George Karl aches.
His knees are shot from years of basketball wear and tear and tumbles onto the hardwood or into opponents. His back is tender.
The Kings’ coach has grown used to myriad pains, though he’s continuously curious about what it all means. But Karl lives in the moment, trying not to fear a return of cancer, and there’s nothing like a hot January to ease all the ills.
Karl’s spirits are high because the Kings have plenty to fight for. Entering Monday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets at Sleep Train Arena, the Kings were 8-3 this month, seeking their first six-game winning streak in 11 seasons and first playoff berth in 10 seasons.
Karl, 64, is a two-time cancer survivor, prostate and throat. He’s closing in on his sixth anniversary of being cancer-free. His voice once boomed, but now he speaks softly, radiation treatments having ravaged his vocal cords.
But Karl’s message is loud and clear. The Kings are improving. They’re a factor after years of languishing at this time of the season and limping toward another appearance in the draft lottery.
Karl is healthy and relatively content, but the concern is always there.
“Cancer hangs with you,” he said. “You always wonder. If you wake up in the morning and your stomach hurts, you wonder if it’s stomach cancer. If your back hurts, same thing. If it’s a headache in a place you’re not used to having a headache, you wonder. Every little ache and pain makes you question your health. And you value every day that you’re healthy.
“No question, health has moved into my priority more than it ever has in my life. In my coaching journey, balance is becoming more important in my life.”
Karl may not resemble the “Furious George” of decades past, when he fumed and stalked the sideline, but there are reasons for this transformation. He’s mellowed. He’s older. Life has a bit more meaning. As much as coaches yearn for the growth and maturity of their players, they also season throughout the seasons.
Karl has shown flashes of his old fiery spirit, drawing a technical foul here, being restrained by assistant coaches there. And he appreciates victory as much as ever, a basketball lifer who got his NBA coaching start in 1978 as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and his head-coaching start in 1984 with the Cleveland Cavaliers (followed by head-coaching stints with the Golden State Warriors, Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets).
Last February, Karl arrived in Sacramento to save a ruptured team, the franchise and its loyal yet tormented fans desperate for a feel-good jolt. Karl last missed the playoffs in a full season of coaching in 2001-02 with Milwaukee.
The coach said he savors the good in his life, even if he badly misses some of life’s perks. Cancer treatments robbed Karl of his taste buds “for a lot of high-quality stuff,” he said.
“I used to be a food addict, a food connoisseur,” he said. “Food still tastes good, but I don’t go out at night looking for food, a nice place to eat. I’ll go out with friends to talk or entertain. I used to go the best restaurants. Now it’s a waste of time and money. It’s not the same.”
And wine, another one-time delicacy?
“Wine tastes like crap to me now,” he said, frowning.
A year ago, living in Colorado, Karl wasn’t sure where his life was headed. He embraced the time with his kids, enjoyed his ESPN analyst work, but he longed to coach again.
“I can’t deny there were days I missed the gym,” Karl said last week. “I’d hang out with basketball guys, and they’re telling basketball stories, and I couldn’t tell any stories. I didn’t have any. Coaching in the NBA is not an easy job. It’s a rewarding job, though.”
A playoff berth with the Kings would rank among Karl’s highlights, which is saying something for a coach who ranks fifth in career NBA victories. Kings players have become convinced they’re playoff-bound, and they give a lot of credit to Karl for that outlook.
“It would be a letdown if we didn’t make the playoffs,” guard Darren Collison said. “We have so much potential. Our ceiling is very, very high. We’ve handled adversity well, bounced back. I know and the coaches know where this team can be.”