Ok, so I'm not going to list 1,000 individual reasons to root for the Nuggets to beat the Bobcats in Charlotte on Tuesday night. But I did have the privilege of catching up with Nuggets head coach George Karl on the eve of what might be his 1,000th coaching victory.
When George Karl began his coaching career, Ronald Reagan was re-elected president by an overwhelming majority, the "Band Aid" single was released, Katy Perry had just been born, the Broncos finished 13-3 behind a second-year quarterback named John Elway, the only professional baseball team in Denver was named the Bears and the Nuggets - no joke - were on their way to their franchise's second-ever Western Conference Finals appearance.
26 years later, Karl finds himself on the cusp of his 1,000th NBA coaching victory, marking an incredible milestone for the unlikeliest of coaching careers...a career that began as a young 33 year old (sound familiar, Broncos fans?) and has included stops in Great Falls (Montana), Cleveland, Golden State, Albany, Madrid, Seattle, Milwaukee and now Denver.
Making things even more special for Karl, he has the opportunity to notch win number 1,000 in Charlotte, just a few driving hours away from where his basketball career really began as a point guard at the University of North Carolina under the tutelage of the legendary Dean Smith. As if we needed more symbolism to go with win number 1,000 itself, Karl could get to 1,000 in front of his fellow Tar Heel and close friend Larry Brown, and possibly Bobcats owner and most famous Tar Heel Michael Jordan, too.
Karl's ascendancy to the top of the all-time coaching wins list is even more remarkable because of the swiftness with which he's done it and his win total is more than just a tribute to longevity. Among the seven coaches in NBA history to win at least 999 games, Karl ranks fourth in overall winning percentage at .596 and has missed the playoffs just twice when finishing an NBA season (Karl resigned from the 1987-88 Warriors and likely wouldn't have made the playoffs that season either).
Comparatively, when finishing an NBA season Don Nelson (the NBA's all-time coaching wins leader) missed the playoffs 12 times, Lenny Wilkens (second all-time) couldn't find the postseason 11 times, Pat Riley (third all-time) missed the playoffs three times, Jerry Sloan (fourth all-time) has missed the playoffs four times and Brown (sixth all-time) has missed the playoffs four times, as well. Only Phil Jackson, he of the 11 championship rings and fifth all-time in coaching victories, has never missed the postseason in his NBA coaching career.
Point being, even before Karl gets his 1,000th coaching victory, he has already cemented himself among the greatest coaches in NBA history by any measure. The question now is: against which opponent will win number 1,000 happen? Will Karl get the big victory in Charlotte as mentioned above? Or against the storied Celtics in Boston the following night? Or - should the Nuggets suddenly drop two straight games - against the Raptors in Toronto on Friday, the location of Karl's 900th victory?
The night before what could be win 1,000 for Coach Karl, the Nuggets head coach was gracious enough with his time to answer those and other questions...
Andrew Feinstein: First things first, coach, you've looked better and better out there on the court lately. How are you feeling?
George Karl: I feel really good. I had the flu for a few days and a temperature of 101 degrees, but now I’m doing fine. I just want to get as many wins as we can on this road trip, but we have some tough places to play. Charlotte is always hard for us. Carmelo Anthony and Gerald Wallace have a thing for each other and Wallace makes it tough on Melo. And then we play Boston and it seems like we’re always in Boston on a back-to-back, so that won't be easy. But I’m happy this time of year. Really happy. I like December and Christmas is going to be enjoyable.
AF: It looks like you're going get win number 1,000 in one of four historic locations: at Charlotte (where your basketball career began), at Boston (the most storied franchise in NBA history), at Toronto (where you won your 900th) or at New York (another storied NBA city)? I know the answer but will ask anyway: what’s your preference?
GK: I just want to keep the momentum in a good place. I don’t know what the longest streak we’ve had in Denver is since I got here, but anytime you can win 10 games in a row that means something. And sure you can focus on how we’ve blown leads, but we’ve had a lead in the fourth quarter of every game except one which is a pretty remarkable stat.
AF: What will it mean if this happens in Charlotte near where your basketball career started? And will Dean Smith be in attendance?
GK: I respect what it says. Longevity in the business. Delivering a product of excellence. Making the playoffs. And just be as good as you can be. I’ve made the playoffs almost every year of my career, but we’ve played the eventual NBA champion a lot early in those runs. Even in Milwaukee we played Indiana, New Jersey and Philly before those teams went to the Finals. I wish we could’ve gotten more playoff wins along the way but I think I've delivered excellence.
I tried to call coach [Roy] Williams today to see if he might be there. I don’t know about Dean Smith. He has so many guys that he has mentored - whether it be me, Larry [Brown], John Kuester, Roy [Williams] and so on that it’s tough for him to keep up with them all and be there for every one's individual milestone. A couple guys from my Carolina team will be there. And I think Michael Jordan will be here. So there will be enough Carolina blood in the building to go around.
AF: About this year's Nuggets team specifically, obviously we're all concerned about blown leads. Does winning games "this way" foster bad habits? I suppose only a fan could ask this, but would the Nuggets be better off losing one of these games as a wake up call like they did when the Timberwolves broke their 15-game losing streak by beating us in Denver early last season? And remember, after that loss the Nuggets played quite well.
GK: I am concerned that we have the personality that’s blowing leads. But it’s powerful to say we’ve had leads in every game. I don't know how many teams can say that. So to me, that’s more positive than the concern I have about blowing leads. Also, blowing leads when you’re shorthanded on the road is not unusual in this league. Eventually, talent out-weighs intensity down the stretch of a game.
For some reason, this team was taken off the basketball map because of losing Kenyon [Martin] and I last year and I think we have a little chip on our shoulder. Someday we’ll get Kenyon and Bird [Chris Andersen] back. When we have a full arsenal of talent and versatility, I like our chances.
AF: I hate to bring up a non-basketball topic and a negative topic before your big night, but do you have any reaction to Josh McDaniels getting fired? You guys had a good relationship and he had invited you to speak to the Broncos before the season began. Having been fired yourself at a very young age, do you have any advice for Josh?
GK: I left him a message. I got fired at age 33 or 34. [Former Cleveland Browns coach] Marty Schottenheimer came to my house with a case of Coors Light and offered to talk. I want to offer Josh the same thing. There will always be an open door to the Nuggets for Josh. Over the next few days when things settle down for him and he gets his mind in the right place, he needs to make a commitment to learn from his mistakes. But his journey is just beginning and he’ll have other opportunities down the road.
AF (This question is for Nate who pointed out this great stat the other day): Before we go, I have to point out that the Nuggets are 7-0 when J.R. Smith plays more than 24 minutes. Would you like to comment on that?
GK: That sounds like a Mark Warkentien stat! I didn’t know that, but J.R. has been going great. Last night [against the Grizzlies] was a bit of a step backward, but his commitment and professionalism in practice and in games is the best its ever been since I’ve coached him.
AF: Thanks for your time, coach. Congratulations on 999 wins and good luck going for 1,000.
GK: Thanks, Andrew. I'll be typing in "Denver Stiffs" on the computer tomorrow morning. Take care!
Let's be sure to root for the Nuggets to get Karl his 1,000th coaching victory in Charlotte and keep this Nuggets winning streak going. Karl's career has had many stops and many ups and downs (more ups than downs), and here's hoping that his next stop after Denver is in Springfield, Massachusetts.