Passion, perserverance help Karl reach rare NBA milestone
The foundation for a Hall of Fame coaching career was laid 40 years ago on campus in Chapel Hill.
Sidelined by a severe back injury during the 1969-70 season, University of North Carolina freshman George Karl started reviewing and grading game film at the request of Tar Heels coach Dean Smith and assistant Bill Guthridge.
“I learned how the game was different than I thought it was,” Karl said. “I was just a play-hard guy.”
Despite an inexhaustible passion for the game, Karl lacked the durability necessary to turn basketball into a long-term career. He played three seasons in the American Basketball Association before knee problems forced him to consider other options.
That’s when two more members of the North Carolina family supplied him with additional building blocks to begin a Hall of Fame coaching career. Fellow UNC alumni Larry Brown and Doug Moe were taking a U.S. team to Russia for a goodwill trip in 1974 and Karl accepted their invitation to join them.
“I went along and learned about strategy,” Karl recalled.
Karl’s coaching career nearly came full-circle earlier this week when the Nuggets played in Charlotte, a two-hour drive southwest of the University of North Carolina campus. Going for his 1,000th regular-season, Karl lost a close game to Brown and the Bobcats.
History was put on hold again 24 hours later in Boston, but Friday night in Toronto, Karl became the seventh coach in NBA history to reached the 1,000-win mark when the Nuggets beat the Raptors 123-116 at Air Canada Centre, site of Karl's 900th victory on New Year's Even 2008.
"My reflections are back to my dad and my mom and grandma and grandpa, the guys who got me into the business of being a competitor," Karl said after his latest milestone victory. "It’s a dream. It’s a dream that doesn’t come true very often. I never even dreamt it, but it’s here." The exclusive 1,000-win club also includes Don Nelson (1,335), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Pat Riley (1,210), Jerry Sloan (1,207), Phil Jackson (1,114) and Brown (1,097), who reached the mark in 2006.
“There’s no question that I’m the name that’s going to stick out in that group,” Karl joked. “ ‘Karl? How’d he get in there? Did they give him a couple hundred wins or something?’ The six before me are special, special coaches. Some of them are good friends. Someday it’ll be fun maybe when we all get together and yell at each other and talk about it.”
Despite his self-deprecating approach to reaching 1,000 wins, Karl is deserving of his place among the NBA’s greatest coaches.
In 23 seasons with Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver, he has compiled a .596 winning percentage, won eight division titles, reached the conference finals four times and appeared in the 1996 NBA Finals. The Nuggets (14-6) are on pace for a franchise-record fourth straight 50-win season.
Among the first to congratulate Karl after his 1,000th win was NBA commissioner David Stern.
“Becoming only the seventh NBA coach to reach 1,000 victories is a monumental milestone, one that cements George Karl's place among the greatest coaches in NBA history,” Stern said. “His continued passion and dedication for teaching the sport of basketball during a career that spans three decades is truly inspirational. Congratulations, George, on a remarkable accomplishment, and good luck on the next 1,000.”
Karl says his goal was to win 250 games when his NBA career began in Cleveland in 1984, but even that looked like a stretch when he lost his first nine games and 19 of his first 21 with the Cavaliers. Karl recalls having trouble turning into the arena parking lot at times, but in a testament to his indomitable spirit and coaching acumen, Cleveland rallied to reach the playoffs after going 34-27 in its final 61 games.
“He’s done a great job coaching throughout his career,” Sloan said. “His teams play hard and they put a lot of pressure on you with the way they play. I think he does an outstanding job.
“In order to be able to have success you have to have good players. That’s the bottom line with anybody. But he’s been able to develop players as he has coached. I think that’s one of the important things he has been able to do, to help players get better.”
Despite making the playoffs in his first NBA season, success didn’t come easy for Karl. He was fired after the Cavs started 25-42 in 1985-86, and he lasted less than two seasons in Golden State after compiling a 58-88 record with the Warriors.
Without another NBA offer, Karl reinvented himself by coaching in Spain for two seasons before guiding the Albany Patroons to a 50-6 record in 1990-91. The mark was the best in the history of the Continental Basketball Association.
His success in the CBA helped Karl gain re-entry into the NBA as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics midway through the 1991-92 season. Karl took the opportunity and never looked back, leading the Sonics to the playoffs; he hasn’t had a losing season ever since.
