Thursday, October 9
SSS HOF #9: George Karl
He came to Seattle under cover of darkness, an exile returned from Elba, his final chance at making it as a professional basketball coach awaiting him on the rain-soaked runways of SeaTac Airport.
Before the jet touched down from its long journey westward from Spain, his career ledger totaled 119 wins and 176 losses, a testimony to mediocrity. He seemed destined for a Gene Shue-like career at best, or, at worst, to be the Billy Martin of the NBA, but without the championships. Suffice it to say, Sonic fans were forgiven for not throwing a parade.
By the time he left town less than a decade later, however, George Karl had rejuvenated both a city and his career.
He made his Sonic debut on January 23, 1992, against Portland at the Coliseum. Fittingly, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, the two icons of Karl’s reign in Seattle, contributed mightily. Fittingly, the Sonics lost, not because they were bad, but because that’s what the Sonics did under Karl – they lost when it mattered most.
But back to those beginnings. The year he inherited the team from KC Jones, the Sonics finished the season with 775 steals.
It would prove to be the lowest total of Karl’s tenure.
If nothing else, George Karl was aggressive. He was aggressive in the way he coached, he was aggressive in the way he dealt with others, he was aggressive in the way he lived.
There’s a humorous tale of Karl striding through the lobby at All-Star Weekend as the head coach of the Western Conference. He was at the top of his game, risen from the wilds of the CBA and Europe to the penthouse of basketball. There he strode, though, wearing horrific zubaz pants, thumbing his nose at his Armani-clad coaching brothers. He was a misfit, and he loved it.
That was Karl, though. He had no interest in doing things the way others did. You can’t play three guards in the same lineup? Why not, when you’ve got Gill, Payton, and McMillan? Who says you can’t put a 6’9” forward on your opponent’s point guard, even if that point guard is a waterbug?
Karl’s contrarian ways had placed him in trouble during his previous stops in Golden State and Cleveland, where he was unable to win often enough to forestall his firing. In Seattle, however, he had a plethora of talent and, combined with his skills as a defensive teacher (as well as his assistants Tim Grgurich and Bob Kloppenburg) he finally was given the opportunity to see what he could do.
SUCCESS AT LAST
Don’t misunderstand, Karl was not a loser before he came to Seattle. He had won frequently in the CBA, and he took both the Cavs and the Warriors to the playoffs, no mean feat considering the woeful nature of those franchises.
No, Karl’s problems stemmed from his inability to make nice with his employers. In Seattle, though, with an equally contrarian Bob Whitsitt manning the GM seat, Karl had a kindred spirit running the show. Whitsitt and Karl were in harmony, for a time at least, and they molded a winner.
In his first full season as head coach, Whitsitt took the Sonics to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost a Game 7 heartbreaker to the Phoenix Suns in one of the most bitterly remembered games in Seattle sports history.
But reflect on the accomplishment for a moment, not the frustration. In the span of 15 months Karl had taken the Seattle Sonics from an afterthought to the most exciting team in the Western Conference, if not the league. Sure, the Suns “won” the conference title, but true NBA followers knew the best team in the West was from Seattle, not Phoenix.
It was an amazing turn of events. Accompanied by a national surge of interest in Seattle music, it was an exciting time to be a sports fan in the Northwest. After years of mediocrity and anonymity, Seattle was poised to plant its flag.
Rise and Fall.