JOHN IRELAND BLOG  |  ESPN Los Angeles

Karl's cancer battle is sobering reality

March 3, 2010, 1:38 AM

By: John Ireland

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers made easy work of the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, extending their winning streak to three with a 122-99 victory at Staples Center. L.A. will play six of the next seven games on the road, starting with Thursday night in Miami. But something happened before the game that surprised many of us who cover the team.

Anybody who attended the Lakers' win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday could tell those two teams hate each other. Pau Gasol said as much after the game, when he talked about how much the Nuggets, well, talk.

"They talk too much," Gasol said after the game. "Way too much. I don't listen to things that don't make sense. I'm a player that likes to play and that's how I talk, by me playing. Other players can't do that."

Later, the normally mild-mannered Gasol took it a step further.

"I love that we don't like the team in particular," Gasol said. "I wish we didn't like any teams, for that matter."

Before Tuesday night's game, nobody was complaining about the Nuggets. Actually, it was the opposite.

Phil Jackson showed up for his pregame news conference wearing a rare piece of jewelry (other than the "mood necklace" he sometimes wears, this was a first). He sported a pin that read, simply, "Hoops for St. Jude's." His assistants were wearing the pin, too, and so were all the Indiana coaches.

When I asked him why he was wearing it, it became obvious all of that talk about how much the Lakers can't stand the Nuggets was irrelevant.

"This is concerning George Karl's treatment for cancer," Jackson said. "And that's a cause we support."

"So this goes beyond basketball?" I asked.

"Without a doubt," Jackson responded. "We've been rivals for a long time. He actually took over in Albany, New York, after I left the Albany Patroons [a CBA team]. We've coached in different spots, he's done things similar to the things I've done. I've gone from my home in Flathead [Montana] to watch his team in Great Falls when he coached in the finals of the CBA. He wore a powder blue tux with a white ruffled shirt -- something we all thought was crazy. And of course Coby [George's son and a former Lakers player under Jackson] was born there in Great Falls that spring. So there are a lot of connections that go way back between the Karls and myself."

Karl informed his team on Feb. 16 that he had been diagnosed with a treatable form of neck and throat cancer. Karl had been cancer-free since prostate surgery in July 2005.

For those of us who had watched Karl and Jackson yell at each other in the playoffs for the past two seasons, this was surprising news. But it was also a reminder about how the NBA is connected in ways most people never think of. Lamar Odom and Ron Artest met in the fourth grade. Indiana's Earl Watson and his teammate Brandon Rush grew up in the same neighborhood in Kansas City. Every team seems to have stories like these.

But the Lakers and Nuggets really are developing a huge dislike for each other. The two teams will play one more regular-season game, in Denver on April 8, and likely will meet again in the playoffs. Before then, George Karl will undergo more than 30 chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the cancer. He has been told his throat will become so raw he won't be able to coach and will need to be fed through his stomach.

The Lakers will be trying to eliminate the Nuggets, while Karl will be fighting to eliminate something much worse.

Hopefully, the fact his biggest rivals will be in his corner will help Karl with the fight.

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