The genesis of a great Nuggets season revealed...

In this month's 5280 magazine (on newsstands now) Robert Sanchez – just as he did with his story on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf a few years ago – has done a great job taking us into the life of Nuggets’ head coach George Karl, who remains a lightning rod for criticism on this blog and elsewhere, even though the Nuggets are on pace for one of their best regular season records in franchise history.

But while Robert paints a full picture of Karl both personally and professionally, he left out a lot of the Nuggets-related news he picked up while researching for the article and getting to know his subject. As Robert explained it to me, "Since I was writing the piece for
5280, I didn’t want to make it about basketball only."

Luckily for us, Robert is willing to share those other news items with Denver Stiffs that didn’t make it into the article. So if you’ve been wondering how this great Nuggets season we’ve had thus far came about, I encourage you to read my interview with Robert below.

Denver Stiffs: First things first, when did you start writing this article and how much time did you spend with George Karl to get it done?

Robert Sanchez: I started the piece back in October and I hung out with George four times. We hung out seven, eight hours a few of those times. I went to practices, I spent time at the house with George, Kim and Kacie Grace (their daughter) and we went to dinner. They were all really great and really welcoming. You can see from some of my quotes that nothing was off-limits. They were very open.

DS: How does Karl feel he sits with management right now? When they traded Marcus Camby for nothing and let Eduardo Najera leave for nothing last season, wasn’t that an admission that Karl has failed them as a coach?

RS: As I mention in the article, that was perhaps a message from Kroenke and his staff that they don’t need to spend big-time cash on a team that’s only going to survive one week into the postseason. But Karl told me that the biggest blow wasn’t losing Camby, it was losing Najera. To Karl, the worst part of losing Camby was that they got nothing in return for him, basically a throw-away draft pick. But he loved Najera, as both a player and as a person. Karl wants guys who play the game properly; guys who play defense. On offense, he doesn’t care about missed shots or early shots, but he likes guys who know how to manage the game, who respect the game and play defense. To him, that was Najera.

DS: As early as the preseason, it seemed to me like Karl was going to give this team a better effort than he did last season. Like he was going to hold to his mantra of "doing things my way" as stated after the first round bounce last season. I even wrote in my season preview that Karl coaches best when he has something to prove. Is that true?

RS: After looking back at all the first round exits and difficulties he’s had in the playoffs (with the Nuggets), George comes into training camp and he says to the players that this kind of sexy, go-go-go offense without much defense isn’t working. "Your way hasn’t worked," he says. I think Karl felt like he had been walked over by the players last season, so he made a point to be more of a disciplinarian. You can see an example of that in the Dahntay Jones anecdote in the first part of my story.

DS: So how did the players respond to this?

RS: The way George tells it, they’re all sitting around and Kenyon Martin stands up and owns up to all these problems. He basically says that he wants to be a leader on the team, that he’s going to give the team all he has and that he wants to be a captain. It really struck George.

What’s interesting is that Kenyon’s gritty persona actually fits with Karl’s. Karl told me about Kenyon and said that they’re not best friends, but they’re relationship has grown and that they’ll probably be friends after basketball.

DS: That sounds very similar to the relationship Karl has with Gary Payton now.

RS: That’s right. And if you think back to the playoffs against the Clippers just a few years earlier when Kenyon and Karl didn’t get along at all, what they have now would have been unthinkable.

DS: Back to that team meeting. What happens next?

RS: After Kenyon speaks, the team apparently votes for captain, and Anthony and Martin tie for the most votes. Allen Iverson and Anthony Carter got one vote each, I think. So Karl names Carmelo and Kenyon as co-captains. As you can imagine, this probably didn’t sit well with A.I. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall, that the team was going to be going in a new direction.

DS: I heard that A.I. was unhappy. Did you see any evidence of that?

RS: I interviewed A.I. a couple days before the season started. I told him I was doing a profile of George. I even complimented him on his shoes to try to loosen him up, and he laughed. But when I asked him about George taking the team in a new direction, A.I. said "you have to ask George." Right there, I could tell there was some kind of relationship problem.

