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Bob Ryan

Karl’s nuggets of wisdom were learned the hard way

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 9, 2010

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“I’m not a coach,’’ says George Karl. “I’m a director.’’

Whoa, George, what are you saying?

“I get to the office, and I talk about last night’s game,’’ he explains. “I delegate. I delegate assignments in practice. I delegate preparation. Let other people do their jobs. I get as much off my plate as I can.’’

In his coaching youth, George Karl was a basketball version of Billy Martin. He blitzed through stints at Cleveland and Golden State, winning games and bruising egos. Before getting back into the NBA loop, he was exiled to outposts such as Madrid and Albany.

But George Karl is a smart guy. He listened and learned. He sought advice and he was able to reshape himself into one of the best NBA coaches of the past 30 years, a man who entered TD Garden with his Denver Nuggets last night in search of career victory No. 1,000.

But this Martin Scorsese version of George Karl has almost nothing in common with the George Karl who coached the Cavaliers against the Celtics in a surprisingly competitive playoff series back in 1985. He was young, excitable, almost volatile, if you want to know the truth.

“I’m running around, and I look down there at the other bench and K.C. [Jones] is just sitting there,’’ he recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘He’s been through this 30 times.’ At one point, I’m roaming all the way to midcourt. Jake O’Donnell is working the game, and he says, ‘George, you can’t coach both teams.’ ’’

That was a long time ago, the series taking place in two buildings that no longer exist. All those games, all those practices, all those trips, all those playoffs, and all those encounters with players, general managers, owners, and media will make a different person out of anyone.

Something else will change your outlook: cancer.

Prostate cancer first hit George Karl in 2005.

“The treatment’s not that difficult,’’ he says. “There are two or three options about how to go about it.’’

Unfortunately, George Karl is in a position to make comparisons. Dealing with prostate cancer looks like a layup to him now because last spring he was confronted with a more sobering diagnosis. Worried about a lump on his neck, he went to seek help. He was told he had a form of throat and neck cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. His treatment would involve 35 sessions of radiation and chemotherapy.

That was the end of George Karl’s season.

This wasn’t exhibition or regular-season cancer. This was playoff cancer, perhaps even Finals cancer. While the Nuggets were playing, and losing, to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, George Karl was fighting for his life. As concerned as he was about his team, which was clearly struggling under overwhelmed assistant coach Adrian Dantley, there was a larger priority for George Karl.

“It was hard,’’ he acknowledges. “I was not a healthy guy. I was probably on painkillers half the time.’’

He thinks the criticism heaped on Dantley was unfair.

“We win the first game and we’re up 5 with two minutes to go in the second game,’’ he points out. “If we win that, we’re up, 2-0, we probably win the series, and everyone is saying it was a darn good year.’’

George Karl has long been one of the NBA’s most fascinating personalities. He has never been less than candid with the media, and I still maintain that he entered an area on a trip to Boston in 1996 that no other coach I’ve ever covered has ventured near.

“We have a three-year window to win a championship,’’ he said. “If we don’t, I should get fired.’’

They didn’t, and he was.

“Not fired,’’ he laughs. “Just not renewed. And we had just won 61 games.’’

He’s a little sensitive on that topic. George Karl thinks people should pay a little more respect to the Big 82.

“I see coaches let go now who have won 55 or 60 games [e.g. Mike Brown in Cleveland],’’ he says. “Let me tell you something. You can’t win 55 or 60 games in this league and do a bad coaching job. That’s not solid, sound reasoning.

“But times change. You’ve got the Net, talk radio, and a lot of crazy opinions being thrown around out there.’’

When he’s not acting as a director, he sees himself in another role.

“I was once a dictator,’’ he says. “Now I’m more of a Democratic president.’’

As Exhibit A of that genre, he points to Doc Rivers, whose handling of the Celtics he greatly admires.

“I think he’s been very good at standing up to them [i.e. the Big Three] to a point, but not to where it’s going to offend them,’’ he explains. “You’ve got to be strong, but you can’t go overboard. There are still those moments where you have to be a dictator.

“But as I tell J.R. [Smith], ‘I’m just the policeman who stops you for speeding. I’ve let you go a little too often, but I can’t let it go this time.’ ’’

He likes his team, which is now 13-8, despite not having Kenyon Martin all season and also missed the celebrated Birdman, Chris Andersen, for the first 15 games.

“I’m pretty sure no one can say this, not even the Lakers or Celtics,’’ Karl was saying before last night’s 105-89 wire-to-wire loss to the Celtics.

OK, George, what?

“We’re the only team in the league that has had a lead in the fourth quarter in every game but one,’’ he maintained, “and that was the game the Pacers made 22 straight shots!’’

George Karl is 55 pounds lighter than he was when the radiation and chemo began, and that’s OK because the important thing is that he’s here to tell the tale. Here’s the difference between the young George and this Hitchcock version: “Losing bothers you, but it doesn’t defeat you.’’

You’d be philosophical, too, if you went through what George Karl has had to endure. His priorities are quite clear: “God, love your family, and kick cancer’s ass.’’

Winning a thousand games is nice, but getting out of bed one more time is even better.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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