- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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George Karl is better than ever. That might or might not be a good thing for the Denver Nuggets.
He has his priorities in the right order. He's trying to do it both ways -- be healthier in every sense of the word and still be effective at his job, but I'm not sure it can be done. The more I've been around the highest levels of sports, the more I'm convinced it takes obsessive, warped mentalities to get to the very top.
Karl's been there before.
"I was that maniacal guy," he said.
And maybe it worked for a while. He just couldn't continue with that method. It took him on a ride to the upper floors, only he discovered the view from up there could be just as dismal as that from the basement. Since then, he has crawled through the sewers, emerging with a more positive outlook on life and a different approach to his job.
George Karl had some of the best teams in the league when he was with the Seattle SuperSonics. And that was when he was stressed out the most and could stay in a funk for weeks when things didn't go right. (When a friend called to check on him a month after the SuperSonics' infamous loss to the Nuggets in 1994, Karl told him, "On the good days, I feel sh---y.")
He was the highest-paid coach in the business when he was with the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, he says it was "stupid. I wish I could give it back. The target went on you. Once the target goes on you, it's hard to get it off unless you win."
In Denver, he was a mini miracle worker when he first arrived in 2005, turning a losing record into a 32-8 finish as the Nuggets stormed into the playoffs.
But this season, the Nuggets have been among the league's bigger disappointments. Of the top eight teams in the Western Conference, the Nuggets are the only ones without an "x" next to their name. They have more talent than the Utah Jazz and the Yao Ming-less Houston Rockets, but both of those teams already have clinched playoff spots, while Denver fights to the final days.
The only thing the Nuggets have done with consistency throughout the season is play inconsistently. Every page of the calendar has been filled with impressive victories and inexplicable losses. In April alone, they have beaten the resurgent Phoenix Suns and scored a must-have victory over the Golden State Warriors, but they also have lost to the Sacramento Kings and Seattle.
People around the league cite the Nuggets' lack of focus, their refusal to bear down on defense. The word "accountability" is used a lot. As in, there is none. No accountability for defensive assignments and rotations. No accountability for players who take bad shots. That has to go back to the coaches. When Karl was at his zaniest, the Sonics weren't known for defensive lapses. Can he impart the same sense of urgency when his mind is on the bigger picture?
Then again, is there a coach better equipped to help a player deal with a cancer diagnosis, which Denver forward Nene went through this season?
Karl, 56, has battled prostate cancer and survived. He watched Coby overcome two bouts with thyroid cancer. When Nene found out a tumor removed from his testicle was malignant, "[Karl] understood," Nene said. "He knows how I feel at that moment. You need your family more than anything. You need your close friends. He supported me, too."
That could have been a time for Karl to say, "Why me?" Himself, his son, his player? I asked him whether it was overwhelming. He had a different word.
"I can't deny the last couple of years have been powerful," Karl said. "My belief, or spiritual [thought], is I think you get tougher, you get stronger by figuring out tough times and looking into the eyes of pain and problems."
Now that he understands what danger and life-or-death truly mean, he can be excused for not thinking those words apply to a game against the Jazz.
"The thing that you go through when you get cancer is the fear," Karl said. "It's not a fear of losing a game; it's not a fear of losing your job. It's a fear of losing your life."
That would explain how he became the Karl I saw two years ago, his season rapidly heading toward a conclusion at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the 2006 playoffs. He was leaning against a wall in Staples Center and seemed not the least bit perturbed. This was after both he and his son had gone through cancer treatments, and, unprompted, he spoke of his happiness that they both were OK and they'd get to spend more days together. His priorities had shifted. Not even playoff games held the same importance to him.
When I recalled that scene to Coby Karl, he said, "That's a good observation. And that's true. The fact is, once you go through something like this "
Sometimes, in a twisted way, the easiest part of cancer is having it yourself. You're the first to hear the updates. You can choose how to frame your responses. You know exactly what the treatment entails.
Letting other people know is tough. Coby Karl first learned about his thyroid cancer during his junior season at Boise State. He waited three days to gather himself and tell his father.
