Ailene Voisin

Opinion: George Karl’s passion to coach brought him to the Kings

George Karl yells out at the Kings during his first game as their coach last month. He received an ovation at Sleep Train Arena just before the tipoff. a home game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. game on Friday evening, February 20, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California.
George Karl yells out at the Kings during his first game as their coach last month. He received an ovation at Sleep Train Arena just before the tipoff. a home game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. game on Friday evening, February 20, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California.

George Karl thinks about it, too, about fate and the forces that bring people together. Only weeks ago, there he was, almost two years out of coaching, so eager to return to the sideline that he was considering college vacancies, when Kings executives finally banged on his door.

For Karl, coaching the Kings felt right from the first knock. The two already shared a connection strengthened during the duress of the past several seasons.

He was one of the league’s most accomplished NBA coaches, and he needed a job. The Kings and their disillusioned fans needed a jolt.

He had fond memories of Sacramento’s once formidable homecourt advantage, when the spontaneous eruptions inside the arena caused headaches, damaged his eardrums, rattled his players’ nerves. But Karl, a two-time cancer survivor, also appreciated the community’s fight against threats of relocation to Anaheim, Virginia Beach and even his beloved Seattle, the city where he achieved his greatest success.

“Everyone knows I’m a Seattle guy,” Karl often reminded reporters when the Nuggets came to Sacramento during his later seasons with Denver, “and that city should have a team. But not at the expense of Sacramento. I spend a lot of time here, and I talk to people in restaurants, in hotels, around town, and I know what this team means to the community.”

Fighters appreciate fellow fighters. Kings fans remember who was in their corner. Besides Karl’s stature and impressive résumé – he is sixth in NBA career coaching victories and hasn’t had a losing season since 1987-88 – his appeal was enhanced by his personal journey. The “We Want Karl” signs began appearing inside the arena when Michael Malone was fired Dec. 14. A grass-roots social media campaign formed within a week. The sentiment was clear: Karl was the people’s choice.

Though the move was two months late and required the forceful intervention of majority owner Vivek Ranadive, there is a lightness around Sleep Train Arena these days, hope restored by Karl’s invigorating presence.

“George has always been a superb coach,” said Greg Papa, the Warriors’ radio announcer during Karl’s two seasons (1986-88) with Golden State. “The way he walks, calls a timeout, commands a huddle. It’s as if he tells his players, ‘I got this. Follow me. We’ll get through this.’ And just do the math. He always does.”

Gym is his comfort zone

Seated in a quiet section of a downtown restaurant one night last week, Karl poked at a plate of ribs, seemingly oblivious to the curious stares from other patrons. A busboy poured a glass of water, extended his hand and thanked him for taking the Kings job. An older customer approached, apologized for the intrusion and asked if he could take a photo.

“Of course,” Karl said, then swung an arm around the fan, pulled him close and smiled for the camera.

It was George being George. In each of his NBA stops – Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver – the Pittsburgh native was known as a master communicator and probing, curious conversationalist.

The gym is his comfort zone, a place for teaching, talking, sharing, relating. One minute he is conducting drills, studying tape or breaking down a complex game in the simplest terms, and in another he is leaning against a table, discussing everything from green technology to world peace.

“This is what he loves to do,” said Kim Van Deraa, Karl’s longtime companion and mother of the couple’s 10-year-old daughter, Kaci. “And we understand that. I’ll never forget sitting in our living room in Denver that night, and George says, ‘Kaci, I might have this opportunity to coach the Sacramento Kings. What do you think?’ Her response was, ‘Daddy, you need to coach. You love to coach.’ We both understood how important it was for him to get back on the sidelines. When you’re a coach, it becomes who you are.”

But George Karl isn’t just any coach. His journey isn’t just any journey. He knows all about sleepless nights and tortured dreams. Success, failure, second chances, doors opening, doors slamming; there isn’t much he hasn’t experienced.

During his first head-coaching job, when he was 33, Karl guided the modestly talented Cavaliers into the playoffs (1984-85), but he was fired a year later when the team slumped. He was hired the following offseason by former Golden State owner Jim Fitzgerald after being recommended by general manager Don Nelson, and he led the Warriors into the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. But he lost the job during a tumultuous second season that included Chris Mullin’s absence for alcohol rehabilitation, the trades of aging, veteran players, and Karl’s erratic behavior that included thrashing Joe Barry Carroll’s locker.

