How long must a man stand outside the door before they let him in?
How long must he submit applications before he gets approved?
Surely, surely, George Karl asks these questions every year.
On the one hand, Karl is a remarkably successful head coach. He’s been on the plus side of .500 nearly every year of his coaching career. He’s taken five different teams to the NBA playoffs, and most of those squads were languishing in mediocrity before Karl brought his unique blend of enthusiasm and nastiness on board. Instead of Jordan or Shaq or LeBron, Karl had World B. Free and Joe Barry Carroll and Ricky Pierce, and yet he still got those clubs into the playoffs.
A starter at North Carolina and a draftee of the Knicks, the gritty Karl parlayed a modicum of talent into five years as a professional basketball player, not a bad accomplishment for a 6’2” kid from Pennyslvania. He followed that with one of the best stretches of coaching in CBA history, with the Montana Golden Nuggets and Albany Patroons, including a remarkable 50-6 record for Albany.
And yet (you knew this was coming), Karl has seen his share of frustrations. To wit:
21 NBA seasons, no championships
2002 FIBA World Championships, lost to Yugoslavia
2 Real Madrid seasons, no championships
5 CBA seasons, no championships
2 seasons, San Antonio Spurs, assistant coach, no championships
5 seasons, San Antonio Spurs, player, no championships
4 seasons, University of North Carolina, no NCAA championships
And it’s not as if he was with lousy teams all those years. The Sonics’ failures are already all-to-familiar to our readers, but don’t forget that the Bucks went from being a #1 seed to watching the playoffs on television under Karl’s watch, that the Nuggets lost in the first round after winning their division, that Real Madrid won seven titles in less than two decades, but none under George, that the Spurs parlayed two consecutive first-place finishes into two consecutive early exits, that the Tar Heels fell short in the ’72 Final Four …
The ultimate knife in the back had to be Karl’s experience in Madrid. He was unable to guide the team to a title during his two-year run, grew dissatisfied with the situation (shocking, I know), quit mid-season to return to the NBA, then watched Real Madrid captured the Saporta Cup in his absence, something they had been unable to do during his tenure.
Of course, it could just as easily be 1991, when Albany went 28-0 at home and 50-6 overall … and didn’t even make it to the CBA Finals. Instead, they lost in six games to Wichita Falls in the semifinals.
That’s how it is with George Karl, though: Studying his coaching career is akin to studying the history of modern Italian warfare. The talent and passion are there in abundance, but the results always fail to materialize.
Pair Karl’s experiences with those of Phil Jackson, his coaching nemesis for the next fortnight. The Zen Master saw success as a collegiate athlete, as a professional with the Knicks, as a head coach in the CBA (two titles), then finally in the NBA (nine more). By my count, Jackson, now a Hall of Famer, has won 13 championships in his career.
George Karl? One.
In 1970-71 the Tarheels won the NIT.
Nearly 40 years ago, George Karl got to win the last game of his season and he hasn’t done it since. 40 years, man! An entire generation has been born, gone to school, graduated, gotten married, had children, and slouched towards middle age since Karl called himself a champion.
So, with that in mind, tell me, just please tell me, you’re rooting for George this year. Forget Kobe, forget Carmelo, forget Phil, forget all of them.
Instead, remember the Sonics losing to the Nuggets in 1993, remember the debacle with Wally Walker, remember the Bucks falling to the Sixers in 2001, remember how the 1991 Albany Patroons managed to go 50-6 during the regular season and lost the title, remember the Spurs losing year after year in the ABA playoffs … remember all of that.
Then, fellow basketball fan, ask the basketball gods to smile just this one time onto George Karl’s lumpy, looking-more-like-WC-Fields-every-day physique.
He’s earned it.