|Artwork by Rafael Calonzo, Jr. / Tie by Cody Karl.
George Karl had just coached his team to the most wins in franchise history. They were young, exciting and packed in the crowds at home. But after consecutive first round exits in the playoffs, many were calling for Karl to pack his bags and move on, as he'd done so many times before. After the final, painful playoff loss, Karl almost sounded like he welcomed the ax, if only to end his suffering:
"I'll be O.K., guys," said Karl. "I'm fine. I am fine. I'm the same as I've ever been. What have I done wrong? Why do I have to be ashamed? I didn't make a good decision? Good. Fire me. I've given all I have to give. I care. I like these guys. I like coaching these guys. Go mess with someone who doesn't care. Go mess with some of the frauds out there, man."This may sound like the Denver Nuggets, who just let Karl go on Thursday, but the quote is from a different time and place. 1995. Seattle.
But almost an identical situation.
The early 90s Sonics were a hot mess. "Trader Bob" Whitsitt, the young, hot-shot GM of the Seattle Supersonics, had hornswoggled some of the best young talent in the league, yet couldn't quite figure out how all the pieces went together as the team floundered under the near comatose style of coaching from old-schooler K.C. Jones. Enter George Karl.
In 1984, the Cleveland Cavaliers made George Karl the youngest coach in the NBA. He soon took the long-struggling team to the playoffs. He was fired the next year.
In 1987, while the Sonics were busy upsetting the state of Texas in the playoffs, Karl was coaching a Cinderella squad of his own, the Golden State Warriors. While his team, like the '87 Sonics, eventually fell to the Showtime Lakers, they appeared to be a franchise on the rise. A year later, Karl was out of the NBA.
In 1992, the nomadic Karl was supposedly washed up, coaching in Real Madrid, Spain when he got the call from the Sonics. Like Gene Hackman (or maybe Dennis Hopper) in Hoosiers, Karl was given a chance for redemption on the hardwoods. During his first practice in Seattle, Karl allegedly barked instructions to his team in Spanish. Old habits.
As in Cleveland, Golden State, Real Madrid, Albany and pretty much everywhere else he coached, the team responded quickly to the tough but lovable Karl. The Sonics stormed into the playoffs and upset Karl's former team, the high-scoring Warriors. The following year was even better, with the Sonics making it all the way to the seventh game of Western Conference Finals, where they came up one Sternspiracy short from the Finals.
And then came 1994. And 1995.
Two agonizing years for Sonics fans. Years they should've, would've, could've won it all, if not for some meddling kids and their dog. Whether it was bad luck or bad match-ups, the Sonics lost in the first round when the world (the WORLD!) was penciling them into the Finals.
Many in Seattle, including (allegedly) the team owner, Barry Ackerly, wanted Karl gone. Instead they settled for Whitsitt, who left for Portland after one of the ugliest exit interviews in Seattle history (which is really saying something).
The next year, in 1996, all was forgiven as Karl lead the Supersonics to the Finals for the first time in nearly 20 years. It didn't even matter that they lost, because really, nobody was going to beat that team. The Sonics were BACK! Hooray for Coach Karl! Hooray for Kemp! Hooray for Payton! Hooray for Wall . . . okay, let's not get carried away, guys.
Two years later, Karl was gone.
Like in Denver, Karl was fired (or, to be precise, didn't have his contract extended, cough-cough) because of impatient owners who want it all right now. Remember when Ackerley famously whined about not having rings like all the other kids? Apparently having hundreds of sold-out games and one of the most entertaining and successful teams of the decade wasn't cutting it, so he fired the coach with the highest winning percentage in Sonics history. Ackerly not only threw out the baby with the bathwater, he threw out the tub, the sink and the entire second floor.
And what did he get out of it? The beginning of the end of an entire franchise. Two years later, apparently tired of waiting for jewelry from Santa, Ackerly sold the team to Howard Schultz, effectively sealing the Sonics' doom. 41 years of history, down the drain because a rich guy wasn't happy with his toy.
People look at 2008 as the year basketball ended in Seattle, but for me (with the exception of the 2004 Miracle Mirage), the joy of watching the Sonics died when George Karl was shown the door.
In every city he coached, George Karl was never appreciated until he was gone. With his crazy line-ups and refreshingly unfiltered banter, Karl coached like a fan. He was one of us. When that connection is cut, both to the fans and to fiercely loyal players, there is nothing left to keep us attached to the team.
Sure, Karl can be infuriating at times. His ego battles with Payton nearly derailed the team before they even made it to the Finals. But is there anyone who could say Paul Westphal was an improvement? Or Bob Hill? Or Bob Weiss? Or even Karl disciple Nate McMillan?
I know George Karl will end up on his feet again, as he's done time and time (and time!) again. Maybe with the Clippers, or even the (shudder) Lakers. But how will the Nuggets do post-Karl? They may find the right coach to finally break the first round curse. Or, if history repeats itself, they could rapidly crumble back to the lower rungs of the NBA.
No matter what happens, one thing is for certain: it won't be nearly as fun in Denver anymore.