Karl has method to his coaching madness

May 17, 1992|By Glenn Nelson | Glenn Nelson,Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- He has allowed Kelci, his 12-year-old daughter, to pick members of his starting lineup. Last month, he started rookie Rich King against New York superstar Patrick Ewing because King was working hard in practice and because the team trainer and equipment manager favored the move.

In the mystery-novel world of Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl, forward Derrick McKey defends point guards, center Michael Cage shoots three-pointers and Nate McMillan, erstwhile point-guard-for-life, starts at small forward.

You get the impression that if Karl were not an NBA coach, he'd be Tim on the TV show "Home Improvement." The ultimate tinkerer.

"It's a screwy system, man," Cage said. "It has dumbfounded a lot of guys at times. He's done things I didn't understand right away, but then I realized he was preparing for sometime down the road -- next week or even next year."

Karl, 41 on May 12, is adept at planting seeds for the future. He has been nurturing his coaching career for 21 years. The greening of George Karl has been a long, tortuous -- sometimes, torturing -- process.

Is he genius or madman? Or both, because to be one, a person has to be a little of the other?

"He is what we affectionately refer to as a 'basketball nut,' " said Dean Smith, who coached Karl at North Carolina. "When he was here, George was always in the gym, of course. But he also was always thinking basketball and talking basketball."

He has also played or coached under three of the game's biggest innovators, Smith, Doug Moe and Don Nelson. Though much has been made of Karl's student-teacher relationship with Nelson, the voice from his past that speaks loudest belongs to Smith.

Karl went to North Carolina a highly recruited guard out of Penn Hills (Pa.) High School, near Pittsburgh. Smith was one of the few coaches who didn't promise Karl a starting position. One even offered to write a guarantee into Karl's scholarship.

In January of his freshman year at Carolina, Karl had back surgery. So he spent the rest of the season as an unofficial assistant coach to Smith, observing, asking questions. The first time he walked into a film room, Karl knew he belonged.

"Most players love to watch films of themselves playing," Karl recalled. "I found that I enjoyed watching film, not only of myself, but also of other guys playing."

In his sophomore season, Karl still was in pain, but was back on the court.

"He was in immense pain, but I tell you what, George was back drawing charges the next year," Smith said. "One of his nicknames here was 'Kamikaze.'

"When he first got to the pros, I remember him calling and saying, 'Coach, I drew a charge on George McGinnis tonight.' McGinnis told him, 'Next time, go ahead, I'm not slowing down.' That didn't deter George."

Karl was holding steady near the foul line when McGinnis chugged in like a freight train, recalls Moe, then Karl's coach with San Antonio. The impact sent Karl flying into the basket support.

Karl's grittiness was a bonus, however. His intelligence was a requirement, for Smith expects his point guards to be extensions of himself on a basketball court. They attend frequent sessions which Smith calls "quarterback meetings." Then, on the floor, they make most of the calls, especially on defense, which Smith and now Karl consider the foundation of a team's personality.

Smith's program has produced an impressive list of point guards who have become an extension of their coach in the game. Before Karl came Eddie Fogler, now Vanderbilt coach; Larry Brown, coach of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, and Roy Williams, Kansas coach. After Karl came Phil Ford, now a North Carolina assistant; Jimmy Black, a Notre Dame assistant, and Jeff Lebo, Eastern Tennessee coach.

Karl has been asked to join Smith's staff at North Carolina, and he has inquired about other college jobs, most notably Pitt, but the pros always beckoned. Still, under Karl, the Sonics have a distinct collegiate feel.

When Karl got the Seattle job, instead of hiring close friends, as most NBA coaches do, he chose the most technically able men available. Bob Kloppenburg (defense) and Tim Grgurich (offense, tutoring) have firmly defined roles and run parts of each practice session. Moreover, Sonics workouts have the intensity and structure of college practices.

While coaching the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association, Karl frequently had his players conduct shootarounds.

While he hasn't yet done this with the Sonics, he has allowed his players liberal input into game plans.

"If they have input, I think they feel much more in tuned to it," Kloppenburg said. "You have to be very secure [as coach], I think, to do that."

Security is a recently introduced factor in Karl's life and coaching career. Lack of it helped cost him his first two head coaching jobs. Both times, with Cleveland and Golden State, Karl lost his cool when things went bad.

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