The hole in George Karl’s resume, the longtime NBA coach sometimes worried, looked big enough to drive a Hall of Fame invitation through.
For all of Karl’s success across 27 seasons that included 1,175 regular-season victories and 22 playoff appearances, so much focus often landed on the one thing that eluded him: an NBA championship.
“I was always nervous about it,” Karl said recently. “Kind of angry about it at times. But you know, appreciation and recognition goes up and down.”
Karl hit the up cycle this spring when he in fact was voted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined at the ceremony in Springfield, Mass., with a large Class of 2022, including NBA luminaries Manu Ginobili, Tim Hardaway, Lou Hudson and referee Hugh Evans. Larry Costello and Del Harris, two venerated coaches, will join them as contributors to the sport, and be joined by WNBA, college, international and other inductees.
“I’ve never gotten to the top of the mountain, winning a championship,” Karl said shortly after being voted in. “But I think the Hall of Fame might have solved a lot of my failures, and I can accept them a little more.”
Failures? Well, Karl’s teams lost 824 times in the regular season. His lifetime postseason record was 80-105 (.432) with only that single Finals appearance in 1996 with Seattle. And he was hired five times — and fired five times, once (Denver, 2013) within a month of being named NBA Coach of the Year.
On the sidelines and occasionally in front-office squabbles, Karl could be as tempestuous as he was talented. He burned hot with referees, certain opponents and some of his own players, staff and bosses.
And if you’re looking for a “reportedly” or “allegedly” in there, forget it. Karl confirmed his bad-boy reputation when he published his memoir, “Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs and Poor Shot Selection.”
“He was a guy who was feisty,” Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens said, laughing as he recalled Karl’s sideline work. “He came ready to coach. I think he made his presence felt. I’m happy for him. There are a lot of guys who leave an impression on the NBA and certainly the NBA is better because of people like that.”
Said Sam Mitchell, the 2007 Coach of the Year whose first taste of that role came on Karl’s staff in 2002-03: “He wasn’t one of my favorite people — I think our personalities clashed. But he taught me a lot about coaching. And I have utmost respect for George.”
Karl’s book came out in January 2017, nine months after his last game with the Sacramento Kings. It stirred up pushback from some of his targets and likely explains why he stayed stuck on 1,999 games coached.
Karl was 64 when he was shown the door by the Kings. Yet now, at 71, the most hallowed door in basketball has swung open for him.
“I felt quiet and humble,” Karl said of the phone call that delivered the Hall news. “And I said, ‘Those are two things that don’t happen very much in my life.’”
Before launching into so many of the things Karl got right in his career, let’s offer context for the one glaring omission. Winning a ring, for a coach, is tougher and more rare than some might think:
• More than half of the 76 championships in NBA history — 39 to be exact — have been won by teams coached by just six men: Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (9), John Kundla (5), Pat Riley (5), Gregg Popovich (5) and Steve Kerr (4).
• That leaves 37 to be won by everybody else. Of those, 16 belong to eight coaches who snagged two each: Alex Hannum, Bill Russell, Red Holzman, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Chuck Daly, Rudy Tomjanovich and Erik Spoelstra.
• The remaining 21 NBA titles have been won by 21 coaches, one per customer. They range from Al Attles to Lenny Wilkens, including five active coaches (Mike Budenholzer, Rick Carlisle, Tyronn Lue, Nick Nurse and Doc Rivers).
Now consider that, according to Basketball-Reference.com, there have been 345 full-time (non-interim) head coaches since the NBA’s inception.
That means 43 guys have rings on their resumes while more than 300 do not.
Meanwhile, only five coaches have more victories than Karl’s 1,175: Gregg Popovich (1,344), Don Nelson (1,335), Wilkens (1,332), Jerry Sloan (1,221) and Pat Riley (1,210). Neither Nelson nor Sloan won NBA titles either.
“Not important,” decreed Hall of Fame forward Bobby Jones, one of Karl’s three chosen presenters for the Saturday ceremony (Gary Payton and Roy Williams are the others).
“If you’ve got Kobe Bryant or Kareem or some of those guys, if you don’t get to the Finals or win a championship you should be kicked out of the Hall of Fame,” Jones said. “For a guy like George, who had good talent but not legendary players, he did extraordinarily well.”
Transitioning from player to coach
Jones was a teammate at North Carolina, a freshman to Karl’s sophomore one summer. “As a matter of fact,” the 2019 inductee said, “when I had my first epileptic seizure, he was there and tried to keep me from swallowing my tongue. I almost bit his finger off. So he gave a good effort.”
Their public personas, right through their long NBA careers, suggested a Felix-and-Oscar vibe to their relationship. Jones was seen as spiritual and introverted, Karl more swaggering and boisterous — but they clicked.
