Thursday May 21st, 2009

BARCELONA -- The top expert on the Western Conference finals wakes up 6,000 miles and nine time zones away from the series in Los Angeles. He turns on his computer to study online videos of the games, the news conferences, the written reports and commentaries. He pieces those ideas together with what he knows already.

"I'm essentially trying to be there with him during the playoffs, because I want to so bad see him succeed," said Coby Karl, son of Nuggets coach George Karl. "Because I've seen him struggle. It's a lot of fun for me to watch their team and him be successful right now. I know how long it's been for him."

He knows as well as anyone what his father is up against. Last season, Coby Karl played bits of 17 games for the Lakers while shifting to and from their D-League team in Los Angeles, the D-Fenders. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of both Denver and Los Angeles implicitly, and he has a personal stake that keeps him awake at night. Yet he cannot afford to watch the games because they are televised live at 3 a.m. in Europe, where he is pursuing his own career with the Spanish club DKV Joventut Badalona in suburban Barcelona. Right now, 25-year-old Coby is playing in the first round of the Spanish ACB playoffs while George is coaching in the final four of the NBA playoffs.

"It's been killing me not to see them," said Coby, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard. "The worst of the worst would be if he lost and I lost at the same time, and neither of us would get to see any of the [other's] games. Hopefully if I lose I'll be able to see one of his games, or if he loses he'll be able to see me out here. I think either way it would be good for both of us."

Both are cancer survivors who have drawn close as George has matured and Coby has grown up and each has confronted the other's mortality. Coby was a member of the Lakers last year when they swept George's Nuggets in four first-round games. The 6,000 miles between them now deepens the most poignant father-and-son story in basketball.

"I talk to my dad once every two or three days, depending on when he plays or when I'm playing," Coby said. "It's tough because I tell him my situation and he can't really do anything about it. He tells me how his team's doing, and I can't really be involved or see how it's going. So it's tough for both of us to be this far away."

This has become another unpredictable year for Coby. Released by the Lakers in October, he signed with the D-League's Idaho Stampede and averaged a team-leading 18.3 points in 22 games. In January, he and his agent, Dan Fegan, decided to accept an offer in the Spanish ACB, which is known as the second-best national league in world basketball after the NBA. But Karl had never worked in Europe and, as for so many thousands of Americans who have played abroad, the first season has been difficult. He went from averaging 37.3 minutes in Idaho to playing no more than 10.9 minutes in 15 Spanish games.

Instead of trying to earn a 10-day contract with an NBA team, he chose the alternative route of becoming teammates with Joventut point guard Ricky Rubio, a likely top-three pick in the draft who has lured scouts and executives from every NBA team to watch him play. On most of those nights, Karl has had little chance to show what he can do.

"I know it is not always easy for him because [the style of play] is different and he doesn't always understand what we are trying to do," Rubio said of Karl. "But Coby has to understand that he is still here. He is still with us."

Which means something in a league that replaces foreign players on short notice when they aren't fitting in. Karl has remained in Joventut's rotation, said Rubio, because he is a positive force for the team as he tries to overcome the misunderstandings between his view of basketball and theirs.

Rubio will face the same difficulties next season when he arrives in the NBA. He will have to adjust to playing three games in four nights, just the same as Karl has had to adjust to the odd NFL-like rhythm of playing one game per week and practicing as often as twice per day.

"I didn't have anyone explain to me, This is how things are, this is how the coach wants them, this is how things are off the court or in the locker room," Coby said. "The first couple of practices, I think I made more mistakes than I made in one year in the D-League because it was a different style of basketball. It was kind of a college full-court-press, a lot of helping, a lot of getting back and just a lot of high energy -- and everyone had been here for so long that they were on a different level than I was. I was coming in at zero speed and they were already out here at 70km per hour. I take pride in not making mistakes in practice -- the cerebral mistakes -- and I was making a lot of those mistakes, and that was where my frustration started coming in."

Coby had lived in Spain for a couple of early grade-school years when George was coach of Real Madrid, and so his Spanish isn't bad. But he found himself thinking and translating the Spanish orders of Joventut coach Alfonso Alonso instead of instantly reacting to them.

"I came here where it's a 40-minute game, and my first game I played two minutes," he said. "Then I played five, and then I played nine. ... I was just hoping to be a bigger part of the team. Coming from where I felt like I was the leader of my team in the D-League, I was hoping to be a bigger part of it here."

To his credit, he has worked to conform while taking no small consolation in the breakthrough of his father. The rise of the Nuggets has surprised everyone. After four years of first-round losses, George Karl stands one round short of reaching the NBA Finals.

"I got to see their Game 1 vs. the Mavericks [in the conference semifinals], and that was the first game I got to see since I left the States," Coby said. "Last year, when I was with the Lakers and we were going over tape [to prepare for the playoff series against Denver], it was kind of gross how poor they were defensively. Guys weren't trying, guys were letting guys get layups on a quarterly basis -- multiple layups in a quarter. And this year I saw guys were playing hard from the top to the bottom. Carmelo [Anthony] was playing just as hard as I've ever seen him play on defense, and my dad likes to attribute that to the gold medal [in the Olympics last summer], and I think that's true. You see guys like Kobe Bryant working as hard as they do, Jason Kidd, guys who have been around for so long doing it on both ends, and that's where you start to understand that if I want to win, that's how it's going to have to be."

Though Denver has known little success in recent years against Los Angeles, the Nuggets have developed momentum at both ends of the floor around the newfound leadership of Chauncey Billups and the surprising depth of their bench. Still, Coby views the Lakers as favorites, based on the obvious advantages of home-court edge, team experience and Bryant.

"I think the X-factor will be the defense on both ends," Coby said. "If they can contain Kobe, and then on the other end if Denver is able to stay fluid and do what they want to do ... it's not too deep an analysis, but I think the defense is going to be key."

In the meantime, Coby prepares for Sunday's winner-take-all Game 3 of Joventut's opening-round series against his father's former team, Real Madrid. In Game 1, he played seven minutes and scored four points in a blowout loss that coincided with a hip-pointer injury that sidelined Rubio for the final three quarters. But Game 2 at Badalona, in the arena where the original Dream Team starred during the 1992 Olympics, was the scene of a breakthrough of Coby's own making.

After entering a tight game late in the first half, he made three steals and passed over the top to former Celtics lottery pick Jerome Moiso for an alley-oop. Then, in the final seconds before intermission, he helped break up Madrid's possession and raced across half court to bank in a long three-pointer at the buzzer to give Joventut a 48-44 lead. The arena was roaring in the universal language as Rubio hugged Karl on their way off the court. His team wouldn't be looking forward to another game at Madrid without Karl, who finished with seven points in 11 minutes in an 82-77 victory.

"Playoff basketball is playoff basketball -- when you step on the floor, everything else doesn't matter," he said after the game. "The more you think about the game, the more you slow yourself down. I tie myself up sometimes thinking. But tonight I had nothing to lose."

If he could offer advice based on this foreign experience, maybe he would tell his father not to worry. Don't worry about anything -- family illness, losing in the playoffs, his son far away. Just play the games and play them hard, and they'll be seeing each other again before they know it.

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