those answers are known, and they never may be, we are left with the image of a nervous James, sitting in a Boys and Girls Club mainly devoid of boys and girls, doing something that never needed to be done, except for the glory of a brand, making a spectacle out of something that should have been simple.

Yes, the ratings were enormous. People watch Steph Marbury eating Vaseline, and stop to ogle at car wrecks on the highway. Doesn't make it the right thing to do.


(Rankings through 7/11/10)

1) L.A. Lakers: Steve Blake will fit right in as a replacement for Jordan Farmar. But the Lakers have to get Derek Fisher back, even if they have to overpay.

2) Miami: LeBron and Bosh and Wade, and Mike Miller? In one week? Kyra Sedgwick isn't The Closer; Riles is.

3) Chicago: Happiest guy in the Windy City is second-year forward James Johnson, who survived all the trade talk and speculation that he'd have to be sacrificed for the Bulls to make all of their free agent moves work.

4) San Antonio: Big Tiago Splitter is finally in the fold.

5) Boston: Kept the better of the Two Allens--Ray. And despite losing Tony Allen, the Celtics have most of their core intact to make one final run next season.

6) Oklahoma City: Shouldn't Durantula have Joe Johnson's contract, and vice versa?

7) Dallas: May have overpaid a tad for Brendan Haywood, but had to have a center in the fold with Erick Dampier and his contract likely to be gone by opening night.

8) Houston: The Big Man, Yao Ming, is back on the court and looking good according to insiders.

9) Orlando: Good value pickups in Quentin Richardson, Chris Duhon to bolster rotation.

10) Milwaukee: Kudos to owner Herb Kohl, often ripped in these pages, for paying the going rate and then some to improve (Drew Gooden) and maintain (John Salmons) a solid roster. Bucks still have hopes of keeping Luke Ridnour, too, though Minnesota's offer may prove too tempting.

11) Portland: Still looking for that point guard upgrade, but if Spurs aren't willing to move Tony Parker, hard to find one out there that's a) available and b) better than Andre Miller.

12) Utah: Think the Jazz has to hold its nose and match on Wes Matthews. Can't lose three of your top eight guys in one week and spin that as a good summer.

13) Atlanta: Big overpay for Joe Johnson, but the Hawks had to do it to stay credible with their fans--many of whom are nonetheless roiled at how much it cost to bring JJ back.

14) New York: Don't know much about Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot center from Khimki in Russia, that the Knicks have signed. But if he is a find, the Knicks have, after all, had a pretty solid July: Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph and Kelenna Azubuike from the David Lee trade, and Ray Felton. They aren't LeBron, but they aren't LeBad.

15) Memphis: Xavier Henry will help. Greivis Vasquez will help. Tony Allen will help. Keeping Rudy Gay really helps. A solid offseason for the Grizz, which could become a really good one if they can somehow hold onto Ronnie Brewer.


Miami. Riles and his team--including senior VP and assistant general manager Andy Ellisburg, the best cap guy on earth--came up with an audacious plan, went to the wall--they only had two players under contract this time last week!--and executed it. Surely there were ups and downs and glitches that we will never hear from behind the walls of Fortress Riley, but the bottom line is the bottom line. They got LeBron. They got Bosh. They kept Wade. And, as they told me and Heat fans they'd do months ago, their ticket prices just went way, way up.


New Jersey. The Nets supposedly made a great presentation to LeBron James and the other prominent free agents, including Carlos Boozer. But at the end of the day -- make that week -- had the following haul: Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro and Jordan Farmar, with an offer sheet pending to Golden State guard Anthony Morrow. Pretty sure that's not who Mikhail Prokhorov had in mind when he told me the Nets would be going after "the best of the best" in free agency this summer.


Could Toronto escape from under Chris Bosh's departure with a competitive team next season?

At first glance--and maybe second--the Raptors look like they're grasping in the wake of Bosh's departure to Miami. They're in the middle of yet another multi-team mega-deal, with Hedo Turkoglu, Reggie Evans and Jose Calderon going (Turk to Phoenix, Evans and Calderon to Charlotte), and Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Tyson Chandler coming. If it were 2007, the Raptors would be putting a heck of a team together. But Barbosa and Chandler have been hurt much of the past couple of years, and Diaw was never the same player with the Bobcats that he'd been in Phoenix.

But the Raptors have at least the skeleton of a team that could be, if not a sure playoff team, at least one that won't be high Lottery bad. My muted optimism comes from watching DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and rookie Ed Davis here in Vegas. Sure, it's Summer League, and defense is just a rumor here. But if the Raps can somehow get the ball off the glass on a semi-regular basis next season, they have real speed on the wings that can finish above the rim.

Yes, that's a big if. You don't replace an All-Star with a trade exception and call that progress. And, unfortunately for the Raptors and the city, Bosh's departure continues an all-too familiar recent pattern of stars leaving, from Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady to the Blue Jays' Roy Halliday, for greater fame and fortune in the States.

But if --if-- Barbosa can stay healthy and regain the form he showed three years ago, and DeRozan continues to improve, and Davis can give them rebounding and defense out of the chute while his offensive game develops, and the Raptors get restricted free agent forward Linas Kleiza (Denver isn't expected to match the Raptors' $20 million offer sheet), and Jarrett Jack can solidify his hold on the starting point spot, and Amir Johnson shows he's worth the $34 million Toronto just gave him to start at power forward, and '06 number one overall pick Andrea Bargnani can become a star center (or is that centre)...