DS: Let’s talk about the A.I. trade. My own theory is that management was going to cut costs and just let A.I. go for nothing at the end of the season. Basically sandbagging Karl with the same roster he had the season before sans Camby and Najera. But when they saw the effort Karl and the players were giving in training camp and in the preseason, they saw an opportunity to improve the team and thus, back the coach. Is that how it went down?

RS: I really don’t know. I think the fact that Chauncey was a hometown guy, was popular and would put more rear ends in the seats probably all factored into it. What I do know is that Chauncey was like a present on George’s doorstep. George finally has someone on the floor he can trust 24/7. In fact, he might be the first player Karl’s has had in Denver that he trusts 100% all the time. He absolutely loves him.

DS: What cool story about Karl do you wish Nuggets fans knew?

RS: A few seasons ago, Karl realized that he didn’t have any young African-Americans on his bench (in a coaching capacity) who could serve as a role model and a leader for this team and the rest of the NBA. Karl starts asking around and Jamahl’s name – he was a decent player at CU –pops up. When Jamahl gets to the Nuggets, George paid him out of his own pocket because he thought it was that important to have an African-American on the bench. At first, George thought Jamahl would just be a workout guy. But Jamahl has turned into a good coach, and the guys respect him. George even thinks he could be a head coach some day.

DS: Any other cool non-Karl stories I could share?

RS: You should Google "Kenyon Martin" and "stuttering" online. (I did, and here’s the link http://www.stutteringhelp.org/Default.aspx?tabid=412 ). People don’t see everything about Kenyon and he does this on purpose. He has a softer side. He is privately very nice. I’ve only spoken to Kenyon a handful of times, but here’s an example. In 1998, I moved out to Ohio to intern at the Cincinnati Enquirer and I lived in Clifton Heights, a pretty hard neighborhood. I told Kenyon I lived there and that I had a fighting fish named Clifton. And he said, "Oh, really?" We were talking about the neighborhood, the grocery store, all the places next to the University of Cincinnati. (K-Mart went to college there.) So I go away and talk to someone else. And I walk back over ot where Kenyon is sitting, and he says "When were you there?" I told him we were there at the same time, and we started talking about Cincinnati again. "I remember this place, that place." I came away from that discussion thinking that was a pretty cool experience. He was interested enough to continue the conversation. I’d never seen him do that before.

DS: What would you like to share with the readers of Denver Stiffs about George Karl? What’s your take on him as a coach?

RS: First off, win or lose, George doesn’t change the way he coaches. He doesn’t freak out. He’s the same way in life, at least now.

I think because he’s never won the big one, he’s looked at as an okay coach. But remember, he’s won a lot of games, and he has a great winning percentage in the regular season. He gets a lot of criticism about his playoff teams, but I compare George’s postseason career to the book MoneyBall. In that book, (Oakland A’s General Manager) Billy Beane says that his strategy works over the course of a 162 game season, not necessarily the postseason. The postseason is such a small number of games, and luck plays into the outcome. You have a couple bad games and you’re done. During the regular season, you can lose four straight and then roll of 12 consecutive wins. The postseason is a statistical crapshoot, and I think that might be what has happened to George.

Who would you rather have as coach? Remember that the Sonics, Bucks and Nuggets – they were falling apart again when George came in -- were all laughing stocks before George came in. He comes in and fixes other people’s problems.

I look at George like a mechanic who takes your junk car and makes it drivable again. Maybe he’s not the guy who tunes the engine or puts on the special tires and rims, but there’s no shame in being a great mechanic. He won’t take your junk car and turn it into a Maserati, but he’ll turn it into a really good Toyota that you can drive for 200,000 miles and will keep a good resale value. The problem is, at some point someone will say, "Why isn’t this car faster? Why do I keep getting passed in the left lane? Why isn’t it fancier? Sexier?" These people forgot that is was a junker before, that you couldn’t even drive the thing. So instead of a really good mechanic, they’re looking for a super-duper mechanic.

George has a very positive outlook on basketball and on life. He says he might not necessarily win the championships, but he can feel good about himself if he knows his team is playing the game right. He’s very passionate about things being done right. He told me that if I would have sat him down when he first started coaching and told him he could have 20 years of continued success and no championships, or he could have one championship and 19 years of failure, he would have taken the championship. Now, he sees that long-term success is the ultimate measure. And he’s at peace with that.


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