Had breakfast with George Karl a week ago, just before he and the family left for Italy to see Coby play and enjoy a family holiday.
The girls of DJ’s Berkeley Cafe — this is what they called themselves — had to have their picture taken with him. The woman who entered when he did had to tell him she was a fan. About half the people he runs into think he’s still the Nuggets’ coach and wish him luck in the next game.
Between the public battle with cancer, the generally entertaining and successful basketball team and the continuing work through his foundation on cancer, George is very popular when he’s out and about. I invited him to north Denver for breakfast thinking he might go unnoticed. I was completely wrong about this.
Excerpts of our conversation:
Q: So how have you been?
A: Well, you know, the summer was normal. My son plays summer league and we do family things in the summer time. Everything was normal. I think the emptiness, the shallowness of ‘What the hell’s going on?’ probably didn’t start until mid-September, when the guys are back in town. You know they’re working out and everybody’s in the gym. September’s a fun time because you’re starting to get excited but you don’t have any pressure. The pressure doesn’t start until you actually start practicing.
ESPN has been fun. I mean, it’s incredible what ESPN has done. I was there 8 1/2 years ago and it’s an amazing transformation. The town of Bristol now is the capitol of sports TV. And why I have no idea. But it is. And it’s growing and growing. When I used to be there, it was so much slower and smaller. It was a small town when I was there 8 1/2 years ago. Now it’s a big city. It just blows my mind.
Q: Do you think you have a future there?
A: It’s not something that I necessarily want to do the rest of my life. I would probably rather stay in the gym.
Q: Have any coaching opportunities come up yet?
A: No. I’m hoping they don’t come this quickly.
Taking a team in the middle of the year is not the most advantageous situation. We had a helluva ride here [32-8 following Jeff Bzdelik (13-15) and Michael Cooper (4-10) in 2005]. It’s the only time I’ve really ever done it. I’m sorry — when I went back to Seattle in ’92, I guess [27-15 following K.C. Jones (18-18) and Bob Kloppenburg (2-2)]. Seattle was desperate to get back in.
There are parts of how my life is now that I’m enjoying. I’m enjoying scheduling time to see my family, hanging out at my kid’s school and being involved in the neighborhood and all that good stuff. As you get older, you probably like that more.
Having more time being at home, being with Kim and Kaci and some more time to socialize, and then I have my time to go to ESPN, which connects you. And I have some other endeavors, doing some videos and talking about maybe doing a book. I’m not a big book writer because I don’t think I want to tell all the truth right now. I think that’s the next chapter.
Q: When you’re done?
A: There are some things, like cancer and the empathy and the consciousness I would like to bring to my story, a lot of people say it would be a good story. There are some other possibilities. Teaching. Maybe talking about what I think about my career and my life, not a biography but more what I’ve learned. What I’ve learned from people. What I’ve learned from Phil Jackson, what I’ve learned from Dean Smith, what I’ve learned from Larry Brown, what I’ve learned from Doug Moe. And then also maybe have a writer go talk to them about me, because I’m not afraid of somebody saying, ‘Well, I think George is a jackass.’ That’s been written before.
Q: Have your views changed at all about what happened to you here?
A: I still don’t have a tremendous understanding of it. It’s funny, when I walk around Denver, people still think I’m the coach. They’re like, ‘Hey, good luck tomorrow!’
Q: Do you watch the games?
A: When I have a relaxed moment, I do. I don’t ever say, ‘I can’t do that because I have to watch the Nuggets game.’ It’s really strange but in my discussions with ESPN and amongst other situations in TV and radio, Denver doesn’t come up. It just seems like the rest of the nation doesn’t think they’re relevant. So I think they’ve got to re-prove themselves.
Q: They’re playing better lately.
A: (Nods). JaVale [McGee] getting hurt, one, opened up the lane, and two, I think it makes it easier to coach the team. You can find minutes for four guys and you have one big guy, which you probably need. Against 30 or 40 percent of the teams, you need a big guy. But about 60 percent of the teams, the spirit of the team is to play fast.
Even in the first 10 games, I think it’s shown that they play better when they play fast. They’re actually playing at a faster pace than we did last year. I mean, it’s close.
Q: The original plan seemed to be to feed JaVale in the post. Can that work?
A: The thing we went to three or four or five years ago, of attacking, attacking, attacking, the first couple years we had Melo and we tried to balance it. We tried to attack and get Melo his isos and then he had some post-ups. What we found after the Melo trade was it’s better to say, ‘This is the way we play.’
What the whole thing comes down to is you can’t lose the strength of the team, and I think the last three or four games the game’s been tilting back to playing very aggressive. So it’ll be interesting where it ends up.
