There was no sense trying to get him to talk about the specifics of what had just transpired. George Karl couldn't focus his thoughts enough to deal with the complexities of Xs and Os, or possible strategies for the Chicago Bulls. The biggest triumph of his life, the Sonics' Game 7 victory over Utah Sunday, had come one hour earlier and Karl's emotions were all over the place. "I want to cry," he began. "I'm elated, I'm tired, I'm angry. ... "
Angry? After getting to the NBA Finals for the first time?
The problem isn't standing atop the mountain, the problem is the difficult trip. Still. Even now, as his team prepares to travel to Chicago for two games with the Bulls, part of Karl stews over the slights, the insults, the rumors of him being fired, the perception that the Seattle SuperSonics would never amount to much with him as coach. They were losers after dropping a first-round series to eighth-seeded Denver in 1994, hopeless postseason bums after getting bounced by the Lakers in '95. Karl, even in the afterglow of winning a conference championship, couldn't shake all the anger.
"There's a lot of stuff going on inside my head right now," he said. "The hell we've had to live in, the questions about our character. Some of the things said about us were so far from the truth. But what do you do about it? Do you yell and cuss and confront it, or do you just let it go?"
Some of it had been fair, some mean and unnecessary. First-round losses when you're so heavily favored make a coach fair game. The Sonics, plain and simple, were playoff underachievers and the blame in such cases usually gets pinned on the coach. The Sonics were a bickering, often undisciplined bunch that didn't play with enough purpose and smarts when it counted most. Opposing players and coaches in the NBA cracked as many jokes as the media. One former Seattle player sought out a reporter the day before the 1994 playoffs began and promised, guaranteed, that the Sonics would lose in the first round to Denver, even though a No. 1 seed had never lost a first-round series.
Still, it was just as true that Karl knew how to put together a team, knew how to get his players to put forth great effort over the course of a regular season. His .727 is the highest winning percentage in the CBA. In his first head coaching gig in the NBA, his lowly Cleveland Cavaliers started out 2-19, but recovered to make the playoffs. Two years later, in 1986, he took a team that hadn't been to the playoffs in nine years -- Golden State -- and won 42 games plus a first-round playoff series. At this point, Karl was 37 and one of the hot young coaches anywhere, a really good Xs and Os guy who was also a really good motivator.
Except that he was maybe too young, a bit immature like some of the players, mercurial, maybe even volatile. Loved you one day, wanted to trade the whole team the next. One night, after Joe Barry Carroll infuriated him with lackluster effort, Karl ripped the door right off Carroll's locker. Ultimately, as the club was in transition and various Warriors were handling their own personal problems, former general manager Don Nelson big-footed Karl out the door and wound up taking over the team. Karl was out. I mean, really out; some said blackballed. He went back to the CBA (Albany) and alternated with coaching Real Madrid in Spain. In 1992, the Sonics called. In his four full seasons, Seattle has won 55, 63, 57, and 64 games this year, which is the 10th highest mark in NBA history.
The problem was Seattle's 17-20 record in the playoffs.
This was, in all likelihood, a make or get-out year for Karl, which is why Game 7 had so much drama attached to it. Standing in the hallway outside the locker room moments after beating Utah, Cathy Karl said of her husband's predicament, "I was very fearful about our job had we lost this game."
She recalled the Saturday night before Game 7: "He went to bed at midnight, but I was up until 3 a.m. because there was no way I could sleep. But when I went into the bedroom, he was in bed but wide awake. He couldn't sleep, either. But he was confident about winning the game. He told me back in December and he's been saying all year that this team was different, that there wasn't the finger-pointing and the bickering there had been. He believed in this team. And he's very happy to prove everybody wrong. It's been a hell of a battle the last three years for us."
As big a victory as it was for Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and the other Sonics, so much of the postgame focus was on Karl, which is rare for a playoff game in a players' league such as the NBA. But at every locker, whether it was Sam Perkins or Nate McMillan or Detlef Schrempf, some Sonic was bearing witness on behalf of Karl, testifying to what a great job he'd done keeping the ship upright after hitting the rocks so hard the past two postseasons.
Karl is a man who feels everything, his great sensitivity being a strength but also making him vulnerable at times. "I've really enjoyed this season," he said. "And the thing that I like the most is the happiness of this team. But there are a lot of things up here (pointing to his head), a lot of scars the last couple of years. I like being part of this team but I have scars in my heart and on my brain."
There's nothing like getting to the NBA Finals to heal the wounds. A big-time underdog against the Bulls, nobody's going to call for Karl's firing if the Sonics get overwhelmed in the finals. As Cathy said, "This proves he was right all along about this team."
What it also may prove is that a young coach, like a young player, needs time. Karl and his star players, Kemp and Payton, seem to all be maturing together. "A lot of people wanted to destroy this team, blow it up," Karl said. "I think what this shows is we've grown in character, all of us."