Ailene Voisin

Opinion: George Karl feels NBA Finals tug of Cavs, Warriors

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl at a Kings predraft workout on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl at a Kings predraft workout on Thursday, June 11, 2015. hamezcua@sacbee.com

His first NBA head-coaching job was in Cleveland, his second was in Oakland, and he has fond memories of living in both communities. So George Karl is at least mildly conflicted about the Warriors-Cavaliers championship series.

But only mildly conflicted. In his mind, his gut, his heart, he can’t shake his affinity for the Warriors’ style of play and cites basic mathematical principles – a deep, balanced roster vs. a squad featuring superman and a mediocre supporting cast – for sticking with Golden State as the best-of-seven NBA Finals returns to Oracle Arena on Sunday for Game 5.

“I think both teams have a degree of inspiration that suggests Games 5, 6 and 7 could be very interesting,” the Kings coach said Friday. “There could be some failure of not feeling the ‘stage.’ I think Draymond (Green) had trouble with the stage early in the series. But home court usually helps, especially the deeper the series goes. You play with a little more energy, a little more security and confidence. And I’m totally a West Coast guy now. I like playing with flow and generating offense off your defense. But I can’t tell you how impressed I am with what LeBron James is doing. It’s just a great story for Cleveland.”

6Number of NBA head-coaching jobs George Karl has held (Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle, Milwaukee, Denver, Kings)

Karl, 64, has heard all the famous Cleveland jokes. The mistake by the lake. The Randy Newman reference to the burning river. The Cavaliers being nicknamed the Cadavers. When he was hired as coach in 1984, the franchise still was reeling from Ted Stepien’s inept and underfinanced ownership.

In one season (1981-82), Stepien fired three head coaches and hired four. Threats of relocation hovered throughout his tenure. He also is credited with introducing the league to scantily clad dancers and cheerleaders. His most egregious behavior, though, was suggesting NBA rosters should be 50 percent white for marketing purposes. That comment – and his mismanagement of the franchise – led Deputy Commissioner David Stern to broker a sale to Gordon and George Gund in 1983.

The Gunds promoted their young player personnel director, 32-year-old Karl, to head coach. Though the emotional, animated Karl led the Cavaliers to the playoffs in his first season and a tightly contested first-round series against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics, Karl said he definitely earned his nickname, Crazy George.

“I was probably a little out of control,” Karl said with a chuckle. “My ego and my personality might have been a little off the charts. I still think passion and coaching and being in the gym are good qualities. But, hopefully, I learned to control my ego, my mouth, and my personality a little bit.”

His timing wasn’t the best, though. Only months after attending Game 1 of the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals and receiving a standing ovation from Celtics fans, he was fired and watched as the Cavaliers, under new coach Lenny Wilkens, upgraded their roster with rookie center Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Larry Nance, Craig Ehlo, Mike Sanders and John “Hot Rod” Williams, among others.

Karl wasn’t away from the sidelines long. Don Nelson, then Milwaukee’s coach, recommended him for the Golden State job in 1986, and in his first season, Karl guided the Warriors from 30-52 the previous season to their first playoffs appearance in 10 years. Though his tenure was brief in Northern California, too, the learning curve was steep. While overseeing teams that included such diverse personalities as Joe Barry Carroll, Sleepy Floyd, Purvis Short and Chris Mullin, Karl furthered his commitment to an up-tempo style rooted in aggressive defense.

He also admitted he still was “searching for my coaching adrenaline” – trying to shed the Crazy George image – and for the first time was exposed to California’s famous freeway gridlock.

“I actually commuted from Pleasanton,” Karl said, “and that was the first time I ever experienced a 7 a.m. traffic jam. Even when I was with the Cavs, and they played in the Richfield Coliseum, which is between Akron and Cleveland and sort of suburban, it was never anything like the Bay Area. But like I said, I liked living in both places. Cleveland is a blue-collar city, and I’m from Pittsburgh, and a very, very blue-collar background. I made more money on my first NBA contract (three years, $155,000) than my dad did his entire working career. And how can you not love the Bay Area?”

But back to the Finals. Karl is torn between the teams and the communities because of another factor: his fondness for Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov, whom he coached in Denver, and Warriors series MVP (thus far) Andre Iguodala, who also was on the Nuggets team that lost to the Warriors in the 2013 playoffs. For those who might have forgotten, Karl liked the long-limbed Mozgov so much he was fired after that postseason partly because he played the young Russian ahead of the grossly overpaid JaVale McGee.

“Yeah, well, that’s the NBA,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to a long series. I think Golden State has done a great job getting control back. I love what Steve Kerr did, going small with Iguodala. And you know about Game 5s. The numbers show that teams that win the fifth game usually go on and win the series. So Sunday should be really interesting.”

NBA Finals

Series tied 2-2; TV: Ch. 10

  • Game 1: Golden State 108, Cleveland 100 (OT)
  • Game 2: Cleveland 95, Golden State 93 (OT)
  • Game 3: Cleveland 96, Golden State 91
  • Game 4: Golden State 103, Cleveland 82
  • Sunday: at Golden State, 5p.m.
  • Tuesday: at Cleveland, 6p.m.
  • Friday: at Golden State, 6p.m.*

*If necessary

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