Commentary

Can you feel love for George Karl?

Updated: March 9, 2011, 5:08 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

George Karl's body has been put through so much the past few years, you'd think that at this point he could tolerate just about anything. But I wonder whether he could ever be prepared for what's happening right now.

You know what I'm talking about. Karl is right on the verge of being -- I shudder to even type the word, for fear he'll read it -- loved.

Oh, it's happening. It feels almost inevitable now. The coach who practically made a living out of being irascible now finds himself a person in whom others invest hope. Karl is a man seen by those in the game, and by those who watch it, as the good guy, the one they root for.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Karl
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesGeorge Karl acknowledges he's been tough and vocal in the past, including when he coached the Bucks.

Karl's body managed to accept all manner of cancer treatments, so maybe it won't outright reject this notion. But for George, and for anyone who has followed George through the years, it has to constitute a fairly radical change of direction.

Karl never had the slightest problem playing the bad-boy role. Can he live with being a saint?

The early guess: sure. It's all about perspective, baby.

The Denver Nuggets' signing of Karl this week to a three-year extension of his coaching contract, with as many as three years in options beyond that, is one of the most optimistic acts I've seen in sports. It is a full affirmation not only of Karl's place in Denver but also of his place on Earth. It's a recognition that the man who has crawled over broken glass for the past six years is home.

The thing would have been done sooner but for the protracted Carmelo Anthony saga, so the announcement of Karl's extension did not precisely constitute stunning news in NBA circles. There hadn't been much doubt that George wanted the Nuggets and the Nuggets wanted George. Karl wants Denver to be his last coaching job in the league, and so it appears that it will be.

But beyond the news itself is this growing body of evidence that George Karl has become a beloved figure in the NBA. Even Karl might tell you that's a head-scratcher.

Karl? Really? The man who once furiously kicked a basketball into the stands during a CBA game? The one who grabbed a guy's toupee during an on-court fight, one that reportedly began after Karl annoyed Pete Maravich into the only scrap Maravich ever had as a player?

George Karl was, forever, the guy who got in his players' faces, who screamed them up to heightened performances. He wasn't afraid to play the role of the jerk. Karl famously derided Doc Rivers when Rivers got his first head-coaching job, saying, "It bothers me that Doc, with all of his style and spin, got a job coming right out of the TV booth."

You could usually tell that Karl was in the arena by the shouting. Reporters loved him because he was transparent, genuine. He was liable to say anything at any time, be it a denigration of the officiating, a musing on his team's obvious shortcomings, or some needless jab at an owner or fellow coach. Stirring the pot was his trade.

That was just George being George, after all. He backed it up by being a coach who collected wins at such a pace that he's now one of only seven men in NBA history with at least 1,000 of them. Although an NBA title has eluded him, he made great money and raked in accolades. He was essentially a raging success, emphasis on the rage.

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers and George Karl
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDoc Rivers and others are embracing George Karl these days.

But beginning in 2005, the ground under Karl's feet began to shift. First, he fought his own battle against prostate cancer, then dealt with the news that his son, Coby, was dealing with thyroid cancer. And then, just last year, came the stunning announcement that Karl had been diagnosed with neck and throat cancer and would need to take an extended leave of absence.

It was treatable. But it was going to be hell.

For a full accounting of the concentric circles through which Karl persevered in 2010, I recommend Rick Reilly's moving, wince-inducing piece on Karl's cancer treatment that appeared here last year. The short of it is that Karl was, for the third time in six years, forced to face not only mortality but an honest and thorough accounting of his life. And over all of those years, the man quite simply underwent real change.

George didn't like everything he was, so he switched out the parts that weren't working. He reconnected with a family he knew he had neglected as a rising-star coach. He moved out of a private, gated Denver suburb and into a neighborhood that felt closer to his Pittsburgh roots -- a little less pretentious, a little more grounded.

He stopped yelling at his players so much, partly because it hurt to speak. But more significantly, George Karl stepped back and took in the broad view that so few people ever do. It was a view born of necessity and near tragedy. And it took root.

In an extraordinary interview with The New York Times this past fall, Karl said that he thinks about dying every day, "But I'm staying energized and positive, and right now I'm in a good place." That goes double for his place in the NBA. Everywhere he goes now, Karl finds himself the recipient of warm applause, touching newspaper articles and columns. Opponents, broadcasters and coaching peers make it a point to find him and shake his hand.

All this because he fought cancer and survived? Not strictly. For that matter, it's not as if you'll never see the old George Karl out there on the court. Get him in the middle of a game. Get him in the huddle with a player who has just screwed up a key sequence. It's all still in there.

It is there, but it is now only a part of Karl, not all of him. At one time, basketball was everything. It turns out that even people who love the game are connecting with a coach who has been forced to put it in perspective. Here's a sincere good hope that old raging George can live with being loved.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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