Former head coach George Karl has made headlines over the past month due to his recently released book titled “Furious George,” which chronicles his 40-year journey in the NBA. Karl held nothing back when it came to thoughts regarding his former players and bosses. Being outspoken and raw in this manner typically would leave many to think he’s effectively retired. But at 65 years old, Karl believes he has more to give to the game of basketball.
Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Karl to talk Carmelo Anthony, his future plans, Russell Westbrook, the MVP race and his take on younger players.
Lang Greene: A lot of times, when someone releases a book like this and you’re bearing your soul and just telling it like it is throughout your long journey playing round ball, coaching round ball, would you say you’re effectively retired or would you still like to get out on the sideline or get back in even in a front office capacity?
George Karl: Coaches never retire. Coaches always want to be in the gym, and I’m one of those guys. I’m a lifer. I’ve put over 30 years into coaching, maybe 35 and now I may [try to get to] 40 years being a coach. I was a player for five or six and a coach ever since. I’ve always wanted to be a GM, I’ve always wanted to kind of run the game, and feel the game, and give to the game. But right now I’m 65 years old, so that’s got to be a decision by somebody else in an organization that thinks I can help them. I sure think I can help somebody along the way.
Greene: You talked about being around the game. What are some things you’re doing right now to be around the game? Are you hanging around some high school gyms, are you doing some coaching clinics? What are you doing to stay around the game?
Karl: I’ve visited about three or four college programs. I’ve never studied the college game. I’ve had the opportunity with Ben Howland, Mark Pope and Mike Dunlap, some of my friends in the game of basketball, to spend some time. I go up to the University of Colorado to see Tad Boyle’s team play in the Pac-12. So I’ve got that. I’ve got my son (Coby Karl) who coaches the LA. D-Fenders in the D-League and so his games are on TV, on Facebook, every day and I can watch his games, and we talk quite frequently about what happens in the game. My family’s a basketball family. My daughter is married to a high school basketball coach in Olympia, Washington. He’s a girls’ basketball coach so I get to see them play when I visit my grandchildren up there.
Greene: Let me ask you this because you mentioned the college game, so it’s a perfect segue into the next question. One of your former UNC guys, Larry Brown, went back to the collegiate ranks when he left the NBA. Would that be something you would be interested in? I know you haven’t studied it, but in your book you talk a lot about how the rules and the stringent nature of the NCAA wouldn’t interest you, but, being around the game, being in a situation where you can instill your wisdom on some younger players, would you give it a look?
Karl: I think I’m open to anything right now. I am open to doing front office work, helping out with the personnel on an NBA team. I’m interested in college. I’m interested in helping people. I’m interested in European basketball, would I be interested in going back to European basketball? That’s a possibility. I mean, I’m open to anything, I’m not rushing into anything, [but] I think I’m open to conversations. What if, what if? I’m ready to go.
Greene: You talked about in your book that the guys that really resonated with your heart and your spirit were the guys that really got after it, guys that were real tenacious. You mentioned Kendall Gill who just didn’t, necessarily, visually have that fire in him, that you saw. Now, transitioning to a current player in the game, when you look at a guy like Russell Westbrook and what he’s doing and the way he approaches the game, is that a guy, as a coach, that you look at and say ‘I wish I had a few seasons with him under me?’
Karl: I think Russell Westbrook is a freak. I mean, this man, the way he plays with his energy and his passion every game, is a pretty amazing thing. And I have a lot of admiration for his approach to the game, and there’s no question about that, plus he’s one of the most talented athletes playing the game of basketball today. So that’s a special package and I’ve always looked at Russell Westbrook in that way. He brings to the table what coaches like on the table. Sometimes he makes mental errors, sometimes his basketball isn’t the purest of all, but damn, I would love to coach that. And I think it’s easy to coach because he’s on your team, it would be easy to coach the team. And his leadership by example is pretty obvious every night. I think that’s why OKC, looking into that, they’re great. I think the Westbrook, Harden stories are really good this year. I mean, I never saw James Harden be this type of playmaker, I didn’t see that. [Houston Rockets head coach] Mike D’Antoni saw that more than I did. And I think it’s a marvelous story how giving him the ball has calmed [Houston] down into a very efficient offensive team and a much better defensive team.
Greene: I’m going to put you on the spot since you mentioned them both. Right now, as we approach the All-Star break, who would you give the MVP to out of those two?
Karl: I think like all coaches, I’m going to go with the team that’s winning more games. And I think Harden’s evolution into a point guard, along with D’Antoni’s philosophy of coaching, has turned Houston into a team that might be a contender. I think right now we have Cleveland and Golden State ahead of everybody, and I think Harden and the Houston Rockets have a chance to get there by the end of the year.
Greene: Last thing on Westbrook. Just looking at the situation, I’ve joked around with people and said, from an individual career standpoint and legacy, Kevin Durant going to Golden State might be the best thing for Russell Westbrook, individually, not necessarily as a team, with Oklahoma City because now a lot of the questions around him being ‘maybe you should defer to Kevin Durant?’ or ‘are you the 1B to his 1A?’ Did you see this type of talent? Obviously, we knew he was already an All-Star, already on a great trajectory, but did you see him being able to explode like this before the season started?
