When Beer Tastes Like Champagne

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Ryan McNeill got to spend time with Denver coach George Karl following the Nuggets' 114-107 win over Toronto on New Years Eve. It was Karl's 900th career victory, ranking him as the 10th winningest coach in NBA history. Karl held court after the game. He spoke about starting his career 2-19, how he went from Madrid to Seattle, and being atop World B. Free:

Reporter: I thought you'd come out drenched in champagne or something

George Karl: I'm not a champagne guy, I'm a beer guy and some red wine.

: But it's New Year's Eve
George Karl: Drinking beer after a win tastes like champagne.

: You just got your 900th career win. Please put that in verbal perspective.
George Karl: For me, it's kind of like wow. Unbelievable. Humbling a little bit. I'm just fortunate to have had good players, be placed in good situations and to have good (assistant) coaches. Tim Beveridge has been with me for about 600 of those (wins). I thank him for putting me back together on a lot of those nights and supporting me in the game and then after the game asking me what the hell I was doing. When I was mad and angry at my players he would tell me, 'just remember, tomorrow morning they're artists.' I remember those two lines.

I never thought I'd get this far. I thought I'd coach a few years of pro ball and then wear out my welcome. (Then) I'd go coach in college and go wear our my welcome. Then I'd coach in high school and wear out my welcome. End up in junior college or junior high somewhere.

Reporter: Did they have anything special for you in the locker room after the game? Something to keep?
George Karl: I got the ball and I'll frame that up. That will be another square in my book case.

Reporter: What was it like to start your coaching career 2-19?
George Karl: I had legendary columnists in Cleveland, Ohio saying they were idiots not to fire me. It was tough. Bill Livingston, one of the best writers in the world, had me fired one night. I'm very good friends with Bill now...at Richfield Coliseum we were 2-19 and we played in front of 3,000 people in a 21,000 seat building. It was cold and quiet.

My favourite story is I've never seen this in pro ball but after we clinched the playoffs, Lonnie Shelton and World B. Free, picked me up, put me on their shoulders and carried me off the court. I've never seen a pro (basketball) coach put on their shoulders so it was a pretty cool moment and incredible ride.

We lost to Boston who would win the championship but in every game we had the lead with two minutes to go in a best of five series where we lost. But we did have a lead, and we beat 'em once. And then to have Richfield Coliseum sold out for two playoffs games, it was a pretty incredible turnaround.

Reporter: You were barely older than some of those guys at that point...
George Karl: Yeah, I was only 33.

Reporter: What turned things around for your after that 2-19 start?
George Karl: We had some injuries, the schedule got going our way a little bit so we won some games and we went on a west coast swing I think early February and I won six out of seven. We started in Chicago and then had six on the west coast. It kind of got everybody thinking we could win and the scenario was we never worried, we made the playoffs with 36 or 37 wins, so we could see (at the time) there was a hope of making the playoffs. So we kind of got hot, everybody got happy and committed. I'm not even sure it was a good team. (We had) John Bagley, Johnny Davis, Ron Anderson, World B. Free, Lonnie Shelton, Melvin Turpin, Mark West... I think Edgar Jones was on that team. Crazy Edgar. I'm probably missing someone.

Reporter: Those first two places, Cleveland and Golden State, you didn't make it through two seasons and then you had to wait to get to Seattle. What was that wait like?
George Karl: New Year's Eve in the year I got the job in Seattle, I told my family I was going to college. I was done with the program. My family wasn't happy in Spain, I was coaching in Real Madrid and I said I'd finish out the year and then I'd call Coach Majerus, Coach Williams and Coach Smith and get an assistant coaching job and learn the college game. I swear to God. Majerus and I at the time were thinking about going to UNLV and I was going to go with him as an associate head coach. About 10 days later a guy named Jerry Kraus who coached the Bulls, and was the director of player personnel, came over and I spent two days with him on Toni Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis and all the other players from Europe who I thought could come over and be very good NBA players. Then K.C. Jones was floundering in Seattle and their general manager, Bob Whitsitt, called, who I was not a friend of, I just knew Bob as a professional, and he asked me if I wanted to be an assistant coach. I was making more money, twice as much, maybe three times as much, in Madrid as they were offering me to be an assistant coach. I talked with my family and said, 'hey, let's go for it if K.C. would call me and invite me to be an assistant coach.' K.C. refused. He didn't know me and he didn't want to change his staff. Another two weeks pass, they lose six out of seven or seven out of eight and they fire him. I don't know if Whitsitt was impressed that I would come back for $100,000, a lot less money than I was making in Madrid, but he decided he would interview me for the head job. I've been told through the grapevine that it was Jerry Kraus' recommendation to Whitsitt was the reason I got the job, that Jerry knew Whitsitt very well, and Whitsitt called him and asked who he would hire. Kraus I think told the story about how prepared I was and how I coached in Europe. Then I had to get out of my contract. That was crazy...