In a contemporary, unpretentious home on a winding, leafy street in Arden Park, George Karl sat on his couch, hands massaging his surgically replaced right knee, ready to talk.
For the first time in several months, he resembled the old George Karl, uncensored and insightful, and surprisingly upbeat, all things considered. During a lengthy conversation, he dissected his disappointingly brief tenure as Kings coach in measured, almost clinical, terms, addressing his mistakes and those he attributes to ownership and the front office. Then there were moments when his voice softened, and he shook his head, his features expressing a profound sense of loss.
This was supposed to be Karl’s grand finale – rebuild the Kings, reintroduce Sacramento to the NBA playoffs, become an integral part of the community he fervently supported during the heated relocation battle with Seattle, where he had his greatest success.
Instead, the fifth-winningest coach in NBA history was fired after less than two seasons, his Hall of Fame résumé blemished with a uniquely Sacramento stain – his teams in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver finished .500 or better 21 consecutive seasons – making him a principal figure in the too-familiar replay. Once again, the Kings are restructuring the front office, preparing for the NBA draft lottery and trying to attract a quality coach who either doesn’t loathe or fear All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
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I’m old school enough to think that a coach has to feel powerful, has to feel supported, and I never felt that level of support.
George Karl, on his time with the Kings
“Vlade (Divac) has a helluva task ahead of him,” Karl said. “The roster needs to be tinkered with. He is going to be in for an NBA free agency unlike anything we have ever seen. If the decision is made to keep Cuz, you have to put the right players around him. But it can’t be about Cousins. You have to make basketball decisions.”
The shame of this? Karl, who will be 65 in May, should be an integral part of the transition, should have been escorted out of his coaching office and into the front office. He loves this community and loves his house, and there is no need to study his portfolio to appreciate the obvious: During his 1 1/2 years as coach, he was the sharpest basketball mind and most interesting man in the room. The coach known as “Crazy George” won everywhere except here, partly because he toned down his act and partly because he refused to kiss the ring.
There are too many rings to kiss at Sleep Train Arena. Let’s start with that.
“Eighty percent of the time I think the Kings did what had to be done,” Karl said of his firing after his 44-68 record. “But I’m old school enough to think that a coach has to feel powerful, has to feel supported, and I never felt that level of support.”
I never felt I got into a good place with Cuz, and some of that was my stupidity when I said that no player is untradeable. I still believe that. But I should have been smart enough not to say it.
Karl, on his relationship with Kings All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins
Relationship with Cousins doomed from start
Karl was doomed by the organization’s chronic dysfunction from the start. Karl was a popular hire among Kings fans when he replaced Tyrone Corbin, who was treated like a doormat by Cousins after Michael Malone’s brutally ill-conceived firing. But Karl stepped into a situation that doubled as a septic tank long before his plane touched down.
There were enough different agendas at Sleep Train to jam the fax machine. Cousins’ agents, Dan Fegan and Jarinn Tasi Akana – the latter a member of the Denver staff who was let go when Karl was hired by the Nuggets in 2004 – lobbied hard against Karl and poisoned the coach-player relationship before the introduction. Former general manager Pete D’Alessandro signed off on Karl’s hiring only to openly engage fans in an outrageous divide-and-conquer debate: Are you with Karl or Cousins? And D’Alessandro, who was demoted and replaced by an inexperienced Divac weeks later, left for a legal/managerial position with the Nuggets just days before the NBA draft, taking inside information and leaving Divac with a skeleton personnel crew.
By then, Karl had contributed mightily to his own demise. Instead of establishing new rules and breaking the five-year pattern of enabling Cousins, he internalized the continual disrespect and turned the other cheek until that fateful night near the end of the 2014-15 season.
“I never felt I got into a good place with Cuz,” Karl said, “and some of that was my stupidity when I said that no player is untradeable. I still believe that. But I should have been smart enough not to say it, and I in no way, at any time, thought DeMarcus was going to get traded.”
The damage nonetheless proved to be irreparable, and Karl’s stature was diminished further by two offseason incidents.
Vlade thought he was helping me, but that looked really bad.
Karl, on an orchestrated handshake with DeMarcus Cousins in front of TV cameras
First, while Kings officials, owners and coaches were assembled in a conference room, staring at the TV on draft night, the ESPN ticker flashed reports that principal owner Vivek Ranadive was considering firing Karl. According to Karl, the tension in the room prevented any possibility of creative exchanges.
A few weeks later, Divac walked into the crowded gym during the Las Vegas Summer League, accompanied by Cousins, other players and assistant general manager Mike Bratz, while Karl sat at the other side of the facility. When Karl approached, Cousins only reluctantly shook his hand and then turned away, embarrassing his coach in front of dozens of his NBA colleagues and thousands of viewers following the drama on NBATV.
