This is the second of a three-part series chronicling the time I spent last week with Nuggets head coach George Karl and following the team from Chicago to Milwaukee. Part 1 featured my formal interview with our team's coach and Part 2 details the next two days thereafter. Part 3 - coming this weekend - will be my analysis.
Tuesday – Chicago
I probably shouldn’t have titled this series "Three Days with George" but instead: "One Practice, One Lunch, One Crashed Lunch and One Locker Room Run-In with George." But that would have taken up too much space.
At the invitation of Bret Adams (George Karl’s lawyer and longtime friend), I decided to stay in Chicago for the Nuggets game against the Bulls on Tuesday night and make my way up to Milwaukee on Wednesday, as well, to visit my grandmother during the day and catch the Nuggets/Bucks game on Wednesday night.
Having spent much of Monday with the Nuggets, Adams and Karl, on Tuesday I holed up in my hotel room and worked from there all day on my non-blogging ventures (you know, the things I actually get paid real money for!). When I stepped out for lunch, I texted Adams asking if I could meet him and Karl somewhere for a quick picture and Adams told me to meet them at The Cheesecake Factory.
I walk into The Cheesecake Factory and there’s Karl, Adams, Karl’s significant other and a collection of their family and friends. Like 15 or so people. Karl immediately introduces me to the entire table as "the guy who launched firegeorgekarl.com" to which everyone collectively replied: "That’s you?!!" (I get this reaction every time, by the way. I suspect it’s because people expect a blogger to be a short, fat, acne-faced, teenage weasel who hides in his mother’s basement whereas I’m 6’5", 210 pounds, 34 years old and only hide in my mother’s basement occasionally.)
Karl got up and we took the picture, and then he pulled out a chair for me and invited me to join everyone. Karl was noticeably looser this time, warmer and even more engaging than the day before. "Everyone here has a lot of questions for you," Karl said with a shit-eating grin on his face. This time, I was the one about to get grilled.
Karl’s significant other and her family grilled me first (in a non-confrontational way, however), noting the constant negativity about Karl in the comments concerned them and they seemed to attribute much of that to me. (This happens a lot, by the way. Many people who aren’t familiar with blogs or blogging associate the commenting with the proprietor of the site. It just comes with the territory.) I explained that as long as no one is saying anything libelous or slanderous, they can say whatever they want, but that Nate Timmons (my co-writer) and I moderate personal attacks that are over the boundaries of poor taste and delete them if necessary. And that, believe or not, Nate and I read every comment left at Denver Stiffs.
Karl then pined in, talking some trash: "I hear you’ve sold out to the NBA", referring to Denver Stiffs becoming absorbed by SB Nation, which has an overall deal with the NBA for credentials to league-wide events. I explained that that wasn’t the case at all, but that I’ve definitely evolved from an angry fan with lots of passion and few facts to a borderline full-fledged journalist with a lot of inside scoop on the team and the NBA. I told Karl that I call this the "blogger’s dilemma" (something I’ll address is great detail in Part 3), and it’s something that sports bloggers nationwide are dealing with right now.
From there, we talked about an assortment of topics while everyone wrapped up their lunch (and stuck Adams with the tab again). Given that the conversation was of a personal, informal nature, I won’t get into much of what was discussed but I did glean a few more insights into the man that’s been steering our Nuggets since 2005.
The topic of yelling at players came up again, and Karl addressed it in a new way this time. He said that as you evolve as an NBA coach, you go through several stages and he likened it to the three most famous World War II generals (for the Allied side, anyway). Karl: "There were three great generals in World War II: Patton, MacArthur and Montgomery. Patton wasn’t the smartest, but he was the toughest and the meanest and exactly what we needed at the beginning of the war. But as the war progressed, you needed generals like MacArthur and Montgomery in charge to manage the war; the politics, the aftermath, the rebuilding, etc. Coaching the NBA is a lot like that. When you’re young, you want to be a lot like Patton: yelling, mean, tough, loud. But as you get older, you start to manage the game rather than impose your will on your players."
This conversation segued into which players you can yell at, and which ones you can’t and Karl noted that Gregg Popovich can yell at Tim Duncan as much as he wants because Duncan can take it. I then asked Karl the same question I’ve asked everyone I ever meet involved in the NBA: "You can have any one of the following five players on Day One of their career – Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Which one do you take?" Without hesitation, Karl responded the same way everyone else does: "Tim Duncan." I swear I’m like 20-for-20 with this question being answered the same way.
