In mid-February as soon as the Sacramento Kings announced that they had hired former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl to be their next head coach, I circled Sunday, April 12th on my calendar as a "must attend" game at the Pepsi Center. For that would not only be the last Nuggets home game of a disappointing 2014-15 season, but it would be Karl's first visit to "The Can" since being unceremoniously removed as head coach in the late spring of 2013 after presiding over yet another first round playoff loss as Nuggets head coach.
2013's playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors - a 47-win team at the time, but comprising much of the roster that's now beating the crap out of the entire NBA on a nightly basis - would be Karl's seventh first round exit in nine seasons as Nuggets head coach (Karl missed one series due to cancer treatment and coached the Nuggets to the conference finals in another, 2009's remarkable and memorable playoff run). So despite guiding the Nuggets to their NBA franchise-best 57 wins in the 2012-13 season and winning the NBA's Coach of the Year, the Nuggets organization and Karl - who had only one year left on his contract - parted ways, ending one of the great eras in Nuggets history.
At the time, fan reaction to Karl's dismissal was mixed. Many (like me) understood the decision while not necessarily agreeing with it. While Karl is/was inarguably one of the two best coaches in Nuggets history (alongside Karl's friend and former coach Doug Moe), he just couldn't get it done in the playoffs and his post-season record spoke for itself. It wasn't just the seven first round exits that prompted Karl's dismissal. After all, in all but one of those instances the Nuggets weren't even favored to win the series. But it was Karl's inability to deliver Nuggets home victories in the playoffs that stung the most and Karl finished his Nuggets coaching career with an overall playoff record of 21-38 despite having an outstanding regular season record of 423-257 (this record includes any games coached by Adrian Dantley and Scott Brooks who filled in for periodic Karl absences but get counted on Karl's record). And Karl didn't do himself any favors at the time, either, by pushing for a contract extension soon after the playoff upset to Golden State.
But this column isn't meant to revisit the debate of whether or not Karl should have been fired. I think Nuggets fans can collectively agree that Karl's replacement - Brian Shaw - was the wrong man for the job, but we can forever debate Karl's dismissal and never come to a consensus conclusion.
The question for today, however, is why has Karl - a two-time cancer survivor who went out of his way to engage the Denver community at-large while coaching in the Mile High City - suddenly become a forgotten man in the eyes of the Nuggets organization? Now, I can't speak for how Karl's return on Sunday was handled on the Altitude TV broadcast as I attended the game itself. But for those who attended Sunday's game in person, you couldn't help but notice that the Nuggets did everything to avoid acknowledging all that Karl did in Denver for nine years when it would have been so easy to just say "thank you".
First, when Karl was introduced as the Kings' head coach, Nuggets public address announcer Kyle Speller simply said: "And head coach for the Sacramento Kings is George Karl." Not "and let's give a big Pepsi Center welcome to Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl!" or "let's all welcome George Karl back to Denver!!!!" or something akin to that. Nada. At least the Pepsi Center faithful showed some class by giving Karl a much deserved standing ovation.
Secondly, at no point during a break in Sunday's Kings game did the Nuggets honor Karl with a video tribute - a la what they did when the New York "Nuggets" of Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Raymond Felton came to town in March of 2013. During that game, the Nuggets' classily welcomed the four ex-Nuggets back with a brief video tribute thanking them for their time in Denver. Put more bluntly, Ray Felton received a longer tribute for playing in all of 21 games in a Nuggets uniform than did George Karl - who coached the Nuggets to nine consecutive playoff series and five 50-plus win seasons.
(It should be noted that the Nuggets also didn't acknowledge the return of Andre Miller, the franchise's third all-time assists leader who nows plays backup point guard for Karl's Kings.)
But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. In the spring of 2014, the Nuggets produced a cinematic-quality video titled "The Scripture of Mile High" that attempted to connect the team's thrilling and memorable past to its present. While the video is exceptionally well produced, it missed the mark in many ways but no more so than by not featuring Karl for even one second in the entire two-and-a-half minute video:
Karl's omission in "The Scripture of Mile High" combined with no ceremonial tribute on Sunday's game makes it seem as though the Nuggets have vacated Karl's 423 wins (second by just nine games to Moe) from the Nuggets' record books, when instead Karl's name probably deserves a spot in the Pepsi Center rafters alongside Moe's.
This isn't to suggest that the Nuggets organization is devoid of class when honoring its past contributors, which makes the Karl omission so startling. In January of 2014, the Nuggets showed a world of class by honoring former team president Carl Scheer, the man who saved pro basketball in Denver. Just last week, the Nuggets honored Fat Lever who, despite only playing six seasons in a Nuggets uniform, was the best point guard ever to represent the franchise. And about a year ago, the Nuggets commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1993-94 eighth-seeded Nuggets (who famously upset Karl's first-seeded Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs) by flying in many members of the team and having the entire 2013-14 squad don those 1993-94 uniforms for the game. All unforgettable nights for die-hard Nuggets fans like myself.
But in the case of Karl's return, the Nuggets really missed a golden opportunity to make amends with their former coach. A one-minute video tribute and/or an announcement from the public address announcer would have been great ... and easy to do.
All that said, it is none other than Karl who will probably have the last laugh. At least for the immediate future. Because on Sunday against the Nuggets, Karl's Kings got their collective butts kicked 122-111 ... guaranteeing that Karl's Kings will have a worse record than Denver's and a better shot at a top-three selection in June's NBA Draft. Should the Kings land a higher pick than the Nuggets and combine that top lottery pick with talented players already on the Kings roster like DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore, don't be surprised if it's the Kings who kick the Nuggets butt when they visit the Pepsi Center next season.