Watching your loved ones suffer through cancer is tough. There's that utter helplessness.
"I honestly feel it was worse for him," Coby Karl said. "I can't imagine if it was my son."
After chemotheraphy treatments, the cancer came back his senior year. His father missed a Nuggets game to be with him for the second surgery.
"The cancer of Coby was the hardest one," George Karl said. "When it came back, I was angry at myself, I was angry at God, I was angry at the doctors. And that was probably the hardest time."
With Nene, the same old worries had a new twist: This now was a professional problem.
"There's an energy in a season, a basketball season," Karl said. "This energy was not familiar to anybody.
"I don't know if we have bridged it properly. Even today. We're still trying to comfort Nene, fit him into the team. How hard do you push him? All of these questions on a daily basis you could analyze."
Add that to the standard injuries, and it hasn't been an easy season for Denver. Still, the team should have had enough mental fortitude to fare better. I wondered if the new Karl has that same drive.
"It still pains me" to lose, Karl said. "And it's beyond probably common sense. We overemphasize and will continue to as long as sport is as popular as it is.
"But I used to drag other people down. I used to bring pain to the family. And I wasn't going to do that any more."
Karl made a promise to himself. He'd continue to work just as hard, "but I'm not going to destroy what's good in my life -- which I think I did, at times," he said.
The old Karl could sit in his office six months after losing the 1996 NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls and lament his strategic decisions and wonder about their effect on the series. The new Karl can watch tape a day after a disappointing loss to the SuperSonics and not feel dejected.
"There's some things we did poorly in that game, but for most of the game, it was a well-coached basketball game and a well-played basketball game by both teams," Karl said.
Karl cites his coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith, as an example of coaching with class and care and being successful.
Smith did as good a job preparing his players for the NBA and life beyond college as any coach in the past 30 years. But you could make the argument that Smith underachieved professionally, that he was a better person than coach. For all his talent at North Carolina, Smith won "only" two championships. And he won them thanks in part to two of the biggest blunders in NCAA history: Fred Brown's pass in 1982 and Chris Webber's timeout in 1993.
Perhaps John Wooden is the best example of a coach who had it all. The ultimate winner and as balanced an individual as I've ever met. But Wooden coached in a different era. There weren't the huge financial stakes or the pressure to constantly replace players departing early for the pros. He was allowed to grow into the program, even though he won 20 games only six times in his first 15 seasons.
Karl coaches in this era, a time when, as he says, "We put too much expectation on our children; we put too much expectation on our business. You turn your company around; two years later, you're fired because you didn't have a profit. There's no appreciation for the good. There seems to be a lack of focus on excellence, because we want special."
A half a dozen times a year or so, Karl has the dream. In the dream, his team has just won the NBA championship and he's holding the Larry O'Brien trophy. It's back in the day, with the trophy's namesake, the late NBA commissioner, on hand. Brent Musburger is doing the interviews. "Everybody's hair is longer," Karl said.
The dream still exists. The difference is, Karl no longer spends every waking hour in pursuit of it. The word "obsessed" doesn't apply anymore. It's not that the goal seems less appealing. It's that failure doesn't seem so bad. The common definition of failure, at least.
Karl has coached teams to the CBA Finals, the European Finals and the NBA Finals. He hasn't won any of them.
"I guess some people rate that as I'm a failure," Karl said. "When I was 40, I thought I was, too. The pain to stay on top of this business and to be an excellent coach, it's hard. It takes a lot of spirit and a lot of commitment, and I'm proud of that."
After their big win over Golden State on Thursday, the Nuggets stayed in San Francisco, and Karl encouraged them to live a bit of the good life.
"I'm sure there will be a few beers drank tonight, and there will probably be an expensive check sent to the Denver Nuggets tonight for dinner," Karl said afterward.
The Nuggets still haven't assured themselves a playoff spot. In the unpredictable Western Conference, we can be assured of only this: Win or lose, Karl will be just fine.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann