Adelman And Karl Share Path To 1,000 Wins

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Who would’ve thought?

Nuggets coach George Karl laughed at the notion that, when he and Rick Adelman applied for the same Portland Trail Blazers assistant coaching job in 1983 under the legendary Dr. Jack Ramsay, both he and Adelman would one day be in the 1,000 wins club.

That thought never crossed his mind.

“I had no idea,” Karl said, laughing. “I thought if I won 250, I’d have a great career.”

But that’s exactly what happened. On Saturday, Adelman joined Karl in the 1,000 wins club with a 107-101 win over the Pistons at Target Center. It’s an accomplishment only eight coaches in NBA history have reached, and if you go back far enough in the history books you’ll find two of them interviewing for the same job under Ramsay 30 years ago. Adelman ended up with that gig, but both would end up being defining NBA coaches of the 1990s and 2000s.

Not a bad group to pick from, right?

Why Ramsay decided to go with a former NBA player who compiled a 141-39 record in six seasons at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., had a lot to do with Ramsay getting to know Adelman—and his coaching style—leading up to the hire. Adelman often came to Blazers games at the time, and when he came he would visit with Ramsay after games. Meanwhile, Ramsay got a feel for Adelman’s ability to lead on the court by watching him at Chemeketa. When it came down to it, Adelman seemed to be the right fit.

“To make the choice over George Karl was a hard decision, but Rick had such an interest in being just an assistant, to move up from the junior college ranks to be involved in the NBA, that I thought this would be a good match,” Ramsay said. “I liked his personality, I liked his knowledge of the game, the rapport he established with his players.”

Ramsay said when selecting an assistant, you don’t visualize how the individual would perform as a head coach. Instead, you’re looking for how he can contribute to the team’s success. But with Adelman, he saw some of the traits of a successful head coach from the beginning.

“There were signs along the way,” he said. “He always had great rapport with players, and communicated well. He always had a deep and thorough knowledge of the game and how it can be implemented. So those are good characteristics of a head coach, and you don’t know if it’s going to work out or not. But it certainly did in this case.”

The rest is history.

Adelman took over the Blazers midway through his sixth season in Portland, took them to two finals in his first three full years at the helm and made stops in Golden State, Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota en route to 1,000 wins.

Karl became Cleveland’s head coach in 1984-85 and spent two seasons with the Cavaliers before two seasons with Golden State. He took over in Seattle in 1991-92 and led the Sonics to incredible success over seven seasons, including a trip to the 1996 NBA Finals. After a stop in Milwaukee, Karl has spent the last nine seasons in Denver and has made the Nuggets a constant threat in the Northwest Division.

He picked up his 1,000th win on Dec. 10, 2010 and currently is sixth on the all-time wins list with 1,126.

Who would’ve thought Ramsay’s assistant coaching candidates would combine for more than 2,000 victories?

“It’s humbling. I don’t like to compare myself to the Riley’s and the Larry Browns,” Karl said. “I admire them. I’m happy I got there with the longevity of my career. But I think Rick and I have been very good ambassadors of the game, and I think that’s what we do. We love the gym, and we serve the game with a positive attitude.”

What’s most impressive about those two is not that they are forever linked by that 1983 assistant coaching vacancy. It’s that both became so influential to the game over the same period of time in the ensuing three decades.

Karl described Adelman as being ahead of the curve when it comes to his offensive innovation. That’s high praise coming from Karl, who has impacted the game in his own right with his fast-paced, up-tempo style and his teams’ abilities to score points in volumes.

When the Raptors came through town this week, Toronto coach Dwane Casey mentioned both guys—along with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle—as coaches who have left significant fingerprints on the game.

“I think George is one of the most innovative coaches I’ve ever been around, because we were one of the first to push everything and kind of be a running style—be a running team with Gary [Payton] and Shawn [Kemp] and that group,” said Casey, who was an assistant under Karl in Seattle. “[Adelman] is ahead of the curve, he’s always been ahead of the curve. There’s always something you can sneak away from him—steal from his approach and the way he plays.”

Casey said Adelman was one of the first to have big men distribute from the elbow, and the way his teams move without the ball and use back cuts makes it so difficult for opposing teams to defend.

Both coaches became household names through their incredibly successful careers. Combined, the two have made the playoffs in 37 of their 45 seasons as head coaches, and they’ve combined for three conference championships.

It’s impossible to say where Adelman and Karl would have ended up if Ramsay would have chose that position differently. One thing Adelman knows is he doesn’t envision himself a 1,000-win coach without his time as an assistant in Portland.

“When I heard George was the other guy, I thought there’s not much likelihood I was going to get it, but he gave me a chance,” Adelman said. “It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Adelman gained Ramsay’s respect with his demeanor, knowledge of the game and leadership skills. Thirty years later, Ramsay—and others—still praise him for those characteristics.

“Rick finds a way to get something positive from everybody that plays for him,” Ramsay said. “It’s no complex issue. He manages to have his players blend into the offensive system. And while there is common ground in what they do offensively over the years, he will vary the offense to accommodate the skills of players as well as anybody who has ever coached.”

There’s no question Karl has respect for Adelman and the type of coaching visionary he’s been over the past 30 years. “He plays a system that makes his players improve in the league,” Karl said. “The development of excellence year in and year out is a tremendous compliment. I’m happy that he’s going to get there, and I’m sure he’s going to get there this year.”

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