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For Nuggets Coach George Karl, this one truly is a must-win

Karl, whose Denver team is a contender to bring him his first NBA title, is battling cancer for the second time. His goals, in order of importance: win a clean bill of health, and that elusive championship.

February 28, 2010|Bill Dwyre

Sunday's big game at Staples Center, Lakers versus Denver Nuggets, presents a different challenge for fans in attendance: clapping with your fingers crossed.

The clapping will be for good basketball, great plays, outstanding athletic performance. Also, for a Lakers victory.

The crossed fingers will be for George Karl.

Assuming he feels well enough, Karl will be the squat, 58-year-old guy prowling the Nuggets' sideline. He will yell sometimes, but mostly, he will have his hands crossed over his chest, watching, plotting and trying to figure out Phil Jackson's next move before Jackson makes it.

He will probably be a bit less active than in the past. The skin may be a bit pastier, the focus in his eyes a bit more distant.

That's because Karl has cancer, the kind he says you can beat, but the kind you have to fight hard to do so. It is throat and neck cancer, and he has just recently begun chemotherapy. In sports, the cliche is playing games one at a time, and now Karl is living that cliche, ever since he made his diagnosis public Feb. 16.

"Coaching is going to be my sanctuary," he told reporters.

As he began treatment, he mapped out a schedule that would keep him off the bench some nights, such as Thursday night's game at Golden State, where assistant Adrian Dantley ran things. Not surprisingly, the schedule -- assuming only mild reaction to the first doses of chemo -- had him coming to Los Angeles on Sunday for the Lakers, who once again represent the main roadblock to Karl's long-held aspiration. That's an aspiration with an additional element now.

"I want to win my battle," he says, "and, hopefully, win an NBA championship."

Before Denver, Karl coached NBA teams in Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle and Milwaukee. He is the seventh-winningest coach in league history with 972 victories in 21 seasons. He got to the NBA Finals once, his SuperSonics against Jackson's Chicago Bulls in 1996. Karl had a great team and Jackson had Michael Jordan. End of story.

Karl has had other battles. He has had both hips replaced, overcame prostate cancer in 2005 and had to watch his son, Coby, fight through thyroid cancer in '07 and recover so well that he made the Lakers' roster for a while in the 2007-'08 season.

Karl is a Tar Heel, a throwback who, if cut, would bleed North Carolina blue. He was a fireplug guard for Dean Smith's 1972 Final Four team. In that Final Four, Smith had a great team and John Wooden had Bill Walton. End of story.

"If Dean Smith needed a kidney," says Karl's longtime friend Rick Majerus, "George would give him two."

Majerus, coach at St. Louis University, calls Karl a "players' coach, a big kid at heart and an easy mark."

"He'd give you the shirt off his back, even if it was the only shirt he had," Majerus says.

The two bonded some 20 years ago, after meeting at one of Pete Newell's Big Man Camps at Stanford. Their tendencies toward individual excesses proved to be a unifier.

"We went off somewhere to talk basketball," Majerus says. "I ate six bowls of chips and salsa and George drank six beers. I was OK to drive."

When Majerus was in his highly successful run at the University of Utah, his close friend, U.S. Sen. and Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl, wanted him to coach the Bucks. He turned Kohl down but promised to find him the best man for the job, and Karl quickly took over.

"When George was with the Bucks," Majerus says, "that's the best they've been since."

Even though he no longer coaches there, Karl still runs charitable youth programs in Seattle and Milwaukee, as well as Denver.

Majerus and Karl's foundation director, Lori Hoch of Milwaukee, point to this as a true measure of the man.

"Some of these things, we are operating at a tremendous loss," Hoch says. "George never blinks."

She calls Karl "a genuinely nice, funny, sarcastic, self-effacing man."

"We just had our Friends of Hoop event in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day in Milwaukee," Hoch says.

"We ran that at a loss, but George was only concerned with making sure the kids got busing, because it snowed."

Hoch says that most of these programs benefit teenagers who never had even a slim chance of going to college.

"George gets them there," she says.

Majerus says he tried to call the minute he heard about the cancer.

"George's voice mail was instantly full," Majerus says. "I've decided, I'm going to go and be with him in April, when the chemo could really be getting tough. Right now, he's got plenty of people keyed in, concerned and ready to help."

Which brings us back to that clapping with your fingers crossed.

Karl knows the kind of battle he's in, with a tougher foe, certainly, than Michael Jordan.

He is realistic, telling reporters that, in this fight against cancer, even with the treatable kinds, "you never get a 100% guaranteed contract."

What you can get, however, is a little help from your friends, even those rooting for the team in purple and gold.

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