Had lunch Monday with George at Domo, the Japanese restaurant on Osage Street between downtown and the Colfax viaduct. George used to take his staff there when he was coaching the Nuggets because it’s near the Pepsi Center and has big tables. Diners at other tables recognized him and greeted him warmly as we wound our way to a corner table. I don’t know anything about Japanese food, but lunch was very good. Here’s the conversation:
So how’s the year been for you, your season off?
This is the time of year that I can’t deny I miss the gym more now. The excitement of playoff basketball and the last two or three weeks of the season always having some type of big game every night is fun. ESPN has been a good way for me to kind of stay connected to a lot of basketball people, so that’s been good. That’s been a positive. And I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed my freedom to be a parent and be a dad. I didn’t have that luxury in season. I’m going to go to Germany here in a couple weeks, go see Coby.
Last time we talked you were getting ready to go see him play in Italy.
Yeah, he went from Italy to Germany. He got cut in Italy and got picked up. He’s actually playing with Michael Stockton, John Stockton’s son. So it’ll be fun. They’re in a big playoff race.
Do you have playoff duties at ESPN?
I think in May I have five or six days in Bristol. I have no assignments as of yet and I don’t think I’ll get ‘em because I haven’t requested ‘em.
So you have to be back from Europe for that.
Yeah, I’ll miss the first, probably, two or three games of the first round. You have everything over there except DirecTV. They will have a game every night, but it’s usually a day behind.
I see where ESPN has given you a new name.
Swaggy G. Gucci Mane? Really? Isn’t he in jail?
Yeah. I know nothing. I mean, I read some stuff about it. I knew more about some of the guys who got killed — Tupac and Biggie. But it was totally an April Fool’s thing, which people didn’t even figure out. And what’s funny is ESPN absolutely loved it. I got compliments from guys on top.
Yeah, the YouTube clip is all over the place.
So, how close did you come, if at all, to talking to anybody about getting back into coaching?
There were a couple of rumblings around January, but the teams cleaned their acts up and started playing better.
So you never had any serious conversations of any kind?
No. And I’m not sure . . . what’s funny is, I want to coach. I’m excited and I’m healthy, probably healthier than I’ve ever been to coach in a long time. There’s a little urgency that says I’m not going to go crazy. In the last six weeks, I’ve gotten sad about what’s going on in Denver. I mean, I feel bad for the players.
Obviously, there’ve been injuries, but when you look at the way they’re playing versus the way they played a year ago, what do you think happened?
The only thing I can say is losing is a bad coach. I’ve said that a lot. It’s like last night [Sunday night in Houston, a 130-125 overtime loss that dropped the Nuggets to 33-44]. They found a way to lose that game. Good teams find a way to win and bad teams find a way to lose. I mean, they had to work hard to find that road last night and they did it. You know, some nights they didn’t play the right way. They didn’t play hard enough. I still don’t know what their personality is. I’m not sure they do. The injuries can cause that. If you use injuries as a crutch, it’ll kill you. It’ll destroy you. And they had enough talent to be good. They had enough talent to be successful. But they could never get over . . . they never could get to that switch of commitment.
Are we seeing everything Wilson Chandler has? When I look at his talent level, I think, this guy could be a big-time player.
I think Wilson’s a starter in the NBA. I think he has another step to make that he didn’t make this year. I think the thing that hurt them more than anything is [losing Andre] Iguodala. I think Iguodala was a rock that you could put pieces around, that you could make it work. And I think when you took that rock out, this team kind of flushed it — bad karma and bad luck.
What did you make of the Andre Miller thing?
I felt bad. I thought Andre deserved better.
Did you have any contact with Andre during that period?
He and I exchanged texts. That’s it. I think it hurt their team.
My understanding is it was the organization that said, basically, ‘You can’t come back,’ and forced that two-month limbo where he’s nowhere, he’s not being dealt, everybody’s just sort of stuck.
I have no idea. I wouldn’t be bragging about it because I think it was a mistake. To me, from the outside, and what I know, it seems you won a battle and lost the war. Maybe coach Shaw and the coaching staff felt they had to do that at that time.