I love Ty (Lawson) having a great year. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for Timo (Mozgov) because in a lot of ways, I thought, what happened the last three or four years, the two guys that got screwed by me, by my decisions, were Birdman [Chris Andersen] and Timo. Both of them now seem to have found a place and that makes me happy.
Q: What’s your take on JaVale?
A: He came here as a player that played 30 minutes [in Washington] without earning that responsibility, was given that responsibility because they were a bad team. My year with him last year, I was trying to figure out what he was. I thought at the end of last year he earned the right to get more minutes this year but I don’t think he earned the right to be given 30 minutes.
Q: Did you ever have a sit-down within the organization about JaVale’s role?
A: I don’t remember that conversation directly, one-on-one, either with [owner] Josh [Kroenke] or even [former general manager] Masai [Ujiri]. I think they tried to lobby through my assistants quite frequently, especially Masai. But we were having such a fun year last year that the opportunity probably didn’t come up until we lost to Golden State.
Q: Have you relived that series much, or replayed it in your head?
A: Gallo’s injury took our defense. Say we were above average defensively, and I think that probably would be a good way of phrasing it. And we went from above average to ordinary. We had no versatility in our defensive schemes. Wilson [Chandler] was the only guy that we could maneuver around. And we run into an offensive team that was the best at what we did the worst — cover the three ball.
And then you take your versatility out and you’re playing two small guards that their guards can shoot over even with good defensive position. They took the momentum from us in Game 2, shooting the hell out of it, and Games 3 and 4, that building was, it had a karma to it. We took it to Game 6. It wasn’t my favorite series I’ve coached. I wish I would have done a better job trying to figure out how to give confidence to our offense and/or our defense. Even in our two wins, I thought they were on guts and grit more than they were on good basketball cohesiveness. I think we were trying to find answers quite often in that series and didn’t find answers. And that falls on the coach.
Q: Do you think Andre Iguodala was Mark Jackson’s “mole”?
A: No question.
Q: Does that bug you?
A: I just think that’s media hype. I mean, that series was not a physical series. Everybody wants to be more aggressive with the guy kicking your ass, so . . . .
Q: The media didn’t say it. Jackson said it.
A: I thought Mark had a lot of tricks in that series that were bush- . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what they were. Almost high-schoolish. They were beneath the NBA level. And they might have worked. They might have motivated his young team in a good way. You know, he’d announce a starting lineup and start another guy. C’mon, man. You think we’re not ready for that?
Q: Is your goal still to coach in the NBA again?
A: One more time.
Q: I’ve thought the best chance would be a situation like the one when you came here, a team that’s underperforming with nothing to lose.
A: It bothers me a little bit that no one realizes that coach Grg [Tim Grgurich] and I were two of the guys that started player development, and our history of developing ordinary players into better players is off the charts. It bothers me that our practice habits and how we prepare before the game and work our guys out is being copied by 10-15 teams in the NBA. It bothers me that not only did you have a winning program, you had a culture that was admired by other NBA people.
And I’m not saying it can’t be duplicated or done better. I know it can. But in the same sense, there’s a chance it can’t. I just thought it was a year too early, maybe two years too early to not try one year more to see if it would go a little further. Because it was pretty impressive. Statistically, it’s extremely impressive.
It might have a little Moneyball to it. It works in the regular season, doesn’t work in the playoffs. We’re aware of that. We’ll listen to that criticism and see how we’ll change it. I think Oakland [baseball's Athletics, the Moneyball model] has tried to change some of its philosophies with the Moneyball system.
Q: Are you still frustrated about the ending?
A: I’m not frustrated with eight and a half great years, fun years. The window of frustration is small compared to, I found a home and an unbelievable eight and a half years. To take not winning in the first round of the playoffs as your scapegoat, I don’t think you evaluated it fairly. That’s just my opinion. Obviously, there was a bigger opinion somewhere else.
Q: When did you decide that Denver would be your permanent home? Seemed like you really liked Milwaukee, too. Any other stops in the running?
A: My hope was to coach another two or three or four years, ride out this chapter of development and, you know, fade into the sunset. I would never live in Cleveland. I don’t think I’m a California guy. Seattle, it just rains too much. So I think you’re right, Milwaukee, when you get older I think you look for a home a little bit more, probably. But you know Boise has always had a good proximity to my first family. We hang out in McCall, Idaho in the summer time. My idea before Denver was I’d probably move to Boise and have a winter home in Phoenix or Tucson or someplace.
