Minutes after winning the 900th game of his illustrious coaching career, George Karl sat down with the media in Toronto to reminisce for nearly 20 minutes. I was fortunate enough to be standing next to Coach Karl for this chat and for the past few hours I’ve debated how I would report on this topic. Part of me leaned towards writing a traditional article, while another part of me thought the best way to share this event with basketball fans would be to simply transcribe the parts of his post game press conference where he talked about this milestone and reflected back upon his career.
After some debating I decided the best way to approach this was to just let Coach Karl tell the story. Hopefully you all enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed hearing Coach Karl share some memories from a legendary coaching career.
Reporter: I thought you’d come out drenched in champagne or something…
George Karl: I’m not a champagne guy, I’m a beer guy and some red wine.
Reporter: But it’s New Year’s Eve…
George Karl: Drinking beer after a win tastes like champagne.
Reporter: You just got your 900th career win. Please put that in verbal perspective.
George Karl: For me, it’s kind of like… wow. Unbelievable. Humbling a little bit. I’m just fortunate to have had good players, be placed in good situations and to have good (assistant) coaches. Tim Beveridge has been with me for about 600 of those (wins). I thank him for putting me back together on a lot of those nights and supporting me in the game and then after the game asking me what the hell I was doing. When I was mad and angry at my players he would tell me, ‘just remember, tomorrow morning they’re artists.’ I remember those two lines.
I never thought I’d get this far. I thought I’d coach a few years of pro ball and then wear out my welcome. (Then) I’d go coach in college and go wear our my welcome. Then I’d coach in high school and wear out my welcome. End up in junior college or junior high somewhere.
Reporter: Did they have anything special for you in the locker room after the game? Something to keep?
George Karl: I got the ball and I’ll frame that up. That will be another square in my book case.
Reporter: In your words, can you explain the significance of Chauncey’s big three-pointer with 2:46 left?
George Karl: I think he likes that shot. The first guy I remember making a lot of those was Larry Bird and we used to call them daggers. You still had hope and then this three-ball goes in with three seconds left on the shot clock and it becomes the perfect position and it’s now too many points to overcome. I think he likes to make that shot. Our execution the last two minutes of the game was first class. We made some good passes, we just got things done.
Reporter: It seemed like balance was the story as well. You got a lot of contributions from the bench and Nene came back and gave you a nice night.
George Karl: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s who we are. I think we’re going to have some horses some nights but I think for us be as good as we want to be team has got to be number one. It’s got to stay ahead of the individual. I think that’s the biggest truth in any championship team, or any team that wants to fight for a championship. I think we’re gradually getting that personality convincingly accepted by everybody.
Reporter: Nene obviously was playing through pain but he didn’t look like it because he dominated the low post.
George Karl: Yeah… I was worried about the minutes but they are so big I had trouble rotating him out of the game. I didn’t want to go small at the four/five with Kenyon (Martin) and LK (Linas Kleiza) or Kenyon and Renaldo (Balkman), but I just didn’t feel they were big enough. We weren’t rebounding the ball. So I extended his minutes – and I probably ran him out of gas – but he has the day off tomorrow.
Reporter: What was it like to start your coaching career 2-19?
George Karl: I had legendary columnists in Cleveland, Ohio saying they were idiots not to fire me. It was tough. Bill Livingston, one of the best writers in the world, had me fired one night. I’m very good friends with Bill now… at Richfield Coliseum we were 2-19 and we played in front of 3,000 people in a 21,000 seat building. It was cold and quiet.
My favourite story is I’ve never seen this in pro ball but after we clinched the playoffs, Lonnie Shelton and World B. Free, picked me up, put me on their shoulders and carried me off the court. I’ve never seen a pro (basketball) coach put on their shoulders so it was a pretty cool moment and incredible ride.
We lost to Boston who would win the championship but in every game we had the lead with two minutes to go in a best of five series where we lost. But we did have a lead, and we beat ‘em once. And then to have Richfield Coliseum sold out for two playoffs games, it was a pretty incredible turnaround.
Reporter: You were barely older than some of those guys at that point…
George Karl: Yeah, I was only 33.
Reporter: What turned things around for your after that 2-19 start?
George Karl: We had some injuries, the schedule got going our way a little bit so we won some games and we went on a west coast swing I think early February and I won six out of seven. We started in Chicago and then had six on the west coast. It kind of got everybody thinking we could win and the scenario was we never worried, we made the playoffs with 36 or 37 wins, so we could see (at the time) there was a hope of making the playoffs. So we kind of got hot, everybody got happy and committed. I’m not even sure it was a good team. (We had) John Bagley, Johnny Davis, Ron Anderson, World B. Free, Lonnie Shelton, Melvin Turpin, Mark West… I think Edgar Jones was on that team. Crazy Edgar. I’m probably missing someone.
Reporter: Those first two places, Cleveland and Golden State, you didn’t make it through two seasons and then you had to wait to get to Seattle. What was that wait like?
George Karl: New Year’s Eve in the year I got the job in Seattle, I told my family I was going to college. I was done with the program. My family wasn’t happy in Spain, I was coachin in Real Madrid and I said I’d finish out the year and then I’d call Coach Majerus, Coach Williams and Coach Smith and get an assistant coaching job and learn the college game. I swear to God. Majerus and I at the time were thinking about going to UNLV and I was going to go with him as an associate head coach. About 10 days later a guy named Jerry Kraus who coached the Bulls, and was the director of player personnel, came over and I spent two days with him on Toni Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis and all the other players from Europe who I thought could come over and be very good NBA players. Then Casey Jones was floundering in Seattle and their general manager, Bob Whitsitt, called, who I was not a friend of, I just knew Bob as a professional, and he asked me if I wanted to be an assistant coach. I was making more money, twice as much, maybe three times as much, in Madrid as they were offering me to be an assistant coach. I talked with my family and said, ‘hey, let’s go for it if Casey would call me and invite me to be an assistant coach.’ Casey refused. He didn’t know me and he didn’t want to change his staff. Another two weeks pass, they lose six out of seven or seven out of eight and they fire him. I don’t know if Whitsitt was impressed that I would come back for $100,000, a lot less money than I was making in Madrid, but he decided he would interview me for the head job. I’ve been told through the grapevine that it was Jerry Kraus’ recommendation to Whitsitt was the reason I got the job, that Jerry knew Whitsitt very well, and Whitsitt called him and asked who he would hire. Kraus I think told the story about how prepared I was and how I coached in Europe. Then I had to get out of my contract. That was crazy. I was begging Real Madrid to let me go.
Reporter: Did they give you trouble over there?
George Karl: No, not really. I had a great relationship with the players of and some of them went to bat for me saying this is his dream.
Reporter: Who was your best player on that team?
George Karl: That year the best player was two Americans, Mark Simpson and Ricky Brown. And they went on to win the Spanish Championship that year and did very well in the European Championship as well. They had a good year.
When I went back to Seattle I remember the first game coaching I was speaking Spanish on the sidelines when I was yelling out the defensive schemes… I had learned a little Spanish while I was over there, not much, but enough. And then we’d go on to win 56, 57 games for six years in a row.
It’s pretty funny. There’s a lot of good memories of family and friends. I’ve had great kids, a great ex-wife, a great support system all through my life who would tolerate basketball. It’s humbling. It’s pretty special the game giving me that much stuff.
Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media