Where should they go from here? Let’s say you were back in your old role in Milwaukee and you were in those front office personnel conversations. Where would you go from here with this roster?
I think the personnel is OK. I think if you fill in the holes that you need, and a coach should have input into that. It’s more what Brian thinks he wants than me. We felt we were a shooter away from being really, really good. I thought the mistake they made last year was they brought two shooters in. Their whole guard corps was offensive oriented.
You’re talking about [Randy] Foye and Nate [Robinson].
Yeah, you lost the best defender on your team and you addressed it with Nate and Foye. Early in the season, I thought everybody was getting in everybody’s way. The same with the bigs. You brought in [Darrell] Arthur and early in the season you mix in Arthur and [Kenneth] Faried and [J.J.] Hickson and [Timofey] Mozgov and everybody was bumping noses. I think there’s a lot of over-coverage, you know?
Too many small guards?
There’s just too many people that don’t have an identity yet as to who they are. I mean, I think you have Ty [Lawson] and now I think Faried has got it back, but the first 60 games of the season, I thought he was somewhat lost out there.
What I was saying before was I think they have enough good players. Now, can they make them more than they are, which is what we did last year. But I definitely think they have enough . . . their face is different, but they still have skilled basketball players, as much as we probably had. I don’t think JaVale [McGee] is a legitimate excuse because Mozgov had a good year. And I don’t think they could have played a lot more together. I don’t think you want to play Mozgov and JaVale together.
Gallo is a legit excuse.
But if you didn’t know that was going to happen . . . you should have known that last year.
What do you make of the Mark Jackson situation?
This squid is very chewy.
I don’t know. It seemed to me it must have been some type of . . . from the outside, it seems like there’s a loyalty factor going on. There seems to be some kind of . . . to release people, that usually comes because as a coach, you don’t feel like they’re loyal to you.
But it’s two years in a row, right? You had a similar situation with [Mike] Malone last year.
I’m guessing. I don’t know.
Do players keep in touch with you?
I’ve talked to a couple guys. I’d say four or five reached out to me during the year. I saw Wilson Chandler about two weeks ago in a telephone store. We sat down and talked for a bit. I texted Ty a couple times. Sometimes he texted back, sometimes he didn’t. Haven’t heard much from Faried. Gallo and I have texted each other a couple times. Evan’s reached out. Jordan Hamilton reached out a couple times.
Those guys are on that list you were talking about, right? Guys who don’t yet have a real identity? Evan and Jordan and Quincy Miller?
When you brought Nate Robinson and Foye in, you killed Fournier. Your decision to bring those players in slowed his development. The coaches want to play Nate because he’s won games. Evan is learning how to win games.
But don’t you think they were in a position when Iguodala leaves, they’re not really expecting that, [GM Tim] Connelly is walking in the door, you’ve just lost 40 minutes a night, they’re just taking whoever’s out there. Foye is part of a sign-and-trade after Iguodala’s made a deal with Golden State that’s like, cover your ass, and Nate is just a free agent who’s out there. You’ve got to fill up your roster. You’ve got to get some points. I mean, it didn’t seem to me there was any grand plan. They’re just scrambling.
The only thing about all the changes is why didn’t someone hire a older guy? What doesn’t the coaching staff hire an older guy? Why doesn’t personnel hire an older guy, an experienced guy, to walk you through some of the nightmares these younger guys haven’t experienced? That goes off in my head because I’m an older guy and I like an older guy next to me. I want some guy that’s going to say, ‘George, you’re off base here. You’re wrong.’ And I just think if you had maybe an older guy there, the Andre Miller thing might not happen.
Might have been able to defuse it in some way?
When an incident like that happens, sometimes the coach goes a little crazy. He’s angry. And you have to hold his hand. You’ve got to walk him through it. It’s sad because I think both of them suffered. I think Andre suffered and I think Brian [Shaw] suffered because of it.
It was so strange because nothing like that had ever happened to Andre before, as far as I know. He was always considered a good locker room guy, I thought. Was I wrong?
He’s a great locker room guy. The thing that’s going to live with us is what happened. Whatever, 15, 16 years of being a great teammate and a great locker room guy is going to go by the wayside. There’ll be a cloud. I mean, I think Andre will get through it, but there’s a cloud.
By the same token, Brian Shaw was always known as a good locker room guy, a strong locker room guy. A guy who could bring together disparate personalities. The Shaq/Kobe stories. Stuff like that.
I don’t know. I mean, the only thing, I thought he took some shots at some guys that were really good competitors. I thought that was unfair because those guys competed for me like they were warriors, and they believed and they trusted that they could beat anybody. In six months, they’re different? I mean, I thought that was a cheap shot a little bit.
At the team. He never mentioned names, but he constantly called them out for not being good competitors, they don’t know what championship basketball’s about. All I’m saying is there’s an experience about winning championships that should be on your roster if you’re trying to win a championship. I’ve been on a path to a championship every year of my career. Haven’t gotten there. But that means I don’t know the path to a championship? Or is it, you have to win the championship to know the path? I think too much is now predicated on Brian Shaw being a championship player or coach, and he knows the path. Well, he’s never guided that truck down that path. He’s always been in the back seat. And I think that was offensive to the players that had such a great year last year. To discount it in that way bothered them a great deal.
So, who wins it all this year?
I’m hoping San Antonio. I think the West is going to win.
Who’s going to come out of the East? Is it either Miami or Indiana? Is there any other possibility?
I think it’s Miami. I like what Brooklyn has done with their team, but I think in the playoffs that’s going to turn on them a little bit. They’re playing so small. They’re playing [Paul] Pierce at four and getting away with it, which I think was a great move. I think Jason [Kidd] did a great job of kind of helping their offense out that way.
And who’s the biggest threat to San Antonio in the West, do you think?
I think it’s the Clippers.
Really. Why them more than OKC?
I think right now they have better distribution of their skills and talents. They can come at you a lot of different ways. OKC, [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook are big time, but I just like Chris Paul and Doc [Rivers] and Blake Griffin. Their defense hasn’t gotten to where I thought it would get but I think they still could win a game with their defense in a playoff situation. They’ve got shooters all over the place. (Jamal) Crawford can win you a game. (J.J.) Redick can win you a game. (Jared) Dudley can probably win you a game. And Blake and Chris Paul, I mean, we’re talking about guys that if you’re MVPing it, don’t they get two guys in the top seven or eight?
I don’t know if people take Blake that seriously yet.
When they played without Chris Paul, he was unbelievable.
All right, now let’s really test your skill because this won’t come out until after, but I’m asking you now, who wins the NCAA championship tonight?
I think Kentucky’s going to win, but I want Connecticut to win so bad.
Really, why? Because of Kevin [Ollie]?
I coached Kevin.
How long did you have him?
Two years in Milwaukee.
What was he like as a player for you?
Incredible integrity. Just a no-nonsense competitor. Made his career basically working hard.
Why do you think Kentucky’s going to win?
[John] Calipari has this karma. But I think Connecticut can win because of their guards. The best players on the court are going to be their guards. They’ve done a great job of negating size because their guard play is so much higher level. I think college basketball, even though we need big guys, the best guard is really important. If he’s the best player on the court, it’s a really important part of college basketball.
All the college coaches are saying again, for about the 90th time, that the one-and-done rule has got to be changed. Obviously, that’s up to the NBA. Do you see that happening?
Yeah. I think management wants it. The organizations want it to happen. I don’t know if the players are going to fight it. I think they’ll get two years. I think they want more than that. They kind of want the baseball rule, which I think would be great. I’d like three years. And then the high school kid that’s good enough to do it, you let him go. Cause I don’t think we’re going to overload our rosters with project high school kids. If a kid is good enough to play, we’ll take him in the top 15 or 20.
Will the D-league ever get to the point where it’s an actual minor league, like in baseball, where if you don’t want to go to college but you’re not ready for the show, you can come out after high school and go play in the D-league a couple years and hone your skills?
I don’t think it gets there until every team has its own [D-league] team. This hybrid stuff and owners not putting in the money . . . why don’t we have a team in Broomfield? ‘We.’ Why don’t the Denver Nuggets have a team in Broomfield?
Ha. You can’t shake it. Still like New Orleans? You were excited about their roster the last time we talked.
I’d say yes, but I think they’ve underachieved and they’ve underperformed to the point that it made me a little nervous. They’ve been hit with injuries too. [Ryan] Anderson, the shooter, was out the whole year almost, and [Jrue] Holiday. Seemed like they had chemistry issues a little bit.
Does this sabbatical remind you of the last sabbatical, the one before the Nuggets?
It reminds me a little bit. But I think my whole thing is, when I went through that one, I wanted to get back really fast. Now I want to get back, but there’s a window in my thought process of, what else can I do? I don’t think I want a job other than coaching, but are there adventures or an entrepreneur mentality of, for three months I’ve got to do this? I’m open to filling up my time in a good way.
Have you had any inspiration as to what sort of activities they might be?
Cancer-related stuff is always a possibility. Getting involved more in my foundation and more with some cancer situations. I think the American Cancer Society is doing a great deal for navigation for patients right now. Livestrong has always been very good in that area. I have a bunch of people who are talking about maybe trying to do some things on obesity for children. I think so much of our cancer now is being caused by obesity and what we eat. So let’s go to the problem. And there’s always the possibility of doing a book.
If I may ask you, what do you weigh now?
I weigh about 245.
What was the most you ever weighed?
A lot of that loss was right around your last cancer battle, no?
Yeah, I went down to probably 235, maybe 230.
When you came out of that, did you change your habits completely in terms of what you ate, what you drank?
I don’t think I did completely, but I did a good job, I think, in the mornings and the afternoons of eating right. And then if I want to goof around at nighttime, I could. Basically the rule I kind of live by is eat real food. Just don’t eat junk. Don’t eat processed, don’t eat fried, don’t eat sugar. If you don’t have cancer, eating sugar’s OK, but it’s not the best thing in the world. For a cancer person, you should never eat sugar because it feeds the cells. So my mornings and lunch, I’m trying to get my six servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit. However I do that, with a green drink or having a smart breakfast. I know we’ve been saying that for 50 years, but it still hasn’t gotten through to our people, to our kids.
Seems like there are a lot of people out there now who think this is a big part of the problem — that a lot of Americans don’t eat real food. Have you come around to that position?
I’ve come around to the position that over 25 percent of our cancers are caused by what we feed our bodies.
Where does that come from?
I think the American Cancer Society has actually published that figure.
And that’s because of fast food, fried food, processed food, all of the above?
Yeah, if we feed our immune system correctly, it’s a hell of a piece of equipment. But if what we eat has to be interpreted by our immune system, it sometimes forgets about the cancers that are growing over here or the infection that’s growing over here or a virus over here. There are switches that switch off, and that’s what causes cancers. There’s some genetic makeup to it, too.
But I think the world of health care is so crazy right now because there’s tremendous knowledge, tremendous information. The internet is feeding it every day. But we don’t have a health care system that we trust. No one trusts it. The doctors don’t trust it. The patients don’t trust it. The pharmaceuticals don’t trust the insurance companies. The insurance companies don’t trust the hospitals.
And it’s billions of dollars, so it’s capitalistically driven. It kind of drives me crazy a little bit, and the government drives me crazy a little bit, too, because we’re still hung up on spending trillions of dollars on military institutions that, to me, is . . . who are we afraid of? Terrorists? Yes, but we don’t need atomic bombs for terrorists. We don’t need new bombers for terrorists. We don’t need a billion dollars spent on a new fighter jet. We’ve already got the best fighter jets. Our educational system, our infrastructure, and the world is changing so fast. I mean, it’s moving actually too fast for me. I want it to slow down and it’s not slowing down.
Do you have any interest in running for office?
I have at times, but government is so slow-moving.
It sounds like you’re really passionate about some of these subjects, though.
Colorado is a great state and I would love to see Colorado be a kind of a leading voice in environment, a leading voice in cooperation, a leading voice in finding these health care answers. I’m a big believer that if all these institutions — there’s billions of dollars here — if they could come together and work as a team, there would be more money there. It’ll work better and everybody will benefit.
