George is in love. He is in love with Rosemarie, his high school
sweetheart. Years ago, when all the world was young, he was the
big basketball star and she was the pretty cheerleader, but it
was more than skin-deep. It was the real thing. It must have
Lovers are supposed to be attracted to people who look something
like themselves, but George and Rosemarie are not what you would
call two peas in a pod. Also, as George is the first to
acknowledge, Rosemarie looks much younger than he does now.
Coaching basketball takes a lot out of you and adds to the years.
She is pretty, trim and stylish. He is pudgy, gimpy and shabby.
Rosemarie has a heart-shaped face and keen dark-brown eyes under
scimitar eyebrows. George has a pudd'nhead, with merry light-blue
eyes under a sloping dome. He looks rather like a Winston
Churchill Cabbage Patch Doll. Instead of homburgs, though, he
wears baseball caps. He owns on the order of 2,500 of them. At 50
he is still coming to grips with the fact that he has grown bald.
When George and Rosemarie hooked up again after all those years,
he even kept one of his 2,500 baseball caps on his head in the
restaurant. Finally Rosemarie said, "It's O.K. You can take the
hat off. I've seen you on TV. I know you're bald now, George."
After that the present moved along remarkably well, retrofit.
This even though, besides the baseball cap, George had gone to
this romantic rendezvous in a sweaty golf outfit, while Rosemarie
and her girlfriends had laid out six gorgeous outfits on her bed
and taken forever to pick the long black dress with the red
shawl, which best offset her dark eyes under the scimitar
eyebrows. "It was like the senior prom all over again," Rosemarie
So it was. "It just felt right," Rosemarie remembers. "The dinner
was timeless. I knew right away we'd be together again." She did
not, however, let sweaty George in on this intelligence. But
never mind. He pretty much knew. He told her everything that
night, spilled his guts. "There's no other woman in the world I
could have trusted," George says. "Rosemarie gave me belief. She
gave me hope. Those are powerful words, but they're true."
So now, here comes Ms. Rosemarie Perla, the psychologist, and she
sees coach George Karl leaving the court after practice. She
hurries to the man she loves. It has been a good practice. George
has not, as the players say, "erupted." He even looks pretty
snappy, by his modest sartorial standards. His players know what
Rosemarie has wrought. "She's improved on that tacky wardrobe,"
says Ray Allen, Karl's best player. "Any good woman won't let you
walk out of the house if you're wearing something wrong."
Rosemarie rushes over to George beaming, the diamond heart
necklace he gave her for her birthday glittering, her pretty head
tilted up to him in the prelude to a fond embrace. But George
turns her away. "There's no kissing in the gym," he declares.
She is baffled as much as anything. "Never?" she finally asks.
George mulls that over. "Maybe after a big win," he says. As
much as Rosemarie loves George now, she left him once.
Basketball has never left George. Nor he it.
Basketball is not George Karl's mistress. That would be unfair
to basketball and to mistresses alike. The relationship is much
more complicated. To coach basketball, he has sacrificed a great
deal, including his marriage, which took place in the long
interval between Rosemarie's first and second appearances in his
life. He has been fired several times, and he has coached in
places like Great Falls and Albany and even Madrid, which,
although a fine town for El Grecos, is slim on hoops. "You know,
they say half of life is showing up," Rosemarie says. "George
kept showing up."
On the other side of the coin, at $7 million per annum, he's paid
more for coaching than anyone else in the world. Not only in
basketball. In any sport. His team, the Milwaukee Bucks, may be
the best in the East of the NBA. Maybe it will win the
championship. Karl has never won a championship, as a player or
coach, in professional basketball, North America or Europe. Seven
million simoleons or not, showing up gets you only so far.
But he is always coaching basketball. "George goes home to watch
films after drinking beer," says Rick Majerus, the coach at the
University of Utah, who is perhaps Karl's closest friend in the
fraternity. The first time they met, they were in a Mexican
joint, and they designed plays with salt and pepper shakers and
coins, making power forwards and shooting guards and whatnot out
of them. The tabletop session went on so long that they looped
into another meal. It was the first time, the waitress told them,
she'd ever served chips again after she'd served dessert.
