Hours after he was introduced as the Kings’ newest head coach Tuesday, George Karl waded through a sea of fans.
He walked into the bustling Firestone Public House in downtown Sacramento and showed why he has a reputation as a man of the people. He shook hands, posed for more pictures, winked and waved.
For Kings fans hungry for a new beginning, the main course just as well could have been hope – with a heavy side of optimism.
“I’m amazed at the generosity, how nice everyone is,” Karl said. “I want to win just as much as they do.”
In a whirlwind first day in Sacramento, Karl lunched with his new bosses. He toured the new downtown arena while wearing a Kings-purple hard hat and held a late-afternoon meeting with the ticket-sales staff. He vowed to increase the energy both within the team and in the city.
That pledge starts Wednesday, when he greets Kings players for the first time as their coach, and then it’s practice, practice and more practice. Karl, eager to get back in the game after an 18-month stint as an analyst for ESPN, said that’s what he missed most – practice, when he can mentor and teach and where, Karl said, winners are made.
Karl began communicating with players via phone and text messages over the weekend.
“I actually told most of the players we need to be in the gym,” Karl said. “And this is the time of the year in the NBA teams aren’t in the gym a lot. Teams are getting days off, a lot of days off. I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’ve got to be in the gym if it’s just for 45, 50 minutes a day just to get something done.”
The Kings have a lot of work ahead, Karl acknowledged, and just 30 games to put the franchise back on track this season. Next season the team will play its last games at antiquated Sleep Train Arena before the new arena opens and a new era begins, albeit with a well-traveled veteran coach.
Karl, 63, brings an abundance of confidence to a fan base hungry to cheer for a contender. Many are still seething about the sudden firing of coach Michael Malone on Dec. 14 after the season started with promise. The Kings were the talk of the NBA before center DeMarcus Cousins’ bout with viral meningitis.
Fans urged the Kings to hire Karl, many waving “We Want Karl” signs at Sleep Train Arena in recent weeks.
Karl is easy to like, beyond his engaging personality. He’s a proven winner, leading his team to the playoffs in 22 of his 25 NBA seasons. His last losing season was 1988; the Kings’ last winning season was 2006. Karl’s 1,131 victories are the sixth most in NBA history and more than the Kings’ victories in their 30 seasons in Sacramento.
The Kings have lost 21 of 27 games, and the only team separating them from the bottom of the Pacific Division standings is the Los Angeles Lakers, once their rivals, who also are suffering through a dismal season.
Still, Kings fans are optimistic Karl will at least make their team more competitive.
“Everything that happened recently, having Karl here comes as great news,” said Shalvin Johal, 31, an interpreter and a longtime Kings fan. “So glad to have him.”
Jerry Reynolds, the former Kings coach and retired front-office executive who is a fixture on the team’s broadcasts, said Sacramento especially appreciates a coach who wins and blends into the community.
“It’s a home-run hire,” Reynolds said. “It’s a hire that helps turn the franchise around and, in some ways, saves it. Five years from now, we’ll all look back and think, ‘Boy, that was the best thing to happen to the Kings in a lot of years.’”
Karl has faced more difficult challenges than turning around the Kings.
He has beaten prostate cancer and then throat cancer. When he reaches his fifth year being cancer-free in April, he’ll celebrate, even if he no longer can enjoy wine as he once did.
“With all the radiation and chemo, my taste buds have never been the same,” Karl said. “We’re in wine country here, and I can’t taste the wine.”
Karl said he feels “blessed” to have beaten cancer – and to have “another shot to win a championship.”
Cancer forced Karl to change his ways, to better balance his life. He altered his diet, lost weight, became less grouchy. He makes time for himself – perhaps with a walk or bike ride – and especially for longtime companion Kim Van Deraa and their daughter Kaci, 10.
“Cancer is in my family,” Karl said. “My son (Coby) had bouts of it. I became a very involved ambassador for cancer patients. I carry water bottles with me everywhere because I get dry mouth.”
Kim and Kaci will become regulars at Sleep Train Arena, and Karl said he’s forever indebted to both.
“They’re what we call ‘cancer angels,’ and Kim and Kaci are my angels,” Karl said.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.