Man, that's a whole lotta ifs. Am I crazy?

"The people I've talked to--and maybe it's just selective, or maybe they're just saying it 'cause it's me--they're like, 'okay, all right, let's go,'" Raptors Coach Jay Triano said Saturday. "He (Bosh) was here and we didn't win. That's what they're saying. So let's rebuild with these young guys. They've fallen in love with these kids because of the way they come and play every day. They're ecstatic with the fact that we re-signed Amir. Now, did they want Bosh back? Probably, yes. But hopefully we have enough other good guys that they like."

The key is DeRozan, the first-round pick in last year's Draft who averaged 8.6 points per game last season. That number has to double for the Raps to scare anyone next year at the offensive end. If DeRozan can defend his position and help out on the glass, Toronto will at least have a chance to run. And if they can run, DeRozan and Weems will finish.

"I've just got to come out and do it on both ends," DeRozan said, "really help out on the offensive end, and especially on the defensive end. Especially if we want to win. I think I play a major part, playing at the two position, and just bring it every night. We're capable of doing a lot. We're going to be a very young team. You can look at a young team like Oklahoma City, what they did last year in the Western Conference. I think we can be the same way, with the young team we have."

Despite the undercurrent of bad feelings against Bosh in Toronto, and grumblings that he didn't exactly extend himself as the Raptors sank out of the playoff race after being nine games over .500 midway through the season, DeRozan says that none of the players hold Bosh's departure against him.

"That's a hell of a free agency," DeRozan said. "You can't really turn down to play with two of the best players in the league. I understand they want to win a ring and they'll do whatever it takes. You really can't be mad at him. At the same time, you wish he would have stayed. But I wish the best for him."


All your questions were about free agency, and as you know, that changes kind of quickly these days. Send more evergreen questions next time to me here. Include your first and last name. Snark is allowed if it's funny. Criticism is okay if it's warranted. And if we pick your e-mail we just may print it, and there's nothing you can do about it, probably.


$327,000,000 Combined deals for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh from Miami.

$58,044,000 Salary cap for the 2010-11 season, a decided increase over the league's anticipated $56 million cap.

$17.41 Reduced amount for a LeBron James Fathead lifesize vinyl sticker on Friday. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert bought Fathead in 2006. The supposed significance behind the strange price? Benedict Arnold was born in 1741.


1) Kevin Durant, you are one class act.

2) With none of the hoopla that took place in Miami, John Paxson and Gar Forman have done some work in Chicago. Adding Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver (with an offer sheet pending to J.J. Redick) to the Derrick Rose - Joakim Noah base gives the Bulls inside presence and perimeter shooting, both of which should create driving lanes for Rose that he didn't have his first two years.

3) I think you're going to hear a lot more from Golden State's Reggie Williams next season. He's ripping stuff up at the Vegas Summer League just like he did with the Warriors last season, when he averaged 15 a game the last two months of the season after coming from Sioux Falls in the D-League.

4) And Coby Karl should be on someone's roster this fall. Seriously, he's one of the best players here. Enough with the nepotism talk; kid can ball.

5) Spain, you are one fine futbol team. Enjoyed watching the Beautiful Game for the last month, though I expect I will never find the hidden meaning and inner beauty of a nil-nil match that those who revere the pitch do.


1) If this economic system is broken, the owners have one hell of a strange way of showing it. They have thrown more than a billion dollars in new salaries around in the first week of free agency. Who, exactly, causes costs to go up? Did someone make the Raptors give Amir Johnson $34 million?

2) I respect Jesse Jackson and what he's done over the decades, but I think he's put way too much thought into this . Maybe Dan Gilbert is just a blowhard owner, and LeBron is just a basketball player, and we shouldn't import too much historical significance into what James did, and what Gilbert said.

3) Haven't heard much from noted newshound Jared Dudley lately. Or Ochocinco. This reporting stuff isn't as easy as it looks, is it, fellas?

4) The Nuggets don't have a lot of time left to show Carmelo Anthony they're serious about getting some bigs on the court in time for next season. (Maybe Baltimore-raised Anthony can convince HBO to revive The Wire for one more episode next summer: Tha Decision II.

5) Um, Mel Gibson? Don't think there will be a Lethal Weapon V with Danny Glover, or any other ethnic actor whose people have been slurred by you lately.


Exstension for 5 more years wit the #thunder...God is Great, me and my family came a long way...I love yall man forreal, this a blessing!
--Kevin Durant KDthunderup), Wednesday, 9:44 a.m., handling his announcement of his future basketball plans a little differently than Miami Thrice.


"In this fall, I am going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."
--LeBron James, last Thursday, permanently changing the landscape of pro basketball.

"He's got a speed higher than everybody else's, but then he's got another speed higher than his speed."
--Wizards coach Flip Saunders, on his rookie point guard John Wall, the first pick in the Draft.

"Yeah, the Knicks are back!"
--Amar'e Stoudemire, upon his agreement to a five-year, $100 million deal to be the face of the franchise in New York City.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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