Karl even dreams about coaching basketball. In this one dream he
has regularly, he is watching old, dead coaches in heaven play
poker in a smoke-filled room. He sees Clair Bee, Henry Iba and
Ralph Miller dealing stud. Al McGuire will probably be in the
game soon. Here is what Karl says always happens in the dream:
"Whoever wins a hand earns the chance to come down to earth and
either help some coach or mess with him." So there is Karl on the
bench in the dream, and if he hasn't treated basketball right,
the old, dead coach who held the high hand in heaven comes down
and takes over his team. "Don't ever mess with the basketball
gods," Karl says.
He speaks of basketball in sacred terms. While most coaches, when
disillusioned, refer to how their players have abused the team
(which is to say, the coach), Karl sees such actions as a
violation of the game. "You can cheat the game, cheapen it, take
shortcuts," he says in exasperation. Basketball must be honored.
GEORGE KARL/RESPECT THE GAME reads the sign introducing him and
his ethic, together, in his office.
The team is something else. It is earthly and brittle.
"Basketball allows me to have the big family that we'd all love
to have," he says. "See, you have all the great wins, and still
you remember the friends and family. If you're on a basketball
team, you have more powerful relationships than most men have in
their lives. You also have more angry breakups, more
confrontations than most men ever will."
Because so few people are involved, every basketball team is
intimate, and the coach is always struggling for both affection
and respect. He must achieve a large measure of both, or the
relationship won't work. The quarters in basketball are too
tight, the circumstances too familiar for anyone to fake his
personality. The successful NBA coaches have little in common
except that singular ability to trust who they are and, with
that, to earn the admiration of their players, so they can
maintain control for another working day.
You can't nag. But one time--almost surely only once--when
things go sour, you have the cushion to call out your wealthy
young aristocrats and slice them up. Karl picked up the scalpel
in desperation early last season, and it worked, beautifully.
But if he has to do it again? "This time the patient could die
from the same surgery," he says. "I'm still scared." It's tricky
coaching the pros; it's more art than science, more guile than
Look at the current NBA coaches who have thrived--survived,
anyway--with different teams: Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Don
Nelson, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, George Karl. Very different men,
with different styles, different personalities. Karl visited Al
McGuire as he lay dying earlier this year. Naturally, these two
Milwaukee coaches chatted about what they loved. "But there we
were, discussing basketball, and I didn't even know what Al was
talking about half the time," Karl says. "He'd be talking about
the ballet of the game, listening to the crowd, how important
that was. Honestly, I never even hear the crowd." Even the best
coaches contrast so, one from another.
Only Riley's long tenure really baffles Karl. "I don't understand
how Pat can be so intense," he says. "I'm only a gentle rebel,
but the reason I had so much trouble when I started coaching was
that I was too abrupt, too abrasive. And I overtalked."
Well before he was 40, Karl was oh-for-two, fired by the
Cleveland Cavaliers and forced out by the Golden State Warriors,
written off as a bellicose know-it-all who wouldn't shut up--the
Billy Martin of basketball. He was frozen out of the NBA. "I
don't take myself as seriously as I used to," he says. "Five
times last year I forgot where I left my car in the airport
parking lot. One time I had to get a cab. Here I am, 10 below
zero, driving around the parking lot in a cab with my car beeper,
beeping to find my car. I never would've admitted that before,
but now I'm fine. I just tell everybody how dumb I am.
"I don't want to be known as the smartest guy on the block. You
know what I want to be? I want to be that old Southern gentleman
in the movies. He doesn't dress right, and maybe he doesn't look
right, but he knows everything that's going on in town--and why
it's going on.
"I've learned to trust the team more, to let the players be
rather than dictate to them. Early on, sometimes, they'll mess
with the game, but as long as it's not a crisis, I have enough
confidence to allow them to figure it out for themselves."
He takes off one of his 2,500 hats, this one a scarlet number
that he proudly describes as "ugly," rubs his pate and goes on:
"My weakness is, still, that sometimes I get too creative. I want
to coach a perfect, pretty game. Things are going good, but I
want to make them too good. Showing off. I used to do that
because I was insecure, but now it's juice to me; it's like a
drug. I gotta stop that."
