Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to talk with the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year, 1996 NBA Finalist, and 4-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach – George Karl.
Career as a player
You were drafted with the 66th pick in the 1973 NBA Draft, but you decided to go to the ABA. Why?
The ABA offered me a guaranteed three-year contract. The. NBA only offered a guaranteed one-year deal, so I went with the ABA option.
How do you recall playing with George Gervin for the San Antonio Spurs?
At that time, he was the best offensive player I had ever seen. He made scoring and offense easy. He had an incredible knack for the offensive end of the court.
Beginnings as a head coach
What was your reaction when you got the news that you will be the head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers? Were you scared of your first job as a head coach in the NBA?
I was surprised to be offered that job so early in my life. But I became quickly excited and it was definitely something I wanted so I was thrilled. I was humbled for sure.
Later you coached Chris Mullin and the Warriors. Did you think that Mullin will become a Hall-of-Famer and member of the Dream Team?
I actually coached Chris when he was having some difficulties – with his weight and rehab. But he had amazing talent and vision. But he was distracted by challenges at the time, so I did not envision him becoming a Dream Team player at that time. I have always been so glad he was able to rejuvenate his life and career.
Coaching the SuperSonics
Do you think that NBA should come back to Seattle?
Not only do I agree with it, I think often about how and why Seattle lost its team. There was no good reason for it. It still does not make sense to me Seattle does not have a team and I hope they do again soon.
How do you recall coaching Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp? Was it easy for you to co-work with them and what made this duo so special?
It was not always easy. They were young when I got to Seattle. We butted heads at times regarding leadership, focus and other matters. All young players learn to become pros.
But I was blessed by the talent they had. Shawn was probably the most talented player I ever coached, and Gary was probably the most competitive. Gary had strong opinions and we confronted each other verbally a bunch. There were “tug of wars” but we eventually got to a good place.
In the 1994 Playoffs Sonics became the first team to lose to the 8th seed. What surprised you in Nuggets gameplan and why you were not able to beat them?
We were an improving but still young team. We had success the prior year in the playoffs, but we still had immaturity in our personality. A young, talented Denver team gained confidence as the series went on and we lost our confidence.
In 1996 you reached the NBA Finals. What was the team’s mindset before the Finals?
We had just won a difficult series versus the Utah Jazz. Our mindset was probably too happy and celebratory. So, we may have been unfocused leading up to the Finals. The process teaches you that celebration must be controlled because there are more challenges ahead.
You were trailing 0-3 in the 1996 Finals but were able to win two consecutive games. Did you believe that you can overcome 0-3 deficit?
Yeah, as a leader its key to exude trust and belief in how you are going to win each game in front of you. I believe if Nate McMillan had stayed healthy, we would have had greater success in that series.
Bucks and Nuggets
In 2001 you led the Milwaukee Bucks to Conference Finals. How do you recall coaching Ray Allen, and did you think at that time that his style of play will become that popular in the future?
We all realized Ray Allen was a top three-point shooter at that time. We probably should have let him fire more. His shooting was dynamic.
You can probably look at Reggie Miller and Ray Allen and realize now they would be shooting 10-12 three pointers per game now.
You had a chance to be the head coach in NBA All-Star Game four times. How much does it differ from coaching during the regular season?
There is not much coaching to the All-Star game, there is one hour of preparation ahead of time. There are lots of appearances for the players, parties, and celebration. As a coach, you just put enough into the game to execute a simple strategy. Hopefully, it is a close game, there is an opportunity to call time-outs and coach real-time.
In 2009 your Nuggets faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the Conference Finals. How do you remember coaching against the late Kobe Bryant?
In the philosophy of the game plan, we did not want to double team Kobe. So, we tried to cover him with zone and individual concepts. We did not want to allow other players to go off. We wanted to give him a chance to beat us by himself. Kobe was a great player, but we did a pretty good job containing him that series.
In 2013 you won Coach of the Year award but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Was it a bigger loss than the 1994 vs Nuggets?
No, not really. Our team was injured – including Gallo, Faried and Ty Lawson. We lost to a team that was a championship caliber team. It was a fun and really good series, but Golden State proved they were a team to be reckoned with in the future.