|Monday, January 31|
By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com
George Karl is one of the most demanding, neurotic, emotional, manipulative, hard-driven, difficult, conflicted people you ever will meet.
He also is one of the most fun-loving, generous, loveable and devoted people you ever will meet.
When Karl visits Seattle's KeyArena Saturday night with his new team, the
Milwaukee Bucks, for the first time since unceremoniously departing the
Sonics organization two seasons ago, there will be one person.
But there will be both people.
Karl played for San Antonio, was a North Carolina Tar Heel, likely will end
his coaching career in Milwaukee, but he will forever be associated with what
so far is -- and quite possibly always will be -- the most successful run of Sonics
Six consecutive seasons of at least 55 wins. The playoffs every season.
And, of course, that run to the NBA Finals, where the Sonics finally eluded
that moniker of underachieving, overhyped softies and finally made it to the
pinnacle of their profession -- losing, of course, to the Chicago Bulls, but
there are worse things that can be said; plenty of teams did that.
There were those Seattle teams that virtually redefined defensive basketball, the ones where opponents gave up even before they stepped on the court because they knew no amount of preparation could prepare them for what he Sonics had to offer.
There were those early days of young phenoms Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton,
with no ceiling on their potential, nor on that of the team.
And there were those classic, legendary personality conflicts. The ones
with Payton, that eventually reached an unspoken truce; the ones with Kendall
Gill; with Vincent Askew; with Ervin Johnson; and, in the end, with Wally
Walker, which turned out to be the one that Karl lost.
Even now, in Milwaukee, Karl has had run-ins. One happened with Dale Ellis a few weeks before Ellis got traded. Karl had not played Ellis in 10 straight games, which peeved Ellis. So while the team was having a meeting, Ellis was reading a newspaper. Karl told him to put down the paper, and Ellis responded: "This paper is interesting. When you say something more interesting than this paper, then I'll put it down." See ya, Dale.
It has become quite obvious, you either love George or you hate George.
There is not a lot of in-between with him. But he always makes it interesting.
Even more, at least in Seattle, he always made it enjoyable.
"He just kept it fun," said Nate McMillan, who spent much of his playing
career with Karl and now is an assistant coach with the Sonics. "He believed
in discipline and working hard, but with having fun. There was a loose
feeling, but you knew that you had to work. He just made it a family
atmosphere around here."
In particular, McMillan said, he remembers 1996 when the Sonics went to the
Finals, when Karl got the entire team tickets to Super Bowl XXX in
The Sonics were on a two-game road trip, first to Los Angeles and then to
Portland. Karl and trainer Frank Furtado contacted Gatorade, and the soft
drink company somehow came up with enough tickets for the entire team.
The Sonics took the team plane from Los Angeles to Phoenix, had a bus take
them to the stadium, watched the Dallas Cowboys drub the Pittsburgh Steelers,
then flew on to Portland, where they beat the Blazers by four points.
"I had to sit back and think, 'We got an NBA season going on here, and I
am vacationing like this and enjoying myself,'" McMillan said.
Karl still makes it fun. When the Sonics were in Milwaukee last week, a
bunch of us journalists were sitting in George's office, doing the usual pregame
bantering/interviews. He had just been tossed out of the game the night
before, so he was harping on that.
|Things were never boring in Seattle when George Karl was in town.|
All of a sudden, his son, Coby, and four of Coby's friends come barreling
into the already-crowded office and plop down on the couch. One of the
friends, in typical teenage fashion, is wearing godawful pink pants. Forty-five minutes before tipoff, and George gets into an argument with this kid about how terrible the pants look. In what other NBA coach's office will you witness that scene?
There is another story about traveling that is vintage George Karl, that
makes him unique, memorable, unforgettable.
When the team was on the bus, Karl liked to pop in game tape on the video
system so players could get an idea of their next opponent. By the middle of the season, players were getting cranky, they were growing weary of so much game tape and they started complaining.
So Karl had the team's video coordinator splice scenes from a pornographic
movie into the game film. Twenty seconds of game film, five seconds of XXX
movie. Thirty seconds of game film, 10 seconds of spicy film. Forty seconds
of game film, 15 seconds of va va va voom.
You better believe every player and coach on that bus was intently watching that game film.
(I won't use names, but as a humorous aside, it turned out one of the players on the bus knew, on a, ahem, personal level, one of the women in the movie.)
Karl also is exceedingly superstitious, and in Seattle he dragged equipment manager Marc St. Yves along with him in his quest of getting a supernatural edge.
For instance, Karl did not want to be notified how much time there was
before tipoff. There is a clock in each locker room that counts down to the
game, and Karl did not want to leave the locker room until there was 3:59
left on the clock. It was St. Yves' job to scream out "3:59" each night.
In San Antonio a few years back, a couple uniforms were stolen, so St.
Yves had to go to the airport before the game to pick up new uniforms being
shipped in. When he returned, Karl gave him grief because he was not there to
At the All-Star game in 1997-98, when Karl was the coach of the Western
Conference team, St. Yves was not working, but he made it a point to get a
locker room pass, sneak in and yell, "3:59" before the game.
"It was endearing," St. Yves said. "We still have fun with it. When we
were in Milwaukee last week, (assistant coach) Bob Weiss wanted me to go over
to the Bucks' locker room and yell, '3:59.'"
Another Karl idiosyncracy is that before games, players wrap up their
valuables in ankle tape and put them in a collective bag for safekeeping. But
Karl never liked to put his stuff in the bag. He made St. Yves hold it. He would
throw it to him before the game, and if St. Yves dropped it, Karl believed
the Sonics would lose that game.
So much for preparing for the pick-and-roll.
But that is exactly the conflict with Karl. He lives and breathes basketball, almost to the point of obsession. He watches endless amounts of game film, talks the game, is a disciple of it. He doesn't need silly superstitions to make his team better, and yet he is so uncertain of the things he can't control that he has to employ additional aids.
In the end, that uncertainty got the better of him, at least in Seattle.
He could not live with Walker and owner Barry Ackerley not giving him that
contract extension in his final year, which in his mind was more a vote of
confidence than anything else.
It ate him up, it tortured him, in a way it possessed his soul because he could not let it go.
And it's a shame that his era in Seattle ended that way, with infighting
and bickering and backstabbing and political maneuvering, because there was
so much success that an ugly ending was not necessary.
In a way, it is best the Bucks did not play in Seattle last season so Karl
did not allow Sonics fans, his fans, to see the vindictive side of his
character. It is best that the bad feelings never were allowed to be vented,
at least not in the town itself. He said things in newspapers, but it always
was at a distance.
But the anger, it seems, is gone. He no longer feels the need to lash out
at Walker, spew venom at the mention of Walker's and Ackerley's names. He has
come to a sort of peace, with himself and with his lot in life.
Now, like McMillan and St. Yves and Payton and every other person who
passed through Seattle and was touched by Karl, their time together has
become fond memories. The bad ones, appropriately, filtered out with time.
That's the way it should be.
Frank Hughes covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.