Karl engerized for postseason after sitting out 2010 playoffs

Veteran coach set to resume pursuit of NBA title

OKLAHOMA CITY – With radiation still coursing through his body, George Karl was in his own personal purgatory, condemned to watch playoff basketball from an armchair.

When the Denver Nuggets were beating the Utah Jazz in the 2010 Western Conference playoffs, it helped alleviate the feeling of helplessness. When they were losing, Karl simple couldn’t watch.

Either way, cancer was standing between him and his greatest passion, and there was little he could do about it.

“I was probably at the worst part of the process,” Karl said. “The first couple weeks after radiation, you think you’re getting better and you’re actually getting worse. The radiation is still in your body. The stress of watching the games was very difficult.”

Twelve months later, Karl is ready to embrace the stress of the playoffs once again – this time back in his familiar seat on the Denver bench.

Energized and cancer-free, Karl will return to the postseason Sunday when the Nuggets open their first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I'm fired up,” the soon-to-be 60-year-old coach said. “I'm excited. I feel like a kid. I don't know if it's my freedom from the cancer or just the freedom of my expression, but I'm going to do whatever it takes.”

On Dec. 10, 2010, Karl became the seventh coach in NBA history to win 1,000 regular-season games, but he is seeking his first championship in 23 seasons.

The pursuit was put on hold last season when he was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer. The Nuggets were in line for a top-three playoff seed when Karl started his chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but his absence – combined with injuries to key players – proved too difficult to overcome.

Denver’s coaching staff, led by assistant Adrian Dantley, worked tirelessly to make Karl proud, but the Nuggets lost to the fifth-seeded Jazz 4-2 in the first round. Dantley, matched up against Utah coach Jerry Sloan, took much of the heat.

“The challenge that the staff had should’ve been respected more than it has been,” Karl said. “I thought the series was fairly well-coached. I don’t think it was lopsided like people try to make it out to be.”

Taking a cue from their coach, the Nuggets have shown a lot of fight in 2010-11. Denver went 18-7 after trading its two top scorers, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, to the New York Knicks on Feb. 22.

Eight players averaged in double-figures during that season-ending stretch and the Nuggets are out to prove that it’s possible to succeed in the playoffs without a traditional superstar.

“George is very excited, and I think all the excitement he has is getting to us too,” veteran forward Kenyon Martin said. “It’s just a matter of going out and playing, just transferring that excitement into a game situation.”

Martin was slowed by a knee injury during the Utah series last year, but he played his best basketball of the season after the All-Star break, averaging 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in his final seven games.

Equally important, Martin has embraced his role as the team’s lone captain (Anthony and Billups were the others) and provided leadership through his strong voice on the court, on the bench and in the locker room.

“I’ve got more (playoff) games than 10 of these guys combined,” Martin said of his teammates. “This is unfamiliar territory for these guys. My experience of going deep in the playoffs – myself and George – is going to be huge in the series.”

On the eve of his 85th career playoff game, Martin organized a players team dinner in Oklahoma City on Saturday night. Though not unusual, it’s the type move that helps foster chemistry and makes Karl’s job easier.

Karl also has put more trust in his coaching staff, giving them added responsibilities during practices and shootarounds. He compares it to a principal sitting in the back of a classroom and observing the students and teacher.

“The teacher would still teach but it seemed like there was more attentiveness going on,” Karl said. “I think I’ve done that more this year.

“I’ve been slowly delegating more, directing more. I amazingly find out that I don’t have to be as attentive and it still can be effective if you delegate and you have top-quality people working for you. And we do. We have a great staff.”

Assistants Dantley, Stacey Augmon, Tim Grgurich, Chad Iske, Jamahl Mosley and John Welch were thrown into the fire a year ago and handled themselves with class and dignity that made Karl proud.

Former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant Melvin Hunt joined the staff following the departures of Grgurich and Mosley, and the coaching staff feels complete once again with Karl at the helm.

There is a renewed energy that has filtered down to the locker room.

The Nuggets are ready to roll.

“I’m not saying last year was a cloudy day going into the playoffs, but it was not a sunny day,” Karl said. “I think we’re going into the playoffs with a sunny day.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...