A basketball coach can control a game. Ah, but to puzzle it out
and finesse it--rather than badger it and pound it the way he used
to--that is what inspires Coach Karl. "George believes that if he
coaches us in practice, he shouldn't have to coach us in games,"
Allen says. Maybe the last thing a good basketball coach learns
is when to let the game be, to let it take him wherever it is
A dozen years ago, in December 1989, when Karl was in his first
tour with the Real Madrid team, his big star, Fernando Martin,
was killed in an automobile accident. Martin hadn't only been the
best Spanish player ever. He was also a charismatic figure. "He
was like James Dean," Karl recalls. The next evening the body was
placed in the arena, and the fans trooped by, late into the
night, viewing it. It rained the following day, and the buses
carrying the team members and the dignitaries couldn't get
through an arch at the cemetery. Everybody had to alight in the
cold rain and trudge through the mud to the grave. "It was like a
Fellini movie," says Karl.
Real Madrid had a game that night, and beforehand, at the team
dinner, too much red wine was consumed. At the arena Martin's
jersey was draped over his chair. Roses were everywhere. Near the
top of the stands, looking down, sat the dead man's mother,
weeping. Martin's kid brother, Antonio, another player on the
team, showed up minutes before tip-off and tearfully assured Karl
that he was ready to play. Real Madrid--coach and players and
fans--was naked, shivering with sorrow. The team played abysmally.
Early in the second half, Real Madrid trailed by 19 points.
Suddenly Karl's players came alive. There was no rhyme or reason,
except that somehow Martin must have been with them. In seven
minutes they turned the game around, 38 points' worth. Seven
minutes, from 19 down to 19 up. Real Madrid coasted from there.
Senora Martin was waving from on high, like Evita from the
balcony at the Casa Rosada. In unison the stands cried, "Fernando
esta aqui." Fernando is here. When the buzzer sounded, Karl
collapsed in his seat as the players dashed through the crowd to
embrace their dead teammate's mother. "Fernando esta aqui.
Fernando esta aqui." Karl cried. "It was an incredible moment,"
he says. "There has been nothing like it in my life except the
births of my children."
He is sitting in his office, which overlooks the Bucks' practice
court. Peering out, he seems instead to be looking back to that
court in Madrid. Listening. "Fernando esta aqui," Karl says
softly, shaking his head, marveling at the memory.
But Karl's team didn't win the championship, nor did it the next
year when he went back to the States and the CBA. He returned to
Real Madrid in 1991, but early in the season he concluded that
he was spinning his wheels. He had no chance to get back into
the NBA. So he decided that this was it for the pros, anywhere
in the world. He decided that after the season he would return
to the States and beg for an assistant's job at a college--any
college--and maybe borrow money from his maiden aunt to make
ends meet. The man who would be the highest-paid coach in the
history of sport was, essentially, broke. His two kids were
growing up. His wife deserved better. George Karl, alltime
charmer, former All-America, boy-wonder coach, had just turned
40, and he was washed up. "The quiet desperation in our lives
that Thoreau talks about, when there's no creative future--I
fear that emptiness," Karl says, "and I knew it was out there."
But then, completely out of the blue, another miracle occurred in
Madrid. Bob Whitsitt, president of the Seattle SuperSonics,
telephoned Karl there. Whitsitt had decided to replace K.C. Jones
as coach. Virtually all the couple of dozen NBA wise men whom
Whitsitt had queried dismissed Karl--brutally. The one who did
speak up for him was Don Nelson. He was the general manager who
forced out Karl at Golden State and replaced him with his own
self. "I hurt George's feelings," Nelson says, "but I thought
he'd matured in Spain." So Whitsitt took a chance and gave back
to George Karl a creative future to play games with.
Karl was a physical player, the Kamikaze Kid, so-called. The one
thing all basketball coaches want is for their players to dive
for a loose ball. It's vivid proof of sacrifice, team spirit,
guts (and good coaching). Get this, though: Dean Smith, Karl's
coach at North Carolina from 1969 to '73, thought he was the one
player who hit the floor too often. "George'd dive anytime,"
In the pros Karl became even more of a tough guy, especially
after he blew out his left knee in his first season, with the San
Antonio Spurs of the ABA. You went to see George Karl play, and a
hockey game broke out. He's been knitted with 100 stitches, not
counting the snarly scar by his mouth, where a dog bit him when
he was a kid delivering newspapers. He was like Horatius at the
bridge, taking charges.
