The word, which means a blend of chaos and order, sums up his time with the Sonics well. It was the pinnacle of his career and the city loved his team.
The title of his book is “Furious George,” but George Karl makes it clear that the moniker doesn’t really describe him anymore. Not after two bouts of cancer changed his perspective and led to a spiritual awakening.
“Maybe that was the case in Seattle and Milwaukee,’’ he said with a laugh. “Now it’s friendly George.”
Karl is doing the promotional heavy lifting that comes with the territory. His book, co-written with Curt Sampson, is subtitled “My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection,” and has already caused a stir with criticism of Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony and others.
But I’m more interested in talking to him about his Seattle years, from 1991-98, and it’s a topic that energizes him, even amid a grueling day of nonstop interviews. Now 64 and nine months removed from being fired by the Sacramento Kings — the sixth NBA team to hire Karl and then part ways — he has plenty of time for reflection.
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Karl notes that he had long runs in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver, but when pushed, he says that his time with the Sonics was the pinnacle of his career.
“The city was alive,’’ he tells me. “Averaging 59 wins a year was so much fun. Even though we failed in a couple of first-round series, when we finally broke through to the conference finals, it was wild.”
He spends two fascinating chapters in the book discussing his Seattle years, with particular emphasis, not surprisingly, on his relationship with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton (volatile but ultimately rewarding) and GM Wally Walker (not good — “Wally and I just didn’t like each other,” he writes).
Karl also goes into great depth on the Sonics’ first-round ouster by the Denver Nuggets in 1993-94, considered one of the great upsets in NBA history — he flat-out calls it a choke in our phone conversation — and their loss to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1995-96 NBA Finals.
Karl beats himself up a little for not initially letting Payton have the primary responsibility guarding Jordan, opting instead for a team concept led by Hersey Hawkins and an injured Nate McMillan. When the Sonics lost the first three games of the series, Karl describes Payton coming into his office and saying, “Nothin’ to lose now. Let me take him.”
With Payton harassing Jordan, he was not nearly as dominant in the next two games, both Seattle victories, before they fell in Game 6.
“Gary had a little leg injury and I said, well, ‘Hawk is giving us great defense, Nate can cover him. Let’s try a team thing, rather than mano-y-mano,’’ Karl said. “It was probably a wrong move.”
Payton and Kemp blossomed into superstars during Karl’s tenure, and he loved coaching them, despite the occasional blowups, disputes and distractions. In the book, in fact, Karl says Payton is now one of his five best friends.
“I don’t think we go out every time I see him, but we hang,’’ he told me.
In the book, Karl ribs Kemp for fathering children with numerous different women, writing that he said to Kemp one day, “Shawn. Vasectomy.” But he wrote, “Shawn, incidentally, stepped up and took care of everyone. I’m proud of him.”
Karl told me, “They played the game the right way when it counted. I can’t say Gary and I had a great relationship sometimes in practice. Sometimes his habits drove me crazy. And Shawn tended to be late. Those are the little frustrations of basketball. But I loved our Seattle team because they were tough-minded and played hard. It was team basketball, and they were leaders of that.”
Once a year, Karl revealed in the book, he would go out drinking with Payton and Kemp as a bonding exercise, usually in September just before camp opened. He did that with other players, too, but usually one-on-one. He felt it more appropriate to fraternize with these two as a pair.
“If you think Gary can talk on a normal day,’’ he writes, “you should hear him after he’s had a glass of something strong.”
A couple of those outings took place on Payton’s yacht. “I don’t think anything got too crazy,’’ he told me.
Karl also provides some background to the infamous fight between Payton and Ricky Pierce at halftime of Game 2 in the Denver series. The Sonics had led the NBA with a 63-19 record that year, and with Jordan off playing baseball, thought they would sail to the NBA title. They won the game in question to go up two games to none, but the fractures were starting to show that allowed the Nuggets, barely a .500 team during the season, to sweep the final three games.
“I didn’t see it then, but in hindsight maybe we were starting to crumble,’’ he wrote. “Gary and Ricky screamed at each other in the halftime locker room, something about Ricky taking a shot when there should have been another pass. I’m pretty sure they swung fists at each other. And I’m pretty sure one or both of them said something about getting a gun.”
Karl says now, “It was crazy because of the timing. If it happened during the season, we could have worked it out. But it came in a crucial, pressurized situation, and it takes energy from what we needed to focus on. We weren’t mentally strong enough. Yet.”
Karl describes the Sonics as “chaortic,” a blend of chaos and order, which is a perfect description for those often-turbulent years. Karl doesn’t shy away from the fact that he was responsible for a good portion of the chaos, which tended to follow him throughout his career.
“I think all NBA teams have chaortic decision-making processes,’’ he said. “Our Seattle team was emotional. We didn’t have any problems exchanging our ideas and opinions, and a lot of times we had combative confrontations because of it.”
Despite all that, and despite the absence of the NBA title the team felt was on the verge of happening on more than one occasion, Karl looks at it all fondly. Even the messy departure of Kemp after he became jealous of Jim McIlvaine’s contract that dwarfed his — not the only contract dispute on Karl’s watch.
“Shawn and Gary both wanted to be paid at a high level, a better level than they were,’’ Karl said. “In the same sense, both had loyalty to Seattle, which is a compliment. It doesn’t happen much anymore where players have loyalty to their city.”
Karl lives in Denver now, and he says life is good. After prostate cancer in 2005 and neck and throat cancer in 2010, he feels great. He is a grandfather now, and has remarried and became a father again when he was 53. Hip and knee replacement has given him a bounce in his step, albeit a slower one.
“I don’t have a lot of pain in my body when I walk, for the first time in 15 years,’’ he said. “I’m happy.”
Furious George no longer.