“George was young and kind of crazy,” Papa said, “but there was more to it than that. Fitz wanted Nellie to coach. The team wasn’t very good. George wound up with a reputation and was banished to the CBA, then to Spain. But I always tell him, ‘You should be the winningest coach in the NBA.’ Just do the math over those four years when he was unfairly ostracized. I think he is every bit the coach Don Nelson is, and I think very highly of Don Nelson. Two of the greatest coaches I’ve ever seen. George is that caliber.”

‘Furious George’ evolves

The George Karl story could have ended quietly in Albany, N.Y., where he coached the Patroons, or in Spain, where he coached Real Madrid, or even at one of the nation’s hundreds of college programs.

But when Bernie Bickerstaff took a leave of absence because of ulcers and the Sonics wilted under K.C. Jones in 1991-92, then-general manager Bob Whitsitt remembered a cocky, combative young coach who had disappeared off the NBA map.

Whitsitt did research, called Karl in Spain and went with his gut. The terms of the original agreement were onerous and would be completely unenforceable in today’s climate. Whitsitt only half-jokingly said he “owned” Karl in their early years with the Sonics, dictating everything from what his coach ate to what he drank (alcohol was banned).

Karl, who had been a hustling, bruising guard before injuries ended his NBA career, still was intense and at times intimidating. He clashed with Gary Payton, a Hall of Fame point guard who is now one of his close friends. Karl coached Shawn Kemp and Vin Baker during their most productive seasons.

But along the way, the man once nicknamed “Furious George” learned a few lessons, too. He could charm with his charisma, his accessibility became an ally, and his increasingly tempered demeanor allowed him to become a better communicator.

“I never really knew why Whitsitt brought me back,” Karl said. “I was known as a volatile guy, which early in my career I probably was. Bob helped me control my ego, and he would mentor me, direct me, instead of yelling at me. He told me, ‘You coach the team. I’ll take care of your image.’

“But it always bothers me when people say, ‘Well, he didn’t get along with’ this person or, ‘He’s volatile.’ They should also have to say, ‘That was 25 years ago.’ How many coaches have stayed seven years (Seattle), six years (Milwaukee) and eight years (Denver)? You can’t last that long if you’re volatile.”

When Karl was fired by the Nuggets – despite a franchise-best 57 wins and being named Coach of the Year in 2012-13 – he joined ESPN, but he itched to return, much to the benefit of the Kings, who had hired and fired a procession of mostly inexperienced coaches over the past decade.

The fire still burns

With the Kings, Karl, 63, unquestionably has a difficult job.

In the talent-rich Western Conference, his roster is flawed, if evolving, with starting point guard Darren Collison out for the season. On the plus side, center DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star, Rudy Gay is a prolific small forward, and Karl worked in Denver with several Kings executives or officials, including general manager Pete D’Alessandro, assistant general manager Mike Bratz, analytics guru Dean Oliver and assistant coaches Ryan Bowen and Vance Walberg.

The parties share and embrace Karl’s coaching philosophy, which he summarizes as “not necessarily fast-break basketball, but more pace-and-energy basketball, smart-decision basketball,” using aggressive, trapping defenses to create transition opportunities.

“George is a terrific in-game coach, at making adjustments, recognizing the advantage,” Bratz said. “I always thought he was one of the best. His teams are also prepared and fundamentally sound. He turns teams around quickly, though with a young team like ours, it will take longer. But it’s obvious he knows what he’s doing, and players recognize that.”

The warm reception Karl has received – he is being hailed as a combination basketball savant/Kings savior – has been humbling, at times overwhelming. His heart jumped, a lump formed in his throat and his blue eyes threatened to fill when he was introduced before his debut.

Cancer, he said, changes everything. Karl is approaching his five-year anniversary from bouts with prostate and throat cancers. His son, Coby, recovered from thyroid cancer and plays professionally in Germany. Karl’s other daughter, Kelci, is the deputy chief financial officer in the Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state.

“The cancer made George think about his mortality,” Van Deraa said. “You’re scared. He still thinks about it. When you feel normal aches and pains, your concerns are much deeper. But there is a reason he got this job. It was very difficult for him not to be on the sidelines. He wanted to do it one more time. So why not?”

Karl laughed when asked about his intensity. The fire, he said, still burns. He speaks more softly because radiation damaged his vocal chords, but he craves conversation in the gym, in the locker room, in the arena, in the community. With a shrug, he insisted he’s just a normal guy from the poor side of the tracks in Pittsburgh. But then a busboy approached, an elderly adult asked for a photo, and he smiled, obliged and completely blew his cover.

He is delighted to be back, doing what he does best, being who he is. The man is a coach.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.