Still, even when he was at his most smart-ass, most people
couldn't help but like Karl. He was a political-science major, a
pretty good student at Chapel Hill, but in his last semester he
blew off one course, in ancient history. Invited to tour with a
U.S. national team against the Soviets, he had to petition the
professor to take an early exam. He didn't know jack, and the
professor knew he didn't know jack. Luckily, the professor was a
big Tar Heels-George Karl fan. "Study the chapters on the
Peloponnesian War," he told Karl.
"But, sir, I'm afraid I don't know any--"
He did. When he was handed the special exam, it had only one
question. It was, in its entirety: "Who won the Peloponnesian
War?" Karl wrote down "Sparta," left on tour and graduated with
To this point, you see, this is the way life had gone for Karl.
He signed a contract with the Spurs for a $25,000 bonus and three
years at $30,000, $35,000 and $40,000. His father, Joe, a service
rep for Bell & Howell, told his only son that that added up to
more money than he'd made all his life.
George and Rosemarie were going on seven years of dating by then,
wrestling in backseats and with the mores of the time. They had
started dating at the high school in Penn Hills, a suburb of
Pittsburgh, after he ran into her, poetically, chasing a loose
basketball. Suavely, he introduced himself by flipping his
eyelids inside out. "George was kinda clowny" is the way
Rosemarie excuses him, sort of. But he was hot stuff, 6'2", a
natural athlete. Basketball was the last sport he took up. He was
going to be a noble quarterback in the Pittsburgh mode of Unitas
and Namath, and suddenly (although still sitting down, having a
Diet Pepsi for breakfast) he strikes the classic quarterback
Then he announces the teenage tragedy of it all. "The wishbone
came in--remember that?" he says. "That's the brilliant offense in
which, 50 times a game, the quarterback takes the ball and runs
at the defensive end. He either gets tackled by the defensive end
and pitches it back, or he keeps the ball, turns in and gets
tackled by someone else. Fifty times a game." Even the Kamikaze
Kid could see the dead end in that. So: basketball.
Rosemarie remembers Dean Smith coming over to her house that
glorious night he personally signed George for Chapel Hill. Ah,
if God isn't a Tar Heel, then why is the sky Carolina blue?
Tra-la. "Those were the best four years of my life," Karl says.
The best four of all the 50 in your life, George?
"Maybe I had one best year somewhere else, but they were the best
four together. I learned the real spirit of living, the
fundamentals of unselfishness, of caring. I still get letters
from Coach Smith. He's taken some clipping and circled the number
of times I've used the word I. 'Don't we mean we, George?' I
judge my year by how many times I hear from him on that."
Unfortunately Karl's tenure at Carolina came during the UCLA
hegemony of college basketball. The best of Karl's teams won only
the consolation game in the Final Four, in 1972. It would be
another decade before Smith would take the title. Couldn't win
the big one: It's the same jacket Karl has to wear today. In
fact, there may be valid reasons that Karl and his grand mentor
share this slight.
Smith, his critics said, was too by-the-book. His system worked
brilliantly overall, year in, year out, but that constancy might
have come at a price. Most classically, in the championship game
of 1977, Smith put his team into a four-corners delay offense as
soon as it caught Marquette with a stirring comeback. Allowed to
regroup, Marquette came back to life and won going away. But
that's the way we always do it, Smith explained, didactically.
The Marquette coach was Al McGuire. As we know, Al listened to
Similarly, the backhanded criticism of Karl is that his
intricate, effective defense is so unvarying that, when the
playoffs come and the opposition gets to face it in a series of
games, familiarity breeds content. Even Terry Stotts, Karl's top
assistant, who has been with him, as player and aide, for much
of the last two decades, says that critique has merit. "I think
George gets his teams to overachieve so much, he loses that edge
in the playoffs," Stotts says.
None of this should suggest, though, that Karl coaches
stick-in-the-mud basketball. Indeed, his strength is innovation,
his instinct to seize the moment, to tweak, to monkey around, to
strive to achieve that impossible perfect game. He even has his
scouts draw up personality profiles of other coaches, then plans
strategies that take advantage of his rival generals'
Says Majerus, "George is not what I call into the NBA thing.
There are so many lemmings who coach the same way. But he's not
afraid to fail. He's not afraid to say, Well, that didn't work.
He takes his players in context. He doesn't say, Well, you're
going to play here, so you've got to improve your lefthand
dribble. He'll find a place for the player where he doesn't have
to dribble lefthanded."