“I don’t think George has gotten his just due. I really don’t,” said Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “I think he’s done an unbelievable job as a coach in this league. He’s probably been the guy that’s accomplished the most and had the least written about him, which is kind of hard to believe. Any way you look at it, he’s done a great job.”
For all if his accomplishments, Karl remains in search of a championship.
He took the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals in 1996, but Seattle could not overcome a 3-0 series deficit against Michael Jordan and the Jackson-coached Chicago Bulls. The Sonics won Games 4 and 5 at home but lost Game 6 in Chicago.
“His team kept fighting back and I think that’s attributed to George’s coaching,” Jackson said.
With 11 NBA titles, Jackson is president of the 1K Club, while Riley (5), Brown (1) and Wilkens (1) also have been to the top of the mountain. Nelson retired with the most regular-season wins in NBA history, leaving Karl and Sloan to continue their quest for a crown.
“Jerry and I are probably going to say, ‘We just wish we’d have a championship,’ ” Karl said. “We’d trade about 300 of those wins for one ring. Maybe 400. Maybe 500.”
A year ago, the wins, losses and pursuit of NBA glory were secondary for Karl and the entire Nuggets organization.
Five years after recovering from prostate-cancer surgery, Karl was diagnosed with head and neck cancer shortly after New Year’s 2010. His aggressive treatment plan included a six-week schedule of chemotherapy and radiation treatment that forced him to miss 19 regular-season games and the 2010 playoffs.
Karl, 59, lost nearly 50 pounds during the intense treatment but received clearance to resume his full-time coaching schedule in September.
“What he’s battled back from this year has been amazing,” said New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, who played against Karl in high school, college and the ABA. “He’s just a super coach. I would say for all coaches and anybody in the sport, he’s somebody that’s a good example. He’s a lifer. He just loves basketball. You see it the way he’s gone about it from playing to coaching. He’s been great.”
COACH AND MENTOR
In addition to developing players, Karl also has helped groom young coaches. Seven of his former players or assistant coaches have gone on to become an NBA head coach.
“George has a tremendous passion for the game,” said Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, who played for Karl in Milwaukee from 1998-2000. “He’s been a great mentor for me as a young coach in the league, especially seeing how he’s handled his health situation in the last couple of years. He loves basketball and he’s been very supportive of me. I’m just happy he’s back on the sidelines where he belongs.”
Among Karl’s many coaching gifts, Del Negro said, is his ability to instill enthusiasm and confidence in his players. Jackson, one of the game's most respected motivators, agreed.
“He carries a lot of energy to his team,” Jackson said. “A big thing about last year going through that process of treatment for cancer was that it deprived him and the team of that energy that he brings to his game of coaching.”
THE NEXT 1,000
Karl’s health remains his top priority, but he plans on staying on the Denver bench beyond 2011. He and the team are in discussions on a multiyear contract extension; such a deal would give Karl a chance to make some more Nuggets history.
With 292 wins with the Nuggets, Karl is second only to Moe, whose victory total of 432 hangs from the Pepsi Center rafters.
Not that Moe keeps track of such records. Upon learning that Karl was nearing the 1,000-win mark this week, he deadpanned: “Is he up to 999? That’s terrific. How am I supposed to know these things? I didn’t even know how many wins I had.”
Moe wasn’t there in person to see Karl get his 1,000th victory, but as a longtime a friend and coaching mentor, he was happy to see Karl receive some well-deserved recognition for his hard work and dedication to carrying on the “Carolina Way.”
“Good for George,” Moe said. “He deserves it, especially going through what he’s had to go through. He’s passionate about the game. He believes in what he’s doing. He does a terrific job. It’s not easy to coach in this league, and it gets tougher every year.”
If that's the case, the Nuggets certainly have the right man for the job.
Karl's influence felt throughout NBA
What they're saying about GK 1K
Countdown to Karl 1K: Wins 709-900
Countdown to Karl 1K: Wins 500-700
Countdown to Karl 1K: Wins 200-400
Countdown to Karl 1K: Wins 1 and 100
Karl Makes triumphant return, wins No. 987
Ultimate Survivor: Karl honored at ESPYs