Karl debuts against team that fired him in '03

Updated: January 28, 2005, 11:00 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

George Karl had been involved with basketball since the seventh grade, so not having it in his life for nearly two years left him with an empty feeling.

Thursday, Jan. 27
The Nuggets just became more attractive to free agent-to-be Michael Redd.

But that's not why they've hired George Karl.

Redd is an unabashed member of Karl's fan club, true, but Denver has turned to Karl because the struggling Nuggets need veteran experience and a hard edge. Karl, at 53, offers both.

Nuggets management, according to sources, wants to toughen up a group that has underachieved after last season's playoff breakthrough. Injuries have undeniably been a factor in Denver's 17-25 start, but the Nuggets often play with a saunter -- and a strut -- that suggests they're 25-17 ... or better. They haven't come close to that level.

Getting this team back into playoff contention, mind you, is simply challenge No. 1 for Karl. The bigger challenge is forming a successful partnership with Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony. After the messy end to Karl's tenure in Milwaukee -- which followed a miserable experience with Team USA at the 2002 World Championships -- Karl's reputation needs a rebound as much as Melo's does. More than one skeptic has wondered whether Karl would be getting this chance to return to the bench if he wasn't close to Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke.

Karl has described his first extended break from coaching -- a season and a half as an analyst with ESPN -- as a "sabaatical to learn how to do things better." He will inevitably push Anthony harder than the second-year forward has been pushed until now, but Karl wants (and needs) to connect with him, too. As he did with Redd.

Karl said at Thursday's introductory news conference that he feels "pretty confident that I'm going to be better because of what happened in Milwaukee." The question remains: Will Melo be receptive to the forthcoming push he's going to get from Furious George?

It's a must if Karl hopes to repair everything else in Denver that needs fixing.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Now that he's headed back to the NBA, Karl has a greater appreciation for what the game has meant to him.

Out of the NBA since the Bucks fired him 2003, Karl was back in Milwaukee on Thursday to take over as coach of the underachieving Denver Nuggets. He's expected to on the bench Friday night, making his debut with the Nuggets against his former team.

"The last 18 months was the first time I was not with a basketball team for 38 years," said Karl, who spent the past year and a half as an analyst for ESPN. "I now realize how fun and what a privilege it is to be with a basketball team."

The Nuggets hope his enthusiasm rubs off.

One of the favorites in the Western Conference at the start of the season, Denver hasn't lived up to the expectations that came with adding All-Star power forward Kenyon Martin to a team that had reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

Plagued by injuries and inconsistencies, the Nuggets got off to a horrible start and haven't really recovered. Coach Jeff Bzdelik lost his job Dec. 28, and Denver has been only marginally better under interim coach Michael Cooper, entering Friday's game 17-25 and 12½ games out of first place in the Northwest Division.

Karl brings plenty of credibility, ranking 13th all-time with 708 wins and leading his teams to five division titles and 13 playoff appearances in 16 seasons. He has also had experience turning around underachieving teams.

Karl, who is 53, helped Seattle reach the playoffs in 1991-92 after a 20-20 start cost coach K.C. Jones his job, and led the Sonics to three 60-win seasons in five years, including a trip to the 1996 finals.

"He's clearly one of the best coaches in the NBA, has always been so and his record exhibits that," Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe said. "We are very excited to have him with us."

Karl can be feisty and confrontational, but it might be just what the Nuggets need.

With a lineup that includes Martin, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Miller and Marcus Camby, Denver certainly doesn't lack talent. What the Nuggets seem to need is motivation.

Things got better under Cooper, who will stay on as an assistant, but Denver still only won four of 14 games and had trouble closing out the close ones. Injuries have taken a toll, but there were too many times when players stood around on defense or failed to run hard on the break.

Karl isn't likely to stand for lackadaisical effort. He's had clashes with players at just about every stop in his coaching career, particularly in Milwaukee, but always seems to get the best out of them. Besides, the time off has allowed him to take a look at his approach to coaching.

"I feel pretty confident that I'm going to be better because of what happened in Milwaukee," Karl said. "Hopefully, I'm an intelligent being who will learn from the mistakes that we made here."

Given that, Karl has already set his sights on getting Anthony to shape up.

Career wins
(active head coaches)
Larry Brown, Det. 1,185
Don Nelson, Dal. 1,175
Jerry Sloan, Utah 932
George Karl, Den. 708
R. Adelman, Sac. 686

A star as a rookie last season, Anthony has had some growing pains this year. He had a difficult summer that included a clash with coach Larry Brown at the Olympics, a fight at a New York nightclub, then was caught with marijuana in his backpack during the preseason. (The charge was dropped after a friend said the pot was his.)

Anthony has had plenty of troubles on the court as well, struggling with shooting woes and ankle injuries. If the Nuggets are going to have success, Karl knows it will start with Anthony.

"I'm going to be demanding of certain things that he might not be happy with, but I also respect that he's a great talent," Karl said. "He being successful will only make my job successful. I'm just going to communicate with him, coach him, mentor him, try to teach him professionalism. I see a great player that has plateaued."

As for the chance to coach in Denver, Karl described the opportunity to coach the Denver franchise as one of his three dream jobs in basketball -- along with San Antonio and the University of North Carolina, his alma mater -- when speaking to ESPN.com on Wednesday.

"Because of my ABA roots, the Spurs and the Nuggets have been the teams I've dreamt about coaching probably more than any other teams in the league," Karl said. " ... The Nuggets would be a great fit for me ... ."

Another attraction is his previous ties with the Nuggets. He has personal and business relationships with owner Stan Kroenke, and Nuggets coaching consultant Doug Moe was his coach with the Spurs.

In addition to his stints with Milwaukee and Seattle, Karl also coached Golden State and Cleveland, along with stops in the CBA and Spain.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.