It’s like a team system. Putting five guys who are really talented together and telling them, ‘Hey, if you win, you’ll make more money than if you just do your thing by yourself,’ I think the same thing applies to the health care system. If they would just say, ‘Listen, I’ll help you there and you help me here,’ then I think it would run smoother and you wouldn’t need all the bureaucratic processes where we spend billions and billions of dollars covering each other’s butts.
I think there’s a small undercurrent of a revolution in our country that wants it done the right way. And politics and capitalism have kind of confused it all. I mean, do you understand the housing failure, the mortgage crisis? Have you ever read a book on that? I can’t figure it out. It sounds like a Ponzi scheme. It sounds like something that if a criminal got caught in, they’d be thrown in jail.
When you talk about spending priorities you don’t agree with, I understand how that money could be reallocated to infrastructure or education. But health care, we already spend more money than anybody else in the world. So why would we need more money? Would more money solve the health care problem?
One, the idea of everybody having health insurance is not a bad idea. But if it bankrupts our country, it’s a bad idea. But it’s because of some other things in the budget too. We’ve got to worry about taking care of our country. What I know about economics, and I’m not good with it, it’s about not spending our money wisely. I mean, we’re going into Saks over here and Nordstrom’s over here is having a sale selling the same things that Saks is selling, but we go into Saks and still spend the money at Saks.
The worldwide competition now . . . I mean, you have to understand there are more doctorates in China than we have people.
More doctorates than we have people?
So I’ve been told. Two hundred million people in China have a doctorate.
We’ve got over 300 million people here.
OK, well, maybe I’m a little short. But think about that. That scares me more than about the military that China’s going to have. Someone said that a computer company in China had 350 high-tech jobs. You had to know a lot to get these jobs. And they got 35,000 applications.
Why is that scary?
It’s kind of like, what are we the best at now? Let’s say in sports. What’s our best sport?
Football. Commercially, and nobody else plays it.
But are we the best at basketball still? We’re probably still the best at basketball. Are we the best golfers anymore?
No, probably not.
Are we the best tennis players?
We’re not the best soccer players.
We might not be the best baseball players.
That’s true. That’s very competitive.
You know, we grew up in the ’70s and ’80s where we were the best at all that.
We were never the best soccer players. We were only occasionally the best tennis players.
I don’t know. Jimmy Connors was pretty good.
He was. So was John McEnroe. But Bjorn Borg was the best player of that generation.
Yeah, but we were right there. Do we have a guy now even in the top 10?
No. In tennis we have really fallen off, no doubt. You’re getting very nationalistic in your old age.
I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. I think a lot.
How’s the foundation doing?
We do a very nice job in a very small way. We do a nice job in the four or five foundations that we work with. Haven’t figured out how to expand it. I don’t know if I have enough money or time to expand it. To expand it, you’d have to hire some people probably.
Do you have a staff there at all?
No. We have a board. We raise money and we give it to other foundations. We’re kind of a United Way. We maybe bring in a quarter of a million dollars and give each foundation a quarter of that.
Do you still feel as passionately about that, what is it, four years removed now from your most recent battle?
What I think our medical system needs to work on is helping the patient mentally understand his challenge and his journey. I think we’re getting better in that area, navigationally. When you’re told you have to go through 40 treatments of radiation and eight weeks of chemotherapy, they should be able to tell me what that’s going to do to me. And if I have questions I should have someone who can give me answers. I think I have the top notch of the insurance world and I’m not sure I got all the answers I should have gotten.
What surprised you? What were you not expecting to happen to you?
I had blood clots because of my inactivity. Don’t get me wrong, I was told not to be inactive. It’s on me that I got the blood clots. I think I could have been educated a little more stringently about that. An example in my treatment is I found out later that I had this gene that creates blood clots. Well, they found that after I got the blood clots. OK, cancer treatment has been known to create blood clots. Why don’t we test all patients for that gene and then put them on a higher alert? And I’m not blaming my treatment. This is all on me.