But now, Denver’s weather, its beauty . . . The street has always been nice to me. It still is. I get a lot of, ‘I’m a Nuggets fan but I’m more a George Karl fan because of what you’ve gone through.’ A lot of cancer patients, survivors, feel friendly enough to come talk to me about their story.
Q: What’s your foundation up to?
A: We do lots of work locally, including with the Boulder Community Hospital. We raise $100,000 a year and donate it to other charitable organizations that I think are really good for cancer in Denver. I have no desire to be in a national program. I want, whatever my foundation does, I think it’s all going to be in Colorado.
Q: Why is that?
A: In my history of advocacy, I think I’ve always thought about the national, federal side of it, and I think it’s too big to be successful. So over the last five or 10 years, I think you should work harder taking care of your community, being involved in your city, maybe even in your region, your town, because you can maybe have more of an impact. I used to write checks for presidential candidates and think whoever wins the presidency is important. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that the national government is basically a bank that’s kind of messed up. I don’t know that that’s the case with national cancer societies. I think the American Cancer Society of Colorado does a great job. But Colorado has an ability to be one of the top cancer care centers in the country. I think all of cancer care can be done better. I think we need to rethink how to do this better.
I’m a big advocate of integrative care. I think holistic and integrative care, bringing in meditation and acupuncture and massage and relaxation, I think we need to open our minds.
The society of cancer advocates reminds me of an NBA locker room. It has a lot of ego and a lot of money. Insurance companies — lot of ego, lot of money. Pharmaceutical companies — a lot of ego and a lot of money. Doctors — a lot of ego and a lot of money. Hospitals, non-profit, profit — ego, money.
I’m sure cancer is not the only situation like this. I’m sure diabetes might have the same nightmares.
Q: Do you address it the same way you address it in an NBA locker room?
A: I’ve never had the chance, but I would. I really think if we all would kind of work as a team, that we’ll all come out of it better off.
Q: How do you overcome ego and money?
A: (laughs). I’m better at ego than money, probably. I mean, millions of dollars have messed up a lot of parts of the game of basketball. If you’re playing for the money, I don’t know if you can be really good.
Q: Percentage-wise in the NBA, how many players in your experience are basically in it for the money?
A: More. It’s growing. Every year it’s gotten more.
Q: Less than half?
A: That would be interesting, to ask that question. I think almost all players now, in the summertime, are businessmen and are worrying about whatever, their brand and these words I keep hearing. But the great players still, when it comes October first or November first, they understand what 82 games is.
That’s why I admire LeBron a lot. I think he’s the best guy in basketball and he is possessed to win championships. I’m sure he understands that’s going to make him more money, but that’s not why he’s that way. He has a goal to catch Michael. He thinks he can. And he is driven.
If Julyan Stone would have that same passion, of just, ‘I want to get on the court, I want to play 15 minutes a game and I can do that,’ if that’s what his drive is, he’ll get there better than, you know, ‘If I get on the court I might make a couple million dollars a year.’ The drive’s got to be the passion for the game and I think the game has gotten so business-oriented, so agent-player relationship centered, that it’s hard to not say that money’s always going to be a part of the decision of where [a player] goes.
But I still think the great player is driven by the passion for the game and not by the check that he gets every two weeks.
Q: So what’s the plan? Wait for the phone to ring?
A: There are days I wish it would ring and there are days I don’t want it to ring. I mean, I watch the Knicks play and I wouldn’t want to be in that hell for a million dollars. It’s just New York City and the Garden and the immensity of the pressure. I think Mike Woodson is standing up to it with tremendous integrity.
Q: Best team in the West?
A: San Antonio, probably. I’m a Golden State fan. I’ve never seen a team with that many offensive weapons. David Lee and Bogut, you could run an offense through them and they could win games. If the Denver Nuggets had Bogut and David Lee, they’d be good. And they’re not among the top offensive options. Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala. They have so many weapons offensively that can blow up, and they’re doing a pretty good job with the defense. I think Houston and the Clippers are still in that stage of development that I think they could be very good by the end of the year, but they have their moments now when they struggle.
The team I like a lot and it bothers me is New Orleans. That Davis kid is coming and their three guys out front, Holiday and Gordon and Evans, can get to the rim, and they can score. Gordon can be a great shooter. And then they’ve got the Ryan Anderson kid who’s the best shooting four in basketball.
Q: So why does it bother you to like them?
A: I think they should be playing better. But I’m still on record that I like ‘em a lot. I like them because Anthony Davis is a basketball player. He’s not a big man. He’s a basketball player that’s seven feet tall. And I just think the game is about basketball players, not necessarily position players.