Aaron J. Lopez, from the Rocky Mountain NewsÂ writes:
Nearly three weeks into his NBA coaching career, the league was pitching a shutout against George Karl.
Nine games. Nine losses. One white-knuckled coach.
With each mounting defeat by his Cleveland Cavaliers, Karl found it more and more difficult to navigate his way to the arena.
“The car would not turn into the parking lot,” he recalled Wednesday. “I went by a few times. Then I’d turn around and say, ‘Let’s try to do it again.’ ”
On Nov. 15, 1984, Karl finally celebrated his first victory, a 102-99 win against the Atlanta Hawks. The Cavaliers proceeded to lose nine of their next 10 games but recovered to make the playoffs.
Karl’s ability to succeed after a 2-18 start to the season would be a sign of things to come.
More than 22 years after that first victory, Karl stands at the precipice of another major milestone. He will go for his 800th win tonight when the Nuggets face the Seattle SuperSonics at the Pepsi Center.
“No one ever thinks you’re going to win 800 games in the NBA,” he said. “The NBA is too volatile. Growing and changing, and keeping your good and changing your bad, is a part of surviving. I’ve never lost the passion for the gym.”
Karl also has never forgotten his humble beginnings.
After four pedestrian NBA seasons with the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, he coached Real Madrid in Spain and the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association.
During practice Wednesday, Nuggets assistant Doug Moe donned a Patroons cap after hearing Karl boast about Albany’s record-setting 50-6 season in 1990-91.
“He’s making me wear the hat hoping people will ask me who they were,” Moe said. “And then I can say, ‘The Albany Patroons: best record ever in the CBA, coached by George Karl.’ ”
While Karl’s proud of his work in Albany and Spain, his most noted accomplishments have occurred during his 19 NBA seasons with Denver, Milwaukee, Seattle, Golden State and Cleveland.
Perhaps it is fitting that win No. 800 could come against the Sonics, whom Karl guided to the NBA Finals in 1996. During his seven seasons in Seattle, Karl won 384 games but left in 1998 feeling underpaid and underappreciated.
“I’m over Seattle,” he said. “I’ve said many times I would like to have another Seattle in my career. My hope is Denver will become another Seattle. We were a tremendous team. My problem with Seattle was financial appreciation. They didn’t want to pay me and didn’t feel I earned it.”
In the midst of a six-year, $20 million contract with the Nuggets, Karl now ranks among the highest-paid coaches in the NBA, and his rÃ©sumÃ© justifies the income.
His 799 wins rank 12th in NBA history, and he has a realistic chance of finishing among the top six, a list headed by Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson, Pat Riley, Larry Brown and Jerry Sloan. Only Wilkens is retired.
“It means I survived,” Karl said. “I survived the dangers of being fired and never being rehired again.”
While Karl plays down the significance of joining the 800 Club, his players believe the game tonight will carry special meaning if the Nuggets leave the floor with a victory.
“I don’t care what he says, it’s in the back of his mind,” forward Carmelo Anthony said. “It’d be good to get 800 wins on his home court.”
Karl kept the game balls after his 500th, 600th and 700th victories and likely will do the same after No. 800.
“When I first started, I thought if I got to 250, I would be happy,” he said.
Anthony, who will serve the fourth game of a 15-game suspension tonight, will not see Karl again until Saturday, when the team returns from Oklahoma City. He joked that he might dump a bucket of water over Karl’s head to commemorate win No. 800.
Karl probably will celebrate by sipping his requisite postgame beer before shifting his focus to No. 801. His top remaining career goals are winning an NBA title and finishing among the top 10 in playoff victories (his 61 postseason wins currently rank 13th).
“I see retirement in my future a little bit more now,” he said. “I’m more desirous of just coaching and doing it the right way. I’m into the Buddhist (way of) searching for the reality of ‘Basketball is good, life is good’ – combining it and making it so that everything is good.”