At a time when most NBA owners are fretting about fiscal responsibility and positioning themselves for what could be an ugly and painful labor dispute in 16 months, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke should be commended for allowing his human side to show recently.
Kroenke was in lengthy negotiations with Nuggets coach George Karl for a new contract when Karl informed him about three weeks ago that he had throat cancer. Kroenke responded to the news by giving Karl a one-year contract worth $4.5 million.
"I think at first he was very worried," Karl said of his meeting with Kroenke. "He was very human toward me. It went from a professional relationship to he would start to look at me as a person and not an employee."
Kroenke did not respond to several requests for comments for this story. But his actions speak as loudly as any words he could utter.
These are uneasy times in the NBA. Commissioner David Stern said more than half the teams are losing money. A new collective bargaining agreement is at the core of virtually every decision made by teams. And Karl and Kroenke were in a drawn-out discussion about what would happen once his contract expires after this season.
"I had always felt the relationship with Stan was respectful and professional," Karl said. "In a lot of ways, he was standing up for the owners and I was standing up for the coaches. He is on the [owner's labor] negotiating committee, and I felt like as coaches, our territory was being cut. In general, because of the owners' situations, my optimism was feeling low."
This is happening throughout the league: Owners are so worried they will have to pay a coaching staff millions of dollars to sit around and do nothing during a lockout that many are moving to avoid the unnecessary expense right now.
The Lakers and Phil Jackson have yet to agree on a new contract, even though he has won 10 titles as a head coach. Don Nelson is keeping his job in Golden State, partly because the Warriors do not want to have to pay two coaches next season and it would be difficult to get their next coach to sign a one-year deal.
The Kings chose Paul Westphal over other candidates last offseason in part because he was willing to take a lower salary ($1.5 million) for only two years, with the deal expiring during a potential lockout. Same thing for Eddie Jordan in Philadelphia. Don't be surprised to see Jeff Bower come back to coach New Orleans next season, if only because Hornets owner George Shinn can give him a one-year extension.
The list goes on: Portland gave Nate McMillan an extension, but it runs only through next season. Boston's Doc Rivers has a contract extension that expires after the 2010-11 season.
Because of this, the league could find itself in an unusual, difficult position. For instance, say there is a lockout at the start of the 2011 season, but, like in 1999, it's resolved in the middle of the season. In a very short span, some owners and general managers will not only have to worry about signing players to fill out their rosters, but they'll also have to negotiate long-term coaching contracts so that they know which players to sign to fit their coaching style.
With that in mind, somewhere in the months-long negotiations with Karl, Kroenke broached the subject of a one-year contract. It would keep Karl in his job but safeguard the organization against having to pay him or his staff during any labor dispute. That moved things along ... until Karl was diagnosed with the cancer, the second time he has had the disease.
"When we were getting close, I informed them of the cancer," Karl said. "Stan and I have too good a relationship for me not to tell him. I just thought it was the ethical thing to do. I got the feeling that it was either going to make things fall apart or speed them up."
And Karl has seen negotiations go sideways before. When he was trying to get a new deal in Seattle 10 years ago after his ultra-successful run with the Sonics, Karl gave a television interview that angered Seattle's management so much that it scuttled the deal. It was the reason he moved along to Milwaukee.
Kroenke could have used the cancer as an excuse to see where things go. Karl admitted he does not know what is going to happen. He is having radiation treatments every day and chemotherapy once a week and, after already missing his first game as coach last week, he said there's a chance he could miss part of the upcoming season.
"I think that is a possibility, yes," Karl said. "I'm in the first week of treatments and I don't feel anything yet. But I'm told the hard parts are going to be after two, three, four weeks."
Karl said he has considered shutting down as coach until he resolves his health issues. Golden State's Nelson, who at 69 is 11 years older than Karl, took some time off earlier this year after a bout of pneumonia.
"That has been suggested by some of my family," Karl said. "But the worst thing I could do is feel sorry for myself. The best thing I could do is laugh with the guys."
The other thing that would hurt him is fretting over his contract and his future. Now, he doesn't have to.
Milwaukee Bucks.Before losing to Atlanta in overtime on Sunday, the Bucks had won six consecutive games, buoyed by their trade-deadline acquisition of guard John Salmons from Chicago. Not surprisingly, Milwaukee is now right on the tails of the Bulls, who lead the Bucks by one game for the No. 6 seed in the East.
1. Though they are not coming right out and saying it, Sixers players sure do talk like Allen Iverson has played his last game for Philadelphia. Iverson, who missed five games before the All-Star break as well as the Sixers' past three, remains with his sick daughter, Messiah, who has an illness that doctors are not able to diagnose.
When his teammates speak about Iverson, they almost always talk in past tense, as if he is already a former part of the team. As in, "He was great when he was here. We wish him the best."
There is some thought in the organization that Iverson's absence may not be the worst thing. With Lou Williams back from a broken jaw, Iverson's being gone has eliminated any tension over playing time. If Iverson returns, that issue surely will arise, as it did when he was with Memphis and did not like coming off the bench behind younger players.
Jordan said there could be some resolution to the Iverson situation this week.
2. Sacramento's Westphal was criticized last week because he suspended starting center Spencer Hawes for making critical remarks about the coach's substitution patterns. The only problem is that rookie Tyreke Evans and veteran Sean May also criticized Westphal, and neither was suspended.
This is not the first time Westphal has been inconsistent while meting out punishment. The last time he was an NBA coach, in Seattle at the beginning of the decade, he once suspended Gary Payton for screaming at him in a team huddle in a loss at Dallas.
Later that same day, Westphal reversed course and allowed Payton to play against the Spurs that night. That was the beginning of the end for Westphal because his players lost confidence in his ability to lead.
3. NBA teams have taken to occasionally wearing throwback uniforms this season. Not only does it bring forth nostalgic feelings for fans who want to remember previous teams, but it also offers a marketing opportunity for teams trying to sell more jerseys.
One question: What throwback uniforms will the Oklahoma City Thunder wear?
4. Philadelphia center Samuel Dalembert visited his home country of Haiti during All-Star weekend. While Haiti no longer is on the front page of most newspapers, particularly now that an even bigger quake partially flattened Chile over the weekend, it does not mean it no longer needs help.
Dalembert, who contributed $100,000 to the relief effort, said he was frustrated by Haiti's lack of governmental organization that is leaving the majority of citizens without basic necessities.
"You are the government. It is your country," he said. "You are the only one who knows what needs to be done. You have to offer guidance. And if you don't, if you just remain silent, then [the citizens] are not going to know what to do.
"If somebody comes in and gives food, it might feed 20,000 people. But what about the other eight or nine million? There has to be some organization. We have all this money coming in. We have to be able to use it to sustain people for the long term. We are talking about a tropical nation here. We are not talking about Alaska. We can't sustain these people for three months and then turn around and walk away."