George Karl leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and said, "All things considered, I would honestly prefer not to be here." By "here," he didn't mean poolside at the Oakland Hilton, which is where he was enjoying a glass of juice and a breakfast muffin last Thursday. Nor by "here" did he mean in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, to which he had led his Seattle SuperSonics by going 27-15 after replacing K.C. Jones as coach on Jan. 23.
No, by "here," Karl meant engaged in a tutor-tyro battle of wits and wisdom, of matchups and madness, of ref-baiting and cheerleading with his close friend and mentor, Don Nelson, the coach of the Golden State Warriors. "Who wants to go up against Nellie?" said Karl. "It's difficult. It's 10 hours before game time, and, honestly, I'm not sure what tempo we want to play or exactly what we have to do to beat his team."
Hours later Karl, 40, had some answers: run with the Warriors instead of following the conventional wisdom of slowing them down; pound them on the boards; unleash man-child Shawn Kemp on offense; put a tall (though mobile) defender like 6'10" Derrick McKey on point guard Tim Hardaway to block Hardaway's jump-shooting vision; and take advantage of the less-than-100% condition of Golden State sharpshooter Chris Mullin. These were the main factors, anyway, in Seattle's decisive 117-109 victory in Game 1, a win that was probably as sweet as any Karl had enjoyed in his previous incarnation as the enfant terrible of NBA coaches. Afterward he said all the right things, claiming that his team had gotten some lucky bounces and that he had in no way, shape or form outcoached Nelson. Reports had been coming out of Seattle about the new George Karl, and his postgame remarks seemed to corroborate them.
About 48 hours later, though, after Golden State had tied the series with an equally decisive 115-101 win on Saturday, the old George Karl was back. His Sonics blew a 60-54 halftime lead and—partly because the Sonics got into foul trouble and partly because the Warriors played with what Nelson called "a sense of desperation"—surrendered 61 points in the second half. Golden State, which is smaller than Seattle, outrebounded the Sonics 48-41 overall and 16-10 on the offensive boards.
May 3, 1992
Going into the series, Karl would have been elated with a road split, but now the frustration of having lost Game 2 was eating him up. "Well, Nellie says in the paper that we're in the lane too long, so we get a bunch of three-second calls," said Karl. "Nellie yells 'Illegal defense' like 3,000 times, so we get called for that. And I thought we had three or four fouls, hand checks, that were definitely not playoff fouls. And...." His voice trailed off. "Don't talk about the referees," he said, almost to himself, banging his forehead.
A few minutes later Karl was at it again. "The control fouls early were being dictated by Nellie," he said. "We're in a wrestling match on the blocks, and they're calling touch fouls outside because Nellie's hollering."
Karl put his hand through his thinning hair as he wrestled with his emotions. "Look," he said. "I hope someday I'll be as successful a coach as Don Nelson. But I'm a pretty good coach too, and I just want a game everybody can be proud of." Yes, the best-of-five series that had begun rather like a Nellie-and-George love-in had taken a different turn, and it promised more of the same this week.
Before Sonics president Bob Whitsitt went after Karl, who at the time was coaching Real Madrid in the Spanish professional league, many observers, Karl included, thought that he would never get another chance to coach in the NBA. After all, the old George had burned his share of bridges during his previous stints in the league. In 1984, at age 33, he had become coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, partly through the efforts of Nelson, whom he had met years earlier when Karl was a scouting assistant for San Antonio and Nelson was coaching Milwaukee. "What drew us together was passion for the game," says Karl.
Karl developed a reputation as something of a Nelson-like bench genius. He also became known as one of the rare individuals who could match Nelson in the ego department. Unlike Nelson, though. Karl hadn't paid his NBA dues, so when the Cavs, who made the playoffs in 1984-85, slipped to 25-42 near the end of the '85-86 season, he was fired. Then, largely through the efforts of Nelson, Karl hooked on as coach of the Warriors and took them to the playoffs in '86-87.
But things soured the next season, when Nelson, of all people, was the general manager. Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane had sold the Bucks to purchase the Warriors, and Nelson followed them to Oakland. Trades—made, not incidentally, by Nelson—injuries and personality conflicts were all factors in Karl's and Golden State's demise. With the Warriors struggling at 16-48, Karl, who had believed all along that Fitzgerald and Finnane were just looking for a reason to can him and name Nelson as coach, demanded additional job security. The two owners said no and shrugged their shoulders when Karl resigned.
Nelson's precise role in the whole situation remains murky. He and Karl both insist that the decision was made upstairs. "I may look naive, but I still believe Don Nelson wanted me to coach the Golden State Warriors," says Karl.
But it's hard to believe that Nelson had nothing to do with the decision. And, in fact, Karl's departure drove a wedge into his relationship with Nelson. They went months without speaking, even as Karl became a successful coach with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. Gradually, though, as they ran into each other at clinics and summer league games, they patched things up. "It was basketball that did it," says Karl. "Nellie and I both love the game too much not to talk about it."
Nonetheless, Nelson was the insider, Karl the outsider who wondered if he would ever make it back. He knew he had to change after the Cavs and Warriors rejected him. "I realize now that my ego was out of control," says Karl. "I changed. I got a little older and smarter."
And Whitsitt, who had grown tired of Jones's increasingly passive approach, liked what he saw. "I didn't necessarily want an ass-kicker, an up-tempo man or a motivator." says Whitsitt. "I wanted someone who understood coaching."
No one was happier to see Karl back in the league than Nelson. They resumed their late-night phone calls, discussing the Chicago Bulls' triangle offense or what Pat Riley had done to revive the New York Knicks. Before the Warriors and Sonics met in the final game of the regular season for both teams, the two coaches played tennis, hot-tubbed at Nelson's house and discussed, as Karl puts it, "which of us is the fatter pig."
But there was less gripping and grinning after the highly physical and hotly contested first two games. The series was very much in doubt at week's end, as was the reported disappearance of the old George Karl.