After a little more back-and-forth, we stumbled onto to our thoughts on social policy and Adams jumped in, joking that I’m "a gene pool lottery winner", referring to my upbringing in the nicer suburbs of Denver. I countered: "I’m a gene pool lottery winner?! What about Coby? [Referring to Karl’s son Coby, currently playing for the Cavaliers.] Not only was he born to a rich dad but he was born with an awesome jump shot. Now that’s a gene pool lottery winner!" Karl was visibly touched and I left on that note so they could enjoy the rest of their lunch in peace without the pesky blogger loitering around.
That night, I accompanied Adams and Lori Hoch, who runs an investment firm out of Milwaukee and is the chairperson for Karl’s charitable foundation, Friends of Hoop, to the Bulls game. I had never heard of Friends of Hoop, and learned that its purpose is to raise money for financially-troubled high school basketball players who can’t afford to send themselves to national tournaments on their own, in hopes of getting on the radar of college programs who scout there. Adams wouldn’t get into specifics, but said that Karl has invested "a considerable amount" of his own money to get this foundation off the ground and keep it going. As I learn more about the foundation, I’ll be sure to write a column on it for this site.
On to the game, having spent some time with Karl and seeing how hard the players and assistants worked in practice; I can’t remember the last time I rooted that hard for the Nuggets in a regular season game. Moreover, watching the game alongside Karl’s closest friends makes for an entirely different experience. As I chronicled the next day here, the emotions that these people go through during a game are akin to Karl’s, because they’re so close to him. Karl, like all coaches, is probably the last guy you want to be around after a tough loss. And after Brad Miller sank what appeared to be a miracle game-winning shot with just 0.3 seconds remaining, everyone assumed they were in for a shitty night ahead.
But fortunately for Karl’s friends (and me as a Nuggets fan), the referees made the right call and reversed Miller’s made shot. Nuggets win!! Nuggets win!! When the call was finally announced (after 15 excruciatingly long minutes), Adams and I high-fived and embraced each other. We were ecstatic. Then Adams put both his hands on his knees and let out a huge gasp of air. Remember, when you’re in the middle of a contract extension, every game counts.
After our brief celebration, we left the United Center and I went back to my hotel for the night. I had to get up early and drive to Milwaukee early the next day.
Wednesday – Milwaukee
I headed up to Milwaukee first-thing in the morning so I could squeeze in as much time as possible with my 97-year-old (and lifelong Bucks fan) grandmother, get some work done and get to the stadium early enough to meet up with Adams. This time, Adams hooked me up with a media badge through his friends at the Bucks which meant I had locker room access. Yes!!
I met up with Adams a couple hours before tipoff and we headed into the Bradley Center. Since he’s basically an agent, he’s forbidden from entering an NBA locker room. Fortunately for me (on so many levels), I’m not an agent.
So I walked into the locker room by myself and saw Karl in there being interviewed by a local beat writer while Nuggets assistant Chad Iske was glued to his laptop preparing for the game. Not wanting to be a pest, I walked in gingerly. (Remember, I’ve never been inside an NBA locker room before. And while I might be a jaded / over-educated fan as a result of this blog, I’m still a geeky NBA fan at heart. This was a dream come true!)
Karl noticed me right away and gave me some shit for writing in my post-game recap that he shouldn’t have had Chauncey purposely miss the second free throw at the conclusion of the Bulls game. I reiterated my concern that leaving 0.3 seconds on the clock opens you up to getting back-doored into a loss. But I conceded that it’s a 50/50 decision and there’s no absolute right answer. I looked around the room a bit – which seemed a bit small for an NBA locker room – and commented on how I’d never been in an NBA locker room before. Karl pointed out that we weren’t in the locker room but the coaches’ room (I felt dumb), and directed me around the corner. I left Karl to his interview and headed into the other room…the real visitor’s locker room.