An example I’ve made quite frequently is in the middle of my treatment, Kim gets a bill for $85,000 saying that my treatment was experimental and was not OK’d by the insurance company and you will be held responsible for this $85,000. I just told Kim, ‘Don’t worry about it; we’re not paying that bill.’ I could have written a check. Just imagine if this is someone that made $80,000 a year. I got it taken care of, but it wasn’t easy.
How did you take care of it?
We had to go through some financial people at Swedish Hospital and explain to them that this was not experimental. You had to get the doctors to sign off. You had to go through a lot of b.s. and some people might not have had the confidence or intelligence to do that. And I felt I had great care. I’m just saying I’m not a guy in Topeka, Kansas who might not be getting the best care. I don’t know. We can do better. I think the whole thing comes down to, we can do better.
The health industry is very strange. Whatever you want to call it. I don’t think it’s chaos, it’s what I all chaortic. There’s an order to the chaos.
Great word. Chaortic.
It’s now become a leadership word. It’s in some leadership books. They don’t want too much structure. They want a leader to be versatile enough to handle mistakes, confusion and problems with an order. That’s what they call chaortic. It’s the action of bringing order to confusion or frustration. I think Mark Warkentien used that word when we had J.R. [Smith].
Do you stay in touch with Wark at all?
I talked to him just briefly when Phil [Jackson] got the [Knicks] job. I’ve heard from the rumblings that Phil’s going to want his people in there, but I don’t really know.
Who do you think gets that coaching job?
I think it’ll be an intellectually philosophical dude, and Steve Kerr fits that category a little bit.
They say that Golden State is interested in Kerr, too. That’s one of the rumors floating around Mark Jackson.
I don’t get that. Why would you hire Steve Kerr?
He’s a smart guy. He’s never coached, but he’s a smart guy. How many openings do you think there’ll be?
Last year there were so many, usually it goes the other way. Last year, there were, what, nine, 10, 11? I think it goes the other way. Under five, probably.
And is it a big deal to you to get one this summer, or is it sort of, if it happens, it happens.
It’s bigger than if it happens, it happens. I want to work. I want to coach. I’m ready. I’m pumped. What we did last year, I want to expand it. When you sit around all day, you have plenty of time to study the game and get the pulse of the game. I probably watch more games now than I watch when I’m coaching. I mean, I prepare, but very seldom do I sit there at 5 o’clock and watch games until 11 o’clock. I’m not saying I do that every night now, but I do it once or twice a week, probably. So you’re seeing three or four games and you’re scanning maybe another one or two games. So I’m excited about that possibility.
Would you ever coach at any other level?
I just wish Kaci was a little older. I would think about coaching in Europe.
Is that right?
I would, but I don’t know if Kim and Kaci would.
Don’t you? It did wonders for Kobe (Bryant), spending part of his childhood in Italy.
No question. Both my (older) kids, Coby and Kelci, say it was a building block in their lives. [Karl coached Real Madrid in the 1989-90 and 1991-92 seasons.] But it’s a little different over there now.
How old is Kaci now?
Are you so committed to that family stability that she would stay in school in Denver even if you took a job somewhere else in the country?
I think that’s a good possibility. I mean, we love Denver, and the school that she’s at is fantastic. Before I came here I wrote a letter trying to raise money for them. You never know, though. My gut says the first year probably would be an experiment.
You still think it will happen? If you were to lay odds on it, do you think it will happen or do you think you might be done?
I think I’ll get back in, but I’m not sure it’s going to be this summer.
But you think at some point it will happen.
I would just think after the year we had . . . So much of the stuff that we did I think we still are very good at. But I can’t deny that rolls around my head every once in a while.
Not getting back in?
Last time, you were out a whole year and then part of the next year, right?
So you still got time.
I hope so!
You took a little heat after our last conversation.
[Shrugs] Hopefully you can write this time without me getting bombed.
Have you had any contact with him?
No. In fact, I was going to text him today because he donated a big hunk of money to my foundation. I was going to give him a dinner. I’m going to make that available to him when he gets into town on the 15th, but I don’t know if he’ll be available.
Tell me something you’ve learned from all these NBA games you’ve watched this year.
The game of basketball is still about flow and rhythm and unity.