“George is very outgoing. I’m not nearly so much,” Jones said. “But he actually was instrumental in my spiritual life. He encouraged me — in fact, he drove down from Pittsburgh after my freshman year and he and I and another guy went out to Arkansas to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer camp. That had a big impact on my life.”
Life took them down different paths (Jones said they haven’t seen each other since the 1995 Final Four in Seattle). Karl went to San Antonio in the ABA as a bulldog backup point guard after being drafted by the Knicks in the fourth round in 1973. Jones was the No. 5 pick a year later, becoming a five-time All-Star for Denver and Philadelphia, a Sixth Man award winner in 1983, an NBA champ that same year with the 76ers and an 11-time All-Defense selection.
Karl joined the George Gervin-led Spurs and lasted 264 games across four-plus seasons, averaging 6.5 points, 3.0 assists and 16.9 minutes per game. His first three seasons were in the ABA before he and the Spurs merged into the NBA before 1976-77. Karl’s hard-knock style took its toll and his playing days ended in December 1977.
“He was a fierce competitor,” said Ron Adams, the renowned assistant coach over the past three decades who worked with Karl in Milwaukee. “As a player, he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with anyone. Playing that way probably he took a lot of hits, and he suffered from some of those things later on, like a lot of old athletes.”
Adams added: “George is an eccentric in a really good sense. It can be taken as a pejorative, but it really isn’t. It means someone who marches to his own drum beat. … George’s life is marked by a profound love of the game. He loves thinking about the game, experimenting with things. He was always someone who thought outside the box. Just a real basketball nut.”
After one season as a Spurs assistant, a couple coaching the Montana squad in the CBA and a couple more scouting, Karl at 33 got hired by Cleveland in 1984, taking over a team that hadn’t reached the playoffs in seven years. He got them there at 36-46 while managing personalities such as World B. Free and Mel Turpin. He got fired the next season with 15 games to go.
Two months later, in May 1986, he got hired in Golden State partly on the recommendation of Nelson, a mentor and drinking buddy. He led the Warriors to the postseason that first season and an elimination of the Utah Jazz in the first round, working with Chris Mullin and Purvis Short but also Joe Barry Carroll and rookie Chris Washburn.
George’s life is marked by a profound love of the game. He loves thinking about the game, experimenting with things. He was always someone who thought outside the box. Just a real basketball nut.”
Longtime NBA assistant coach Ron Adams, on George Karl
Karl’s record was 16-48 in 1987-88 — with four top scorers traded or hurt — when he got nudged aside again; Nelson had joined Golden State’s front office and was about to take over as coach. So it was back to the CBA in Albany, N.Y., alternating with stints with Real Madrid of Liga ACB in Spain.
Karl’s golden era in the Emerald City
In January 1992, Seattle owner Barry Ackerley and GM Bob Whitsitt reeled Karl back across the pond to replace K.C. Jones. With Payton and Shawn Kemp already on board, complemented by Ricky Pierce, Eddie Johnson and Derrick McKey, the Sonics finished 27-15 for the second of eight consecutive playoff appearances.
Over the next six seasons, Karl led them to an average of 60 victories, one of the most successful regular-season runs in league history. With Nate McMillan, Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins surrounding Payton and Kemp, that crew went 64-18 in 1995-96 and advanced to the Finals to face Michael Jordan and the 72-10 Bulls.
To this day, Karl believes that if McMillan (back) hadn’t been hurt — the guard played only 51 minutes and missed two of the series’ six games completely — he and the Sonics would have earned their rings. Instead, the Bulls grabbed a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven, exhaled too early, and needed to clinch back in Chicago in Game 6.
Seattle under Karl gained a reputation as a fast, defensive-minded team, regularly deploying three guards and installing what seemed at the time a gimmicky defense: constant switching and frequent trapping. Some critics felt that explained the Sonics’ success in the regular season, as opponents struggled against the novel style in random December or February games. Once locked into a playoff series, that theory went, rival staffs could focus on thwarting that defense.
Still, Karl’s willingness to tinker with his personnel and strategies earned him a “mad scientist” label like his pal Nelson.
“I’ve heard the phrase,” said Detroit coach Dwane Casey, whose first NBA gig was on Karl’s Seattle staff in 1994. “That was George. He had the cajones to try things. And the confidence — George has that swag about him.
“I’ll never forget one practice, it was 4-on-4 and George played point guard for both teams. This was before he had really bad knees. So he was running up and down for the blue team and the green team.
“The 3-point shooting game, I don’t know if he knew the numbers on it but he was doing it before it was called analytics. The fortunate thing for me is, I had a chance to see him do it, and now I’m coaching the way he coached in the early ‘90s.”
You want fortunate? Casey was coaching over in Japan, essentially shunned over a University of Kentucky recruiting scandal when the Pistons coach was on staff at his alma mater. Casey was cleared, even winning a lawsuit in the mess, but the NBA seemed closed to him. Then he and Karl met at a summer league game in Los Angeles when Karl was scouting for Cleveland.