On the way to the locker room I passed the training room where Kenyon Martin was getting some treatment on his leg by Nuggets trainer Jim Gillen, while Nuggets assistant Tim Grgrich was showing K-Mart something on a lap top computer. (Can you imagine Doug Moe showing Blair Rasmussen a scouting report on a lap top computer?) I passed through the training room and – voila – entered the real locker room where most of the Nuggets players were getting themselves prepped for game time: Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Nene, Joey Graham, Johan Petro, Chris Andersen, etc. I have to say – and this goes back to being a geeky NBA fan at heart again – being in an NBA locker room and right up close with your favorite players is a surreal experience. Most of the players didn’t seem to notice or care that I was in there (they must be used to strangers with "media" badges being around all the time), so I just stood in the center of the locker room and took it all in.
In the middle of the locker room was a table of food that a few players were picking at, but most were sitting in their own locker stations with headphones on getting ready for the game. I didn’t say anything to anyone figuring each player has his own pre-game routine and didn’t want to be a distraction (the Nuggets were going to have a tough enough game against the Bucks that night...they didn’t need me jinxing anything for them). I was tempted to say hi to Chauncey since we’re essentially the same age and I watched him kick my high school’s ass in the state tournament for three straight years, but he seemed more focused and serious than the other players and I let him be.
After a few more moments, I walked out, wished Karl and his assistants good luck and joined Adams in the media dining room where he introduced me to a number of people associated with the Bucks. Since Karl coached there for five seasons, both he and Adams have a number of friends still with and/or covering the organization. From there, Adams and I went into the stands where we ran into Nuggets announcers (and Denver Stiffs Hall of Famer) Scott Hastings and Chris Marlowe. And even though those two guys were just about to go on air, we renewed the debate on the strategy with 0.3 seconds left. Hastings noted that it’s not physically possible to grab a rebound and call timeout in just 0.3 seconds, and thus the Bulls shouldn’t have had any time to work with in the first place. I wished them both a good broadcast and moved on.
I then saw a giant man who looked like an exact clone of Chris Andersen if Andersen had suddenly aged 30 years and, sure enough, it was none other than Claus Andersen, the Birdman’s father. The elder Andersen was proudly wearing his son’s #11 jersey and we chatted for a bit. Claus had never seen his son play and this was his first NBA game (according to Claus they reconnected just a few years ago when Birdman reached out to him). When I told him I was the guy who launched the "Bring Back Birdman" petition, he enthusiastically thanked me. You could tell he swelled with pride over his son the same way Karl does over Coby.
I’ve been to NBA games in about six or so cities and I might like the Bradley Center the most. Believe it or not, it’s the second oldest stadium in the NBA (it’s like 18 years old) and some people in Milwaukee are already talking about the city needing a new stadium. That’s total bullshit. The Bradley Center is a great venue. It feels like an intimate college arena more than your typical cavernous NBA arena. It has suites, but not three levels of suites like Staples Center (if you’ve ever seen an NBA game from a third-level Staples Center suite, it’s actually worse than watching the game on TV).
But like all the stops on this recent road trip for the Nuggets – with the exception of Chicago – the stadium was more than half empty. The Bucks do, however, have a boisterous contingency of young fans who have costumes, and drums and perform synchronized chants throughout the game (kind of like Pepsi Center’s Melo’s Yellows). But unlike in Denver they aren’t banned to the upper rafters and instead get to sit at the top part of the lower bowl, making their presence felt. Every NBA team should have a group of fans like this and offer discounted seats, on a rotating basis, that gets teenagers and college-aged kids at the games, in costumes and involved. How could this be a bad thing?
As I recapped on the blog late Wednesday night, the final game of the Nuggets six-game roadie was hard fought but ultimately, not meant to be. ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande wrote recently that the Nuggets late effort at Milwaukee that night actually showed more about them than the blowout win over the Lakers the following Friday. But unfortunately for us, the Bucks never remembered that they’re the Bucks, while the Nuggets missed a bunch of good shot attempts and played atrocious defense. Fatigue at the end of a long road trip featuring three pairs of back-to-back games would finally do them in.
When the game was over I said my goodbyes to Adams, a truly gracious host and a fun guy to be around, and headed straight back to my hotel to write a quick recap for Denver Stiffs and get my four hours of sleep before taking off for Denver first-thing the next morning on 6am Frontier flight. Like the team I followed for a few days, I was beyond exhausted and it was time to go home…for all of us.