"O.K., I coach winning," Karl says. "You don't want to do the
fundamentals, but you still win? Fine with me. Mostly it comes
down to more energy. I've found that playing hard is a skill more
than an attitude. Guys who play hard--guess what? They win."
Thus, while he can be strategically adaptable, he is not as
forgiving in matters of style. George Karl believes every player
should have the best of George Karl in him. This has led to fiery
conflicts with some of his best players. After all, most stars
earn that status because they're the un-Karls: more gifted than
the guys who have to take charges or dive after balls. Most
famously, while coaching Golden State, Karl quarreled with center
Joe Barry Carroll, who later fired back that Karl possessed
"moronic tendencies." He responded by challenging Carroll to an
IQ test or a game of Jeopardy! In Cleveland it was World B. Free
who pained him. In Seattle, Gary Payton. With the Bucks, Karl has
driven the serene, sweet-styled Ray Allen to distraction.
"George's way of playing basketball is different from my way of
playing basketball," Allen says, withholding his exasperation as
effortlessly as he appears to do everything on the court. "He
liked to fight, to knock people on their asses. He's always
asking me, How many times have you been in a fight? O.K., maybe
four times. When I had to. George looked for fights. It's just
However, Allen--and Milwaukee forward Glenn Robinson--both became
All-Stars for the first time under Karl (for that matter, so did
Carroll), and they swear by him. "He's a player's coach,"
Robinson says, then abruptly stops, as if anything else is
"George sees himself in his players," says Ron Adams, the most
erudite in Karl's eclectic stable of assistants. "He hasn't
forgotten what he was like then. He's a little bizarre. That
helps him. In every culture, a crazy guy gets respect because
nobody's quite sure what he'll do next."
Always, whether he's the little boy or the madman, Karl is honest
with his team. For better or worse, there is no artifice. "I
don't want to lose the edge, because now I know I've got the
edge," he says. "I hire assistants to wear the white hats. I tell
'em, I'll kick 'em down, you pick 'em up. I'm a hard-ass, and the
black athlete listens to me." Tooling along through South
Milwaukee in his SUV, he jams a CD into the slot. "You know
this?" he asks. It appears to be some cacophonous rap song. "It's
Shaggy," Karl announces, "and the song is Keep It Real. I heard
this from the players. The players call me real. Real means
honest. I'm proud of that."
The fans appreciate this quality of Karl's as well. Milwaukee is
a tidy, workingman's town, union and Teutonic, where, reminiscent
of Central Europe, church steeples are still prominent. It has
been known foremost for beer and factories, and Milwaukee still
depends on Chicago for its finances and Madison for its
intellect. You have to go out of your way to get there. It is
instructive that the Braves merely paused in Milwaukee on their
20th-century journey from Boston to Atlanta, from Old America to
New South. Karl, on the other hand, arriving from Seattle with
his own German heritage, fit in right away. Beer, brats and
beards. He was the very model of a Milwaukeean--well, anyway,
until Rosemarie made him shave off his beard.
But, Milwaukee cuisine: Karl kept putting on the pounds. He says
he's down to 258 pounds, which is probably true, inasmuch as
people who lie about their weight use round numbers, like, in
this instance, 250. He even has chubby fingers, very
un-point-guard-like. Still, it's a struggle. Hanging out with
some of the staff in the Bucks' lunchroom one day, looking for
sympathy, Karl bloviates, "Trouble is, all these fried foods,
all these brats and wursts. Now, Seattle, that was the
health-food capital. Fruits and salad and sushi."
Everyone--everyone--casts a suspicious eye on the boss. But no one
dares speak until finally the senior assistant, Stotts, ventures,
"George, did you ever eat sushi once in your life?"
Karl is trapped. He ponders that. "Well, no," he says, "but at
least in Seattle I'd go to places that had sushi."
Karl's lack of pretension plays well in Milwaukee. In the
playoffs last year, before each home game, he received a standing
ovation. On each succeeding occasion, the cheers grew. At the end
they were tumultuous. These were times that he clearly heard the
music of the crowd. "There are three things I've gotten that I
love," he says, unabashedly proud. "I got carried off on my
players' shoulders in Cleveland. The first time we won 50 games
in Seattle, they poured Gatorade on me. And I got a standing
ovation in the playoffs here, every game, when I came out."