“When everybody was kind of looking at me sideways,” Casey said, “George gave me the opportunity to come back into the United States to work.”
New era, new game in Milwaukee & Denver
Two seasons, 118 victories and four playoff rounds after the Finals trip, though, Karl was out in Seattle. He was unemployed this time for all of 95 days, with the Milwaukee Bucks hiring him as the sixth head coach in franchise history.
Milwaukee had missed the playoffs the previous seven seasons, finishing a cumulative 160 games under .500 led by Mike Dunleavy and Chris Ford. Karl got the Bucks to the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 1999 season and three more times over the next four seasons. He became as popular in the blue-collar city, not much different from his native Pittsburgh, as any of the team’s players.
In 2001, the Bucks went 52-30 with the NBA’s most potent offense and made it to Game 7 against Philadelphia in the East finals, just missing the Finals.
One season later, though, they missed the playoff entirely. Egos and head-butting got in the way. Karl wanted GM Ernie Grunfeld to break up the trio of Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell. Robinson went first, to Atlanta in August 2002 for an aging Toni Kukoc. Allen — who had a falling out with Karl — was next in February 2003, sent to Seattle for favorite Payton.
Trouble was, the brash former Sonic wanted no part of Milwaukee and played 28 games there before bailing as a free agent. Allen went on to play 806 more for Seattle, Boston and Miami, scoring 14,824 points (18.4 ppg), earning five All-Star berths and winning two championships.
Karl didn’t help his reputation when the roster of NBA stars he coached in the 2002 World Championships nose-dived to sixth place, players as cranky from that experience as some of his Bucks had been. The following summer brought firing No. 4.
By then it was obvious that the Xs & Os of Karl’s job were the least of his worries. He knew and loved the game and, according to Mitchell, had high expectations for himself and his assistants to prepare, review and prepare again.
It so often was that other stuff, which Karl spoke about in a story from his career.
“I was in a bar in Buffalo, N.Y., once, late at night, drinking a few beers,” Karl said. “And a drunk next to me said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ The last thing I wanted to say to him was, ‘I’m a basketball coach.’ I didn’t want to talk basketball.
“So I said I’m into ‘ego management and attitude adjustment.’”
That was the source of Karl’s greatest coaching challenges through the years, navigating agendas and intensities different from his own. “A lot of what a coach does is making sure everybody stays together,” he said. “Stay away from blame and shame, and remember, you’re going to have good moments and you’re going to have bad moments.
“I think the coach just wants the team to be balanced. And prepared. And play to their talent every night.”
Said Adams: “There’s a lot of self-examination in George that he’s done over the years. And he expects a lot of other people. Jerry West is a guy like that. Terribly honest about himself, with high expectations for other people because he’s so honest about himself.”
After Milwaukee, Karl sat out while getting paid a reported $7 million in the last year of his contract. He came back halfway through 2004-05, though, hired by Denver. The same team, essentially, that went 17-25 finished 32-8 under Karl. Made it to the postseason that spring and for the next eight seasons he served as Nuggets coach.
The Nuggets won 50 games or more five times with Karl. They reached the West finals in 2009. But after trading Carmelo Anthony (with whom Karl clashed) in February 2011, failed to advance from the first round in 2011, 2012 or 2013. The reigning Coach of the Year still calls Denver home, but found himself back in the job market again.
Landing in Sacramento in February 2015, Karl became the sixth coach in the team’s streak of 16 consecutive lottery finishes. They closed that season 11-19, then went 33-49 in 2015-16 while the coach coped with a moribund culture and headstrong center DeMarcus Cousins.
It was a bookend finish on par with Karl’s stints in Cleveland and Golden State bearing little resemblance to happier times in Seattle, Milwaukee or Denver. But the man could work a sidelines.
“I loved this about George: He wasn’t afraid to try different things,” Mitchell said. “When I played, I thought coaches were too cookie-cutter. With George, I learned that, ‘Hey man, you don’t know how long you’re going to keep this job. Don’t be afraid if you’ve really thought it through.’
“That’s why you saw players enjoy playing for George. He would let you try things.”
Said Adams: “I think George will tell you he’s run a good race. I don’t think he’s sitting around grousing about not winning a championship. But hey, if you’re around as long as he’s been a head coach and won as many games as he’s won, that certainly is not not on your mind.”
Leave it to Karl, then, to take a different road to Springfield. He probably would have been in the Hall sooner if he had a championship or two besides his name. Now he’s done it his way, on the strength of his body of work.
After all, there are only 20 men including Karl in the Naismith Hall for their work primarily as NBA/ABA head coaches. That means it’s twice as hard to get enshrined (5.8% of 345) as it is to win an NBA title (12.5%).
“In all my life, I’ll probably have those moments where I wish I won a championship,” Karl said. “With the Hall of Fame, I think I can rationalize this may be a little better than winning a championship. I can move on.”
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