"He's the toughest son of a bitch in the whole world," Nuggets head coach George Karl's attorney and longtime friend Bret Adams told me tonight. There's no reason to believe this isn't true, but at tonight's press conference Karl showed his vulnerable side and to say it was emotional wouldn't do it justice.
I knew at some point in my life I'd weasel my way into a Nuggets press conference, but I certainly didn't want to be at one under these circumstances.
When the news broke a few hours ago about Nuggets head coach George Karl possibly missing some games due to "a medical condition", I immediately reached out to Karl's attorney and longtime friend Bret Adams to let him and the Karl camp know that if there's anything I could do for them, count me in. I don't know where we go from here specifically, but the first step was for me to hustle down to the Pepsi Center to shake Karl's hand and let him know that I heard the sad news and was there to support him.
First off, I want to give a big time "thank you" to the Nuggets communications team of Tomago Collins and Tim Gelt for being cool with me sitting in on the press conference. With the highly sensitive nature of this press conference, only credentialed media people were allowed inside. But I felt given my history with Coach Karl, the right thing to do was to show up, say hi, keep my mouth shut and relay the experience to share with the readers of this site...all of whom I know are gravely concerned for Karl as evident by the thoughtful comments we're already seeing.
By the time most of you read this, you'll already know many of the details of Karl's second bout with cancer, so I'd like to share what it was like inside that room and some of the quotes that may not find their way into the mainstream news outlets that have space limitations.
After the press gathered in the very tiny and very hot press conference room inside Pepsi Center, all the Nuggets players and assistant coaches gathered along the back wall behind the podium and were clearly in a somber, depressed mood. You could tell right away that this collection of players is connected to their coach and this isn't easy for them to deal with. I wouldn't say that any one player was more emotional than another, but the Nuggets trifecta leadership of Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin seemed to be taking the shocking news particularly hard.
Soon thereafter, Karl entered with his doctor, Dr. Jacques Saari of the Sky Ridge Medical Center, and addressed the small cadre of reporters present. Choking up from the start, Karl relayed the series of events that led up to this press conference starting from feeling a lump on his neck before New Year's to the possibility of missing games and/or practices due to his "fatigue level." Karl said that he had "an emotional desire to stay with the team" but that he will have to undergo "six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy." Karl said he believes he has "a championship team" here in Denver and that he "wants to continue coaching," but that there's a possibility he'll miss games and/or practices based on his "fatigue level." Karl specifically mentioned that he won't be coaching at Golden State or at Minnesota in the coming weeks, but that the cancer is "curable and treatable" and he hopes to be "100% for the playoffs." Karl also confidently said that he's "ready for the competition with cancer."
Karl spoke at length about how blessed he is with his family, players, coaching staff and the Nuggets organization. He said he didn't "need sympathy but needs support" so that he can "kick cancer's butt and stay with the team." Regarding his coaching staff, Karl said that they have to "take on more responsibility" and will be guided by assistant coach Tim Grgrich whom Karl referred to a few times as the best assistant coach in the NBA. Karl went on to say that when the Nuggets lost Doug Moe and Mike Dunlap, he and "Grg" agreed to bring in young guys and that he's "excited' that they have this new responsibility, noting that John Welch would likely coach the offense while Chad Iske coaches the defense, Jamahl Mosley coaches special situations and that Adrian Dantley would be head coach. Karl then turned to his players and sarcastically said "as long as these dudes behind me cooperate with the assistant coaches, because they don't always cooperate with me...", to which the players collectively chuckled. It was the only light moment of the night and the only time the players smiled or let loose during the highly emotional press conference.
Karl's doctor spoke and said that Karl "can't skip a day of treatment" and that the "high doses of radiation effects the neck and mouth." Dr. Saari also noted that while the first four weeks of the treatment are manageable, the last two can be quite difficult.
During the Q&A with reporters, the Post's Dave Krieger asked if Karl wonders "why now?" given that the Nuggets are in the midst of competing for an NBA Championship. Karl said that he wakes up every morning and says to himself: "Oh, shit. I have cancer." And finished that thought by saying "there's no guaranteed contracts in this" while getting choked up some more to the point that he couldn't really speak anymore.
After the press conference was over, a few reporters huddled around Dr. Saari and Nene who loitered in the Pepsi Center hallway for a while. I decided to head out and share what I observed. Heading home, I called Adams to relay what I just witnessed and he said that Karl is "the toughest son of a bitch in the whole world" and that he and Karl would be in Cleveland together tomorrow when the Nuggets arrive to face the Cavaliers on Thursday night.
Adams also shared with me that when Karl first discovered the lump and was diagnosed with cancer again, he kept it to himself...even from Adams, his closest friend and confidant. This was George being George again as Karl knew that if the news leaked during the contract negotiations, it wouldn't be a fair negotiation for the Nuggets (imagine the PR shit storm that would have ensued had the Nuggets rescinded an offer to an ailing coach?). At the latest possible moment, Adams and Karl brought up Karl's cancer to the Nuggets organization and, according to Adams, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and the organization "didn't flinch, didn't budge" one bit. Adams said that the Nuggets showed nothing but the utmost integrity throughout the process, especially given that they had every right to hold off and play things out with Karl's health in question. So major kudos are in order for Kroenke, Bret Bearup, Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman for having the class and the integrity to work out Karl's deal under these circumstances.
My take on all this is that we're lucky as fans to finally have a coach, a collection of players and an organization that does things the right way and is deserving of our support. But as Karl himself said it best tonight, in situations like these "health and family come first, basketball is secondary." How unfortunately true that is right now.
I know I speak for Stiffs everywhere in saying that our thoughts and best wishes go to George Karl and his family to beat this disease once more. As one of our readers aptly stated while commenting on the previous post, we'll be rooting for two things now: for Coach Karl to beat cancer and for the Nuggets to beat the Lakers. Let's hope both things come true this year.
Get well soon, George.
For detailed information on Karl's situation, treatment and recovery please read Benjamin Hochman's article in the Denver Post.
The Post's Dave Krieger wrote a terrific column summarizing the emotional press conference.
To make a donation in Coach Karl's honor, please visit Hoops for St. Jude.