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Fran Blinebury

George Karl
At the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver, George Karl spreads some cheer.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

On brink of 1,000 wins, Karl takes stock of a coaching life

Posted Dec 7 2010 8:43AM - Updated Dec 7 2010 3:05PM

DENVER -- When the Bucks recently came through town, George Karl made sure to pull assistant general manager Jeff Weltman aside to give him a quick message: "Just tell your Dad I said hello."

It was Harry Weltman who gave Karl his first head coaching job in the NBA, putting him in charge of the Cleveland Cavaliers back in the 1984-85 season.

"All I ever wanted to do was coach and he was the one who gave me an opportunity when nobody else would," Karl said. "So credit Harry. Or blame Harry. Somebody's got to be responsible for this."

The Super Seven
NBA coaches with 1,000 career wins*
Don Nelson 1,335
Lenny Wilkens 1,332
Pat Riley 1,210
Jerry Sloan 1,206
Phil Jackson 1,112
Larry Brown 1,096
George Karl 999
* Through 12/6/10

Karl has spent more than a quarter century barreling through the coaching profession like a tractor-trailer without air brakes, arriving with a lot of effort but without crashing into pieces.

When his Nuggets face the Bobcats tonight in Charlotte, N.C., Karl -- who returned to the sidelines after missing the final 1 months of last season due to treatment for throat cancer -- will have a chance to become just the seventh coach in NBA history to record 1,000 career wins. And in a serendipitous twist, the alum who bleeds Carolina Blue could have a chance to reach that milestone coaching against Tar Heel legend Larry Brown, and possibly in front of his mentor, Dean Smith.

"Did I ever think of 1,000?" Karl asks. "Hell, no. I almost have trouble comprehending it.

"I never think about a win-loss record in terms of my career. Every season has a personality where you know you're probably going to win about this many games and be about this good. I like to think about seasons."

With his team riding a seven-game winning streak, Karl, 59, is going for his 19th consecutive season of guiding his team to a record of .500 or better. About the only thing he hasn't done is win a championship. His Seattle team lost in the NBA Finals to Chicago in 1996.

"There have been very few thoughts ever in my mind that I'd want to do more than coach in the NBA and win a championship in the NBA," he said. "I don't know how many other things in my life I would give away for a championship, but I would probably give away a lot of them.

"Yet (the late Hall of Fame coach) Pete Newell once told me a long time ago that excellence year in and year out, week in and week out, day in and day out is tougher to coach than championships. I've always tried to keep that as my motto -- to deliver excellence. It's hard to do it on a daily basis in the NBA. Sometimes you have to accept the cards that you're dealt, and sometimes they're not going to be coaching friendly. Sometimes you've just go to let the day go."

But the truth is that there haven't been many days or nights over all the seasons and games and miles that the hard-charging Karl has been able to let go. He's always had an engine that revs in one gear -- high. It's that driving passion that has sometimes left tire tracks on the players he's coached and eventually burned him out in different stops as he bumped down the NBA road.

From Cleveland -- where his first Cavs team opened the season 2-19, but finished 36-46 and made the playoffs -- to Golden State to Seattle to Milwaukee and now Denver, he's waged a war on behalf of intensity and competitiveness and perfection.

"I think the biggest conflict I now have with my players is getting better," Karl said. "They think winning is the only result and I think early in the season getting better is as important as winning. I don't think players have that attitude. They seem to think that winning should be a pass to a day off, a pass to a light work."

Yet his players say they do understand his goals and his passion.

"He has an unbelievable basketball mind," said Chauncey Billups. "He knows the game inside-out. He's been through the rule changes and all the changes in terms of the athleticism in the game and he's always on top of it all.

"He's different than any other coach I've played for in the league for his philosophy of always wanting to run up and down and play fast, to sometimes play small ball, to being willing to do different things.

"Really, he's not as intense as people might think. He's pretty loose, actually. He gives the team and gives the players a lot more freedom than any other coach I've ever had."

Said Carmelo Anthony: "You've got to win a lot of games to get to 1,000. And you've got to know a lot of basketball to get that chance to get to 1,000."

The only time Karl felt he might have run out of chances came after he was fired by Milwaukee in 2003. From there, Karl worked as an analyst for ESPN before he was hired by Denver for the final 40 games of the 2004-05 season.

"I think I was on the down-tick a little bit," he said. "Everybody has their popularity levels and they're hot at different times. It seemed that after the Milwaukee thing I was cold in the marketplace.

"At first I was OK with taking a year or two off to see if I liked TV work. But I think that sabbatical, being away, quickly made me realize, I'm a coach and that's all that ever really drove me."

Then the cancer hit. First it was a bout with prostate cancer, then the throat cancer that led to treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. His son, Coby, had previously been treated for a form of thyroid cancer and also had lymph nodes removed while attending Boise State.

"I don't think that any question that, not only my cancer, but Coby's cancers were two big signs that I wasn't doing my life the right way," Karl said. "I wasn't loving the right way. I wasn't taking care of the people that took care of me."

That approach to life is a big reason why his first marriage ended in divorce and why Karl's road to 1,000 victories was far rougher than the elite group -- Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan and Brown -- that preceded him. Karl's trip was punctuated by side trips to Europe and to the basketball boondocks of the defunct Continental Basketball Association.

"There's no question that I short-changed my first family and my second family because of basketball," he said. "But there is no NBA coach that doesn't cheat his family. The job is too demanding, too stressful.

"I put my first family through all of that. When we lost, I lost hard. After losing in the playoffs every year, we used to go away for three or four days and just mope. We'd call it the 'Mope Out.' The kids would be asking, 'Where the 'Mope Out' gonna be this year?' "

It was the cancer that got Karl past the moping. Or at least the other cancer patients that he came to know.

"Cancer is a life-challenging and life-changing opportunity," he said. "The stories and the people who have written to me and talked to me and the strangers who have loved me -- people in cancer treatment centers, radiation centers, chemotherapy centers -- showed me a competitive spirit I thought only athletes had."

They showed him how it was possible to battle intensely, but also to maintain a perspective about the things that are most important.

That's why Karl says he's close to agreement on a new three-year contract with the Nuggets and could see himself going beyond that time frame.

"Whoever hires me now, whoever I work for, you're not going to get 10-12 hours a day out of me," he said. "You're going get a guy that likes to get to the office early, kick some butt, have some fun, teach some basketball and prepare hard. But he's also going to spend some time with his family. I'll get the job done, but I'm not going to cheat the time. And I'm going to take time for me."

Still, 26 years since Karl first sat on the bench of the Cavaliers, the staggering numbers of his 999-677 record still add up to just one thing.

"I want to coach," he said. "I think I could walk away from it if the doctors tell me I have to. But I am a coach, an NBA coach."

Give Harry Weltman the credit or the blame. But George Karl ran with the opportunity.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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