DENVER – It was a bad breakup in so many ways. There was hurtful talk about his drinking, honest talk about his emotions while growing into the job, and wonder about whether a friend, Don Nelson, did him in as Warriors coach to have the job for himself.
That was after 1987-88. Or last week, the way George Karl can so easily recall the conflict of two often-turbulent seasons in Golden State set against the view today that his time in Oakland helped him develop into one of the coaching superstars of the game.
It was difficult personally … and it was good for him. And now it is right in front of him. Karl’s current team, the Nuggets, are playing one of his former teams, the Warriors, in the first round of the playoffs that resume with Game 2 on Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center (10:30 ET, TNT), and so it was inevitable that part of his past would come up.
Monday, after the Nuggets practiced with a 1-0 series lead, was the day. One more game and he would be back in Oracle Arena, the renovated former Oakland Coliseum he once called home, for the playoffs.
“The first memory that comes to mind,” Karl said, “is coming from down 0-2 in my first year there to win a five-game series, which at that time was the second team ever to do it. I now have the honor of doing it and having it done to me. I think I’m the only one that has that other. Another historical stuff. The 0-2 game, I don’t know if you remember, but there was a fight after the game between Karl Malone and Greg Ballard. We lost the game and a fight breaks out. I ran on the court and a fan hits me from behind. I go running after the fan and Chris Mullin and Purvis Short just run by me and kick the (heck) out of him, take care of the fan for me. Here you go down 0-2, you walk into the locker room, maybe the hardest speech in basketball, and the speech is made for you because you just had this basic altercation. We come back and win all three games.
“I’m sure I was more – I don’t know – fiery or confrontational. Demanding. I had an insecure ego, probably. I think the thing that I feel better about myself now is my ego was out of control probably at that time. I was a young guy that a lot of people thought could coach, but I didn’t know maybe how to handle the responsibility of coaching. The next year, we made the Joe Barry Carroll trade and Mully goes into rehab and Larry Smith pops his hamstring. That’s what happens the first month of the season. I had one of those teams that could play anybody until about 10 minutes to go, eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and then no matter who we were playing we would lose the game. That’s a very frustrating thing to go through. When you’re a young coach, you think it’s you. Now I see teams well-coached, doing their job. The good teams turn up the defense, put the foot on the pedal and they always catch and usually sometimes go by you by five or six or 10. That was a tough year. I think ownership at that time wanted Nellie to coach. I was in a position where they felt the team needed a change and my ego might have pissed off a few people along the way.”
“I don’t think I was dynamically out of control as people sometimes were writing,” Karl said. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches. I had an ego. I was confrontational. But I think also have always had compassion, and if you play the game the right way, I get along with anybody. I can get along with anybody if you just play the game the right way.
“I can’t say I was good. I was confused by Nellie being a friend and then taking my job and then all the stories that came out afterward. It was hard. People said I was drinking too much. Just things that were said. I didn’t know where they were coming from, why they were getting out. I spent that whole summer trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had some jobs. I could have went back to scouting. I could have stayed in the league in personnel. I was in Santa Barbara, California, with Coby Dietrick (a former teammate with the ABA Spurs). I get a phone call from the Albany Patroons and they offer me a good hunk of money to coach in (the Continental Basketball Assn.), a little more than they were paying at that time. I sat there with my family at the time. I remember drinking a lot of wine that night. I said, ‘All I’m going to do is I’m going to go out and win games. I don’t think I’m a bad guy. I don’t think I am what they say I am. I just want to go win games.’ I did that….”
I asked if it bothered him when people talked about his drinking.
“I think so,” Karl responded with his usual candor. “I’ve never been a mean drunk. I’ve never had a DUI. I think I’m a responsible person when I do drink. But I was a big guy. I could drink eight, nine beers.”
“Do you think you had a problem?”
“No,” he said. “But I went to Seattle (in 1991-92) and (president Bob) Whitsitt asked me to put it in my contract that I wouldn’t drink in public, and I did (put it in). That was acceptable to me. I don’t go out to the bars very much. In those days, you had to go to the bars to watch games. The bars had the satellites. You didn’t have a satellite at home. So where did you go to watch? You had to go the bar. Hell, Nellie would have a keg of beer right next to him.”
Decades later, with the Nuggets favored to advance to the Western Conference semifinals and with Karl a leading contender for Coach of the Year, he sees that he got the Golden State job too soon. He was 35 years old, although, on the other did, did already have the experience of the two years with the same job with the Cavaliers.
He has an affection for the Bay Area that surpasses the emotional tug of Cleveland, despite spending almost the exact amount of time. Oakland and San Francisco remain special to him, all these years later and after everything.