George Karl has 30 games, two dozen or so practices, and countless conversations to rouse his slumbering Kings from their recurring nightmare.
Two months. Two years. The angst has persisted much longer than that. Between terrible trades, questionable coaching hires, ill-advised personnel decisions and the exhausting relocation threats, Sleep Train Arena hasn’t offered a peaceful night’s rest in almost a decade.
Karl is expected to change that. His hiring is the basketball equivalent of a 911 call.
The Kings and their fans have been dragged into hell, and his task is to bring them back – to respectability, to contention in the Western Conference, to an era when opponents cringed when they arrived at the arena known for its cowbells, stomping, ear-splitting noise and crowd energy that enabled even the worst teams to steal five or six home games per season.
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And the highly respected George Karl wants this job? Of course he does. He views offseasons as prison terms. Between NBA jobs in Cleveland, Oakland, Milwaukee, Seattle and Denver, he twice coached in the minor leagues and two years in Europe. The gym is his calling, rebuilding franchises his mission. He craves the rhythm of the seasons, the chatter of the locker room, the opportunity to play the role of mad scientist and tinker with the newest theories and study the latest analytics.
But basketball is a simple game played by complex personalities. Karl, 63, a two-time cancer survivor, can’t resist the allure of putting it all together – players, systems, approaches – while creating a synergy within his adopted communities. He speaks often of “karma” and “fate,” and during his introductory news conference Tuesday he left no doubt he belongs in Sacramento and is intent on rescuing the franchise.
“I’ve missed the gym,” said the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year who spent the last 11/2 years as an ESPN analyst. “I love the game, and I want one more shot at trying to win a championship. It’s time to be back. It’s time to get back to feeling the crazy spirits that go in a basketball coach’s life.”
No one should expect Karl to be a savior. Not anytime soon, anyway. The team is a bigger mess than the downtown arena construction site. For a second consecutive season, the Kings are last in assists. They also return from the All-Star break ranked 30th in forced turnovers, 29th in blocked shots, 28th in steals, 27th in points allowed and 26th in three-point percentage.
The Kings also lost 10 of the previous 11 games and showed few signs of emerging from their prolonged funk. With few exceptions, they seemed incapable and/or unwilling to accept Michael Malone’s firing and Tyrone Corbin’s selection as his replacement, in essence forcing management to make a rare third coaching change by the All-Star break.
Karl’s illustrious coaching record undoubtedly will take a hit. Given the Kings’ brutal schedule, his streak of 21 consecutive winning seasons likely will end, perhaps with an asterisk, given the extent of the undertaking.
“It’s going to be a hard job,” he acknowledged. “Winning in the NBA is not an easy process. We have 30 games left to play the game at a better level, to play the game more together and to play the game where fans appreciate our effort.
“I personally think there is enough talent on this team to win games, to come back and connect with one another in a way that helps you become a good basketball team. When I saw Sacramento play the last couple games, they lost that connection with each other, that level of confidence. And when you tilt a little bit, you can get killed, blown up, destroyed in this league. Fixing it will be a challenge.”
Like many of his peers, Karl “celebrates” the beauty of the San Antonio Spurs and their latest NBA championship – offense created by defense, ball and body movement, camaraderie on and off the court.
He also reiterated his affinity for small markets, recalled his stand-by-Sac advocacy during the threatened move to Seattle, related previous experiences in Denver with Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro, and gave repeated shout-outs to Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, who for weeks had pressed his basketball executives to hire the league’s sixth-winningest coach.
Tuesday’s upbeat ending to the bizarre, unwieldy circumstances of the past two months created a rare and positive vibe inside the Kings practice facility. Karl, as always, commanded the room with his insight, with his wit, with his outsized, dynamic personality.
“This is definitely one of the greatest days in the 30-year history of the Sacramento franchise,” longtime Kings executive and analyst Jerry Reynolds said.. “You don’t have to worry about coaching anymore. That problem is solved.”
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