The town even seemed to forgive Karl when his head was turned
back toward North Carolina. This was two summers ago, after Bill
Guthridge had retired as coach at Chapel Hill. Eventually Karl
became the Tar Heels' choice, but even now he's not comfortable
talking about the episode. He had a contract with the Bucks. The
team's owner, Senator Herb Kohl, had given him virtually all he'd
asked for, and Karl prides himself on allegiance; it's often
cited as his preeminent quality. "Loyalty has gone out the window
in sports," he moans, "and it kills me. I try to get close to my
guys. I like my guys."
But, oh, that sky. The sky is Carolina blue, even over Wisconsin.
"You know, as you get older, you wanna go back," he says.
Yes, we know that, George. After all: Rosemarie.
"Yeah." He looks away, fidgeting, thinking of Carolina. "A lot of
my friends say I would've gone, but honestly, I don't know."
The issue was rendered moot when Kohl told Dean Smith he was
going to hold his coach to his contract. Not long after that, he
gave Karl an extension and the record salary. "It's simply in
keeping with my belief that the best person for a job should be
worth the most," the senator says.
Karl squirms a little about that too. "We shouldn't be greedy,"
he says. "We've gotten so much out of the game that we could
never thank it enough."
He's just old enough to have entered basketball before you could
make a fortune at it. He still takes his valuables and rolls them
up inside an ankle wrap before games, tossing them to the
equipment manager for safekeeping, the old-fashioned way. The
players have special designer boxes for their jewelry. The boxes
are carefully placed in "valuable bags." Because the Bucks' last
exhibition game was in Los Angeles and their opener was in Salt
Lake City, Karl gave them a vacation-minicamp in between in Las
Vegas. The team booked the Bellagio. Karl removes his cap, rubs
his head and says, "A couple of guys came to me and said, 'Hey,
how come we can't stay at the Venetian?'"
He sighs. "The glamour of the game makes it so totally different.
Early on, they're all in it for the right reasons. Then it's the
money, the stats, SportsCenter. I swear, I hear 'em saying, 'We
were screwed on SportsCenter last night. We shoulda been the lead
story.' The lead story! Everything gravitates to money, and I
have a problem about that."
But, George, you're the highest-paid--
He doesn't wait. "Yeah, it makes me look hypocritical, doesn't
it?" He has thought about this. Before the seventh game of the
Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers last
June, Karl spoke passionately to the Bucks about what they had
attained, how lucky they were, how far they had come. He talked
about the game and the playground, the roots.
Afterward Ron Adams told him what a good speech it had been.
"Only, George," he said, "I don't think any of the players ever
had to go to a playground. Not anymore." Karl had to agree. It
had never occurred to him before that the game--his game--had
gotten so ritzy that it had outgrown the playground.
Senator Kohl brought Karl to Milwaukee three years ago. The
opportunity came at a dispiriting time in Karl's life. Despite
having averaged 55 victories in Seattle, he had been in a food
fight with management for four years, ever since Whitsitt had
been deposed. Whitsitt's successor, Wally Walker, and Karl were
simply not made for each other, the one restrained, the other
impulsive; the one taciturn, the other flap-gum. In the end they
lost whatever trust they had in each other. That the Sonics
failed each year in the playoffs exacerbated the disaffection.
Can't win the big one. When someone praised Karl to Barry
Ackerley, Seattle's owner, he would hold up his hands and
sarcastically ask, "Yeah, where are my rings?"
At the same time, Karl's marriage of 21 years was unraveling.
Cathy Karl asked for a divorce on the very day of the first game
Karl coached the Bucks, as the delayed lockout season of 1998-99
began. The couple's daughter, Kelci, was in college, but their
son, Coby, was still in high school--and turning into a pretty
fair college basketball prospect. The Karls would set up a tricky
arrangement wherein they effectively gave Coby a house in
Milwaukee and the mother and father alternated staying with the
Even though professionally Karl enjoyed immediate success and
popularity, taking Milwaukee to the playoffs for the first time
in seven seasons, he was an angry man. "I was in a macho
situation," he says. "I was bitter. I didn't want women around. I
thought women were out to kill me."
Karl is close to his assistants, most of whom he has known for
years. They recognized his anguish. Nor were the players fooled.