“Vlade thought he was helping me,” said Karl, “but that looked really bad.”
Later that week, Divac summoned Cousins and Karl to a private counseling session, and throughout training camp and the opening weeks of the season there were hints at a thaw in the relationship. But that ended when Cousins directed a postgame, profanity-laced locker room outburst at Karl after a loss to San Antonio on Nov. 8. Karl wanted Cousins disciplined with a two-game suspension. Instead, Divac, still intent on pursuing diplomacy, quietly fined his best player an undisclosed amount.
“That night the bomb went off,” recalled Karl, his voice rising. “Vlade was right there. When they supported Cousins instead of me, I felt, ‘OK, I’m in the compromise position. Cuz has the power.’ They sent that message many times, too many times sent it to the players. And the players wanted someone to stand up to Cuz, and they wanted it to be their coach. But at that point, I realized that you either compromise or you blow it up, and my job was to make us a better basketball team and get to the end of the year.”
We added some pieces last summer, but we had too many guards. I kept telling Mike (Bratz), ‘Darren Collison, Ben McLemore and Marco Belinelli are too similar. Trade one of them because you can’t keep three (shooting) guards happy.’
After knee replacement, he feels much better
During the conversation, Karl took a break to wrap an ice pack around his swollen left knee. He winced as his 9-year-old lab, Cody, squeezed onto the couch. A bottle of pain pills rested on a counter in the kitchen, but five days after undergoing knee replacement surgery he felt better than he has in years.
His improved mobility, he said, not without irony, would enable him to stand on the sidelines during games and practices – an issue this season with several players who felt Karl delegated too many duties to assistant coach Chad Iske. And though his vocal cords remain damaged from cancer treatment, his voice resonated, no longer weakened by the strain of shouting to be heard inside the arena.
With the Toronto-Indiana playoff game on the big screen, the sound muted, Karl conceded he could have handled his physical circumstances more effectively. “Somewhat true. Somewhat true. I could see how that could be interpreted.”
More soul-searching: Should he have gone harder at Cousins from the beginning? “That’s a great question.” Could he have done more to foster a relationship with his volatile star? “Another good question.”
“Do you want my opinion?” Kim Van Deraa, his longtime companion, suddenly interjected from across the room. “I think DeMarcus needs to be loved. I kept telling George, ‘Go over and put your arms around him! He needs love.’ ”
“I don’t disagree,” he said, “but he needs players around him that are better fits. You could tell at the end of last year that Rudy (Gay) and Cuz didn’t work. We added some pieces last summer, but we had too many guards. I kept telling Mike (Bratz), ‘Darren Collison, Ben McLemore and Marco Belinelli are too similar. Trade one of them because you can’t keep three (shooting) guards happy.’ And I wanted to play Seth (Curry), but you can’t give a player seven minutes here, seven minutes there, and think they can gain any confidence.”
I think you can win with him (Cousins), but my thing is, how long is it going to take to get there? Then, how long before you become a winning team? I think there are faster ways to go.
Coach needs to be empowered, Karl says
As he reflected on the season, Karl said he was pleased with Omri Casspi’s development, Collison’s contributions when healthy, Rajon Rondo’s career revival and an “above average” rookie year for Willie Cauley-Stein. He stated the obvious, that Kings guards are poor individual defenders, most notably Rondo.
But the conversation always came back to Cousins, who, amid the negativity and his frequent, often visible resistance, was selected for the All-Star team, added a three-point shot and improved offensively and defensively, despite battling sore feet and chronic weight and conditioning issues.
“The greatest asset for Cuz is that he can play different places,” Karl said. “There are certain nights he is good in the block (post). Other nights, when he’s covered by, say, a Tim Duncan, he is probably better facing the basket, on pick-and-rolls. His shake-and-bake game is as good as his post-up. His shot selection has to get better, and he has get down to three turnovers a night and get his assists up. The offense was very close. They need a shooter and another playmaker, but it’s close.”
So any parting words? Suggestions for the coaching candidates that, Karl said, should include Corliss Williamson, Monty Williams and Nate McMillan?
“Whether or not they trade Cuz,” Karl said, “they have to empower their coach. They have to let him coach. It takes a few years to build a program. It becomes a culture, an energy force. Vivek wanted magic to happen, but in the NBA magic happens once in a while, and usually is associated with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. I think you can win with him (Cousins), but my thing is, how long is it going to take to get there? Then, how long before you become a winning team? I think there are faster ways to go.”