Karl: I thought he always had a chance. I think without Kevin Durant there’s around 10 percent or more possessions in his control, maybe even 20 percent more possessions in his control. And I think the NBA is a game of efficient basketball. The coach wants to get the ball to the most efficient player on his team that will create a team game and a successful flow and aggressiveness in their offense. I think when Durant and Westbrook shared it, it was fine, of course, they did a good job of figuring that out. Now I think it’s simple. It’s simple, I think, for OKC to understand their personality right now, and sometimes I think Durant and Westbrook was kind of confusing. At times when one guy maybe wasn’t playing that well, they didn’t know how much the other guy was supposed to take over. So it was always kind of a, ‘Well if you control one, you have a chance to control both of them.’
Greene: I’m going to transition now. Obviously, a lot of the talking points from your book have really resonated from the Carmelo Anthony situation. Kenyon Martin responded, J.R. Smith responded. But I want to ask you, from a different perspective, looking at some of the guys that are leaders of their teams in this day and age, do you get the sense that guys just aren’t ready to handle the expectations that are given to them?
Karl: I think what I’ve seen in the league is that it’s taking longer, for whatever reason, for a college player to come into pro basketball and learn how hard the game is, how difficult the challenge is and how to be a pro every day at a high, high character level. I think that’s what you’re seeing, and before maybe, I look here, a young player would come into the game and it might take two or three years. It seems like it’s taking longer now, it seems like it’s taking three, four, or five years before the maturation of the pro attitude that is necessary to be a great player.
Greene: Do you plan on, ultimately one day, when it’s all said and done, maybe getting together with Carmelo, Kenyon, J.R. and maybe cracking back a brew? You guys did win a lot of games together, will there be phone calls made, at some point, just to talk as men?
Karl: I would hope so. I’d hope so, when the storm calms down and the waves start hitting the shoreline, there might be opportunities in the world of basketball that we can cross, have a coffee or two, or a beer, I’d love those conversations. I think tough conversations make you even smarter. Tough conversations, when you express what’s inside your gut, makes you aware of things and makes you grow.
Greene: Now let me ask you this. Out of all the places that you’ve been, is there one particular stop that you look back and say ‘We left it on the table?’ Whether it’s Seattle with, basically, a prime [Shawn] Kemp and [Gary] Payton, whether it’s the world championships in ‘02, the Denver Nuggets team, Milwaukee really got close to the Finals. Is there a spot that you say ‘This is the squad where I look back and I’m kicking myself because we really left something on the table?’
Karl: I think what comes to mind is the year I came down with cancer in 2010 [with the Denver Nuggets]. I was the All-Star coach that year so we obviously had the best record in the league. And I thought in January, we were playing great basketball. And then I announced my cancer right after the All-Star break, and I tried to coach the rest of the year but I made it only two-to-four weeks. I’m not saying I was the reason we fell apart, but I thought that team, because we were in the Conference Finals the year before, I thought that team was ready to take the challenge past the Western Conference and get to the NBA Finals.
Greene: The squad, personally speaking, I think one of the anomalies that I saw, just witnessing up close was after the Carmelo Anthony trade to New York, you guys, the Denver Nuggets, went on a huge run. I remember asking you a question at the time like ‘Is this one of the most fun environments that you’ve had?’ Those two, three weeks right after [the trade]. You guys were on a winning streak and it just seemed like everyone was getting along great. What was it about that and, as a coach, when you lose, arguably, your best player?
Karl: Well, people forget that we played about 35 games with Melo on our team that year, and every day we had to answer, ‘Is he gonna be traded?’ ‘When is he gonna be traded? ‘Is he gonna be traded?’ I think everybody got tired of that situation, and finally, when the trade was made, I think there was an expectation and opportunity to go out and play. Two or three guys went from being maybe a 20 minute player to now playing 30 minutes a game and having a lot more responsibilities. And because of the way the season went, when the trade happened it was like a celebration for us. There was a challenge for us to show the world that we’re okay. I think that was a compliment to the players, Ty Lawson became our starting point guard at that moment. [Danilo Gallinari], and Wilson Chandler, we got them in and joined the crew. It was pretty interesting how good they were, how young they were, how excited they were. We got Raymond Felton in the trade, and he would go on to play really well. We still had a pretty good basketball team, and I think the combination of us having the excitement showing the world that we’re okay, I think we played at a really high level and it was a lot of fun. I think the last two or three years in Denver after the Melo trade was probably as connected as a team as I ever had.
Greene: I’ve got one last question for you coach and I appreciate the time. This is a different one, right now. You’ve been around the game a long time. Who is the best basketball player, in your eyes, that the masses haven’t heard of? Whether it’s been because of an injury that you’ve seen, whether it’s been from them not taking their craft seriously, is there somebody that you just look back and say ‘This guy had all of the goods but just couldn’t connect all of the dots?’
Karl: Well the guy that comes to mind when you talk that way is Arvydas Sabonis. I mean, Sabonis was an incredible 6’11 athlete, could run the court. Early in his career, he had some injuries, and his injuries turned him into a low post center. But he was an amazing young player, his first six, seven years as a wing player, as a runner. I think 1988 was the year that the Russians beat the USA team for what we felt was the first time fairly. In ’92 we got the Dream Team because the NBA wanted to be involved. I think Sabonis is the one guy not because of attitude, but probably because of injury, never became a great player. But at one time, I think people thought he could be one of the greatest players in the NBA.
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