One time Karl blew some slight out of proportion and made the
team show up for a 10 p.m. practice. Allen shakes his head at the
memory: "We all said, George must not want to go home." Half the
time, in fact, there was no home. He was living alone in a hotel.
Then, in September 2000, everything turned upside down. At almost
the same moment, Karl a) got together with Rosemarie again, and
b) the Bucks went straight to hell. Which do you want to hear
first, dear reader, the good news or the bad?
The good news.
O.K. Once again we discover that all life is but high school
extended. Back in Penn Hills, they wanted to retire Karl's
jersey, number 25 in your program, number 1 in your hearts. He
planned to fly in on Kohl's private jet. There is a protracted
argument, nearly theological in nature, about who exactly called
whom first, but George and Rosemarie spoke, and they agreed to go
out to dinner. So here comes George returning to his little
hometown on a private jet, the Seven Million Dollar Man in his
baseball cap and golf togs, laying his Carolina baby blues on
Rosemarie--in her long black dress with the red shawl--for the
first time in 24 years.
You know the rest. After dinner, George said, "Can I kiss you?"
Rosemarie said he could, and he did.
How was it, Rosemarie?
"It felt real familiar."
Pretty good for 24 years on.
Maybe they'd had to break up. Theirs was the classic high school
hero-cheerleader romance, and those things almost never work.
Rosemarie would become a psychologist, but she'd always had her
high school boyfriend pegged, and then she figured out herself
too. "George is immensely perceptive," she says. "I know his
image is hard, but he's very sensitive. To most people, he seemed
cocky. I didn't understand then, but he was this big star getting
a lot of attention, so he didn't know how to express himself. A
boy like that acts cocky as some sort of self-defense."
Soon she was swallowed up by his glory. If someone ran into her
alone, the first question would be, "Hey, Rosemarie, how's
George?" That wasn't what bothered her, though. "George knew what
he wanted," she says. "He had such a passion for basketball.
That's what I was jealous of. I wanted a life my mother didn't
have. It was the '70s. I read The Feminine Mystique. Besides,
neither of us was the type who was willing to ask the other one
to give up something."
Nonetheless, the romance lasted through college and into George's
first years in the pros before it finally frayed. "It was the
professional athlete thing," George says. "You know, women
hanging all around. Maybe Rosemarie should have come to San
Antonio with me, but people didn't do that then. She wanted a
career. Neither of us knew what to do, so it failed."
There was no big argument. The relationship just ended with a
whimper. Eighteen months later, unbeknownst to each other, George
and Rosemarie were both married on almost the same day. Both had
one daughter and one son. Both got divorced.
Rosemarie also got what she wanted, a career. She never did give
a hoot for sports. She never did learn about kissing in the gym.
She prefers the arts. "So after I took her to a Packers game, I
took her to Don Quixote, the opera," George says, proudly. "My
coaches got me the ballerina shoes autographed."
Ballerinas aren't in opera, George.
"Ah, you know, the other thing."
Tit for tat. When Rosemarie rode on the Bucks' charter the first
time, and she heard they were going to watch a movie, she hoped
it would be Gladiator. She didn't realize it was only game films.
Which brings us to the bad news.
Even before Rosemarie reentered his heart, Karl had high hopes
for the Bucks last season. The spring before, in the playoffs,
they had almost beaten the Indiana Pacers, who went on to the
Finals. Karl came back from the off-season, however, to find a
smug, lazy team that wasn't as good as it thought it was. Almost
from the start of preseason practice, Karl simmered, ranting at
his players, venting his disgust to his assistants, eventually
advancing the notion that he might ream the big shots--Allen,
Robinson and Sam Cassell--in the media. Some of his aides thought
he had no choice; others feared the team was too fragile to
endure public censure.
Karl waited as the losses accumulated. "There's a power of
losing," he says.
A power of losing?
"Yeah, you can learn to draw strength from that. You gain
perseverance. But there's a difference between losing as a player
and losing as a coach. A player loses, he's angry, pissed off.
When I was first a coach, I was still thinking as a player, and I
took losing as a chance to tie the players to the whipping post.
Eventually I learned that losing is your best way to coach
because then you can be a teacher."
These students, however, weren't paying any attention. "That's
scary," Karl says. "I could see: There was going to be a
shutdown. They were going to shut me down."
