Karl facing second battle with cancer
In a quiet locker room before practice Tuesday, Nuggets coach George Karl gathered his players – along with his thoughts and emotions – to deliver a sobering message.
For the second time in five years, he was facing a battle against cancer.
"It was shocking just to hear it," said power forward Kenyon Martin, one of three team captains. "He told us he's battled it before, so he knows what it takes to get right. He's going to do all he can to get his body right and his health together, and we're going to do all we can to make sure the basketball end is taken care of."
About a half-hour later, Martin and his teammates flanked Karl in a display of unity as their 58-year-old coach revealed he has been diagnosed with squamous cell neck/head cancer that will require a rigorous six-week radiation treatment.
Karl, who endured his first treatment Tuesday, expects to miss some games and practices – he will not be with the team at Golden State on Feb. 25 and at Minnesota on March 10 – but he is optimistic about making a full recovery in time for the playoffs in April. After reaching the Western Conference finals last season, the Nuggets (35-18) currently have the second-best record in the West.
"I think I'm very blessed to have a great family and an organization that has supported me through all this and great friends and a great team," Karl said during an emotional press conference. "I will need all of them in different ways. I don't think I'm a guy that needs sympathy, but I do need support. And the major desire for me is to kick this cancer's butt and also stay with a team that I think can win a championship."
Karl said he felt a lump on the right side of neck but believed it to be fatty tissue until a visit to his family practitioner Dr. Jacques Saari on Dec. 30. Subsequent tests revealed squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common form of neck cancer.
While treatable, the cancer requires radiation therapy and chemotherapy five days a week for 45 days. The final few weeks of treatment are the most difficult because of pain and fatigue caused by the intense radiation.
"The idea is to really hit it hard with radiation therapy," Saari said. "The first three to four weeks, I think Coach is going to do very well. The last two or three weeks of therapy will be difficult. He'll need the support of everyone in the Nuggets organization and the players and the physicians to get him through this and miss as few games as possible."
Cancer has been all too familiar to Karl and the Nuggets family.
In April 2005, Karl was diagnosed with prostate cancer but recovered fully following surgery at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.
Less than a year later, Karl's son, Coby, was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma and had surgery to remove his thyroid. Coby Karl had another operation 13 months later to remove cancerous lymph nodes, but he has since played for three NBA teams and currently is thriving in the NBA Development League.
Nuggets center Nene, equipment manager Sparky Gonzales and former assistant Doug Moe all are cancer survivors.
"Cancer's a bitch to have. I don't care if it's a curable one or an incurable one," Karl said. "There's no guaranteed contracts in this gig. Doctors are very confident. Mutations of cells come in different forms. We'll just have to give it the best shot that we have."
When Karl is not with the team, longtime assistant Tim Grgurich will help coordinate practices, while assistant Adrian Dantley will take over as interim coach during games. Dantley stood in for one game on April 3, 2007, when Karl was with Coby during his second operation.
"My staff is the best basketball staff I've ever been associated with," Karl said. "I'm very excited about them having an opportunity to take more responsibility. They're ready. Very seldom do they get that opportunity in a season."
Karl's announcement came on the heels of a memorable weekend. Two days before serving as coach of the Western Conference All-Star team, he agreed to a contract extension that will take him through the 2010-11 season.
"The organization has been supportive. I think that's shown by not hesitating in giving me the extension," Karl said. "I do appreciate (Nuggets owner) Stan Kroenke and the organization's support."
"We will continue to support our coach in any way we can," Kroenke said. "Our thoughts are with him and his family as he focuses on getting healthy."
The path to recovery started Tuesday as Karl ran his players through practice as he has so many times before, calling out offensive sets and offering encouragement or criticism when necessary. The routine will change drastically over the next several weeks, but Karl's determination will not.
"I'm very confident in my doctors and I'm very confident that I'll battle," he said. "Cancer is a hell of a competitor, but I'm ready for the challenge. I'll probably have some bad days, but I'm ready for the competition."