When the Bucks' record reached 3-9, the highest-paid coach in
history decided, To hell with it. "I could've spun it," Karl
says. "Tough schedule, lost some close ones. Yeah, I could've
played that game. But that was the last place I wanted to go. So
I called them everything [in the press]. Millionaire babies.
Selfish bastards. Spoiled brats. But you know what really got
the publicity? I called them 'employees.' I said, Hey, Senator
Kohl pays you a lot of money. That reached people. We don't
think of players as employees, like everybody else."
The employees were not happy. They thought Karl had both
overstated the problem and gone over the top emotionally. "I
didn't like it," Robinson says. "I don't think anybody liked it.
We're supposed to be a family and address things here." Allen
believes Karl's public diatribe worked for the wrong reason.
"Yeah, we came together," he says. "Against him."
The center held, though. Possibly what mattered most was that the
coach mended his ways too. He had just taken up with Rosemarie
again. He wasn't bitter anymore, and he admitted to himself that
he could never make the Bucks into the pesky defensive club that
Seattle had been. "I knew it wasn't only the players'
weaknesses," he says. "It was also my stubbornness. There were
three choices: Trade all of them, get rid of me or rebuild. We
rebuilt. I rode their strengths. They could score. They taught me
a lot. You've got to let your team be free. There's too much
control in basketball today." He thinks that over. "There may be
too much control in life."
His strategy worked gloriously. The employees didn't turn on
their boss, who had embarrassed them. Milwaukee went 49-21, .700
ball, the rest of the way, and took the 76ers to seven games in
the Eastern Conference finals. "Winning and love came together at
the right time," Robinson says preciously.
George and Rosemarie have bought a house back in Pittsburgh. Coby
is still in high school, though, as is her daughter, Caitlin, so
some of the couple's future together must wait. Rosemarie flies
to Milwaukee to see George, always bringing plenty to read on the
team charter when the game films are playing. Which they always
are. George has sponsored a youth foundation, Friends of Hoops,
for years, and he and Rosemarie are blending their talents (his
coaching, her psychology) to help high school players--mostly
inner-city--prepare for college and employment. "I'm an
up-and-down guy," Karl says. "I have more balance with her, more
stability." He thinks that over. "Well, maybe not stability. But
it's hard to balance your life, especially the craziness I live,
when you don't have love."
Rosemarie says, "We have so many values in common. I know this
sounds corny, but we're soul mates. I feel so fortunate to have
had George come back into my life. There's something wonderful
that this person knew me before I really was me. He knew me then,
and he thinks what I've become is attractive too."
As for George's other love, Robinson and Allen are approaching
the height of their powers, and the team has added Anthony Mason,
so the Bucks should be even better than last year. As always in
Karl's life, though, there's a better team somewhere else. UCLA
when he was at Carolina. The Chicago Bulls when he was in
Seattle. Now the Los Angeles Lakers. Often the reason you can't
win the big one is that someone else is simply the better one. "I
hope George has learned not to listen to others on that subject,"
Smith says. "He should be above worrying about that."
Alas, Karl admits it's not that easy. "In Spain I wrote a lot
about the difference between a champion and a winner," he says.
"I decided there's not that much difference. Maybe it's just the
thrill of being the best at that moment you win the championship.
I've seen the look on coaches' faces after they've won, and that
is so special. That's what I've never had. But I promise you, I
don't think about it that much. Maybe I used to five, 10 times a
year. Now, only two, three times."
He is sitting in a neighborhood cafe in South Milwaukee, which is
not the fashionable side of town but where he is comfortable
hanging out. Actually, George has dressed up today. He has
accessorized with socks and a belt. "Well," he says after a
while, smiling, "if I don't win here, maybe I'll have to go back
to Europe or somewhere--find a league that will give me such a
good team that I can't mess it up. Then I'll finally win a
Then again, as anybody who studied the Peloponnesian War for even
one night knows, sure, Sparta won, but nobody remembers Sparta.
Athens lost, but Athens still lives. Ah, and George and Rosemarie
are together again, the lovebirds, the way it was once upon a
time when all the world was basketball and kisses.
"George kept showing up."
George flipped his eyelids inside out.
fundamentals of unselfishness, of caring."
embrace their dead teammate's mother.
thought women were out to kill me."
Rosemarie, more stability."