Conversations: More candid thoughts from Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl
In this edition of “Conversations,” we shall dive into the deep end of today’s story about George Karl and Terry Stotts and how their longstanding bond led to Karl’s son getting a last-minute invite to Trail Blazers’ training camp. Here’s the jist of the Karl and Stotts connection: Both men worked together for years. Karl, as the head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks. Stotts, as his trusty sidekick assistant and best friend. They did just about everything together but in 2002, their friendship soured. Yet in spite of their past issues, one friend was still willing to help out another.
So why did I even want to write a story about this?
On my very first day on the Blazer beat, I walked into the training facility and noticed Coby Karl on the floor. I had done my prep work but missed the nugget about Coby getting an invite to camp. From past stories about Stotts, I knew that he and Coach Karl were good buddies, so I thought “hey! this is a cool coincidence!” It wasn’t until I talked to Stotts that I learned it wasn’t a coincidence at all, but designed as such from Coach Karl’s personal request on behalf of his son.
So let’s get into the good stuff, the conversation.
A couple days after getting Stotts and Coby Karl on the record, my phone rings and the incoming call is from the 614 area code.
Hello. This is George Karl (waits a moment)… from the Denver Nuggets.
That’s the very unassuming welcome I got from the coach. And actually turns out, he called me twice but I missed the first call. He knew the storyline and what I wanted to ask him about, so I get the feeling that Karl is always willing to talk about his son. So we got right to the subject. He sounded like Coby’s biggest cheerleader, or his agent. Or his cheerleading agent. In other words, Karl sounded like a dad.
“(Coby) hasn’t gotten that fair evaluation. It’s not only he, there’s probably another 75 players just like Coby because of guaranteed contracts and because of rosters and because of the lockout. And all that stuff. He hasn’t fallen into a good situation to where the numbers help him or have given him a shot.”
This summer, it was looking like Coby was going to get that shot. After some solid summer league games with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Coby got an invite to join the Toronto Raptors’ training camp. But before then, Coby huddled up at the Karl family retreat in McCall, Idaho, got married, went on the honeymoon, came back and a month later, had surgery on his right knee. More detailed: a scope on his lateral meniscus. Nothing serious, says Coach Karl. But Toronto found out and rescinded the offer.
“When Coby had knee surgery four to five weeks ago, it was so much trouble to get him an opportunity,” Karl said.
Helps to have friends
So, Karl turned to Stotts. The details of that talk is in the story – READ THE PAPER! – but here’s a little extra on Karl’s POV about the meeting.
“I think Terry was very quickly and very willing in always expressing that I like Coby as a player and really kind and complimentary to Coby but he also made it very clear that his roster was pretty full,” Karl recalled. “I said, ‘Terry, I don’t think that matters anymore. I just think Coby just wants an opportunity to get into a camp and bust it and see what happens.’”
It seems that even after the September meeting, Karl also put in a call to Blazers GM Neil Olshey, whom Karl called a very good friend, to assure the Blazers that he “wasn’t sending them a hurt player.” I asked Karl if there are any other men in the NBA that he could make that very personal call to.
“There are a couple guys. Dwane Casey (Toronto Raptors head coach), Mike Dunlap (Charlotte Bobcats head coach), Nate McMillan (former Trail Blazers head coach). There are other guys out there that I could have that conversation with but to be honest with you, it’s kinda by coincidence that – ya know, actually Dwane Casey had invited him to Toronto and then rejected him because he had knee surgery. It’s just the situation where, ya know, there’s three or four coaches out there that I feel close enough to to ring them up and see if it would work out.”
So why not bring Coby to Denver?
Well, Karl tried that before. In 2010, Karl was battling cancer and missed the end of the season and Nuggets’ brief playoff run. While he was off the bench, Denver brought in one of the best D-League players at the time, Coby Karl.
“He played in the playoffs. He was here when I was going through my cancer treatment and actually, it was really nice for me. I’m not sure if Coby enjoyed it as much as I did. It was really enjoyable of having the comfort of having one of my older children with me.”
So, it must have been tough when the Nuggets waived him a few months later, eh?
“It’s always hard. The situation at that time, we were going through a lot of turmoil, a lot of change. We didn’t know if we were going to keep 13 men at that time or guarantee him, so that’s the way we went. There’s a lot of things that go into roster and why guys don’t make rosters and like I said before, I don’t think Coby has had that “lucky guy.” You know, that lucky guy that falls into the right situation… We have so many contracts and guaranteed contracts and the rosters are so full, sometimes guys like Coby don’t get an opportunity.”
I asked Karl, “who wants this more?” Does Dad just really want to see his son’s dreams come true?
“Well. Ya know. In a very funny way, a loving way, Coby is a lot like me so I think he probably wants it a little bit more than me because he has tremendous passion to be back and to be the best he could be. In a lot of ways, Coby has overachieved and gone above and beyond what I ever have thought he would be as a basketball player. He has just been fantastic in that area. So, I’m just enjoying the ride and hopefully, I get to compete against him as a coach and (him) as a player.”
On the ups and downs of the Stotts friendship
Loyalties in this league matters. When Jerry Sloan retired from the Utah Jazz, his eternal assistant and shadow Phil Johnson up and quit, too. When Phil Jackson moved to L.A., he carried the Master Trianglist with him. And Tex Winter stayed next to Jackson’s chair until his health absolutely would not allow him to be in the game anymore. The Karl-Stotts connection had all the makings of one of those legendary bonds until the duo broke up in 2002.
Just to add some context, here’s a partial quote from the story.
“Terry and I were best friends. And we were best friends for a lot of years, probably 15, 20 years. And when I started to change my staff in Milwaukee, Terry and I, we have not been the closest of friends since then but we always had a respectful friendship.”
I asked Stotts about if they were once best friends and how is the relationship today, and he told me this:
“During that time, yeah. We did a lot together. Our families, his (ex) wife and my wife. We were close. We’d go visit his house in Idaho and do a lot of things together. We went on a golfing trip to Scotland together. We did a lot of things together.”
Further explaining the split… without really explaining a thing:
“Ya know, life changes,” Stotts said. “It’s a part of a life. He’s a good man. He’s a good man and I owe my career to him. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
So, there does not appear to be bad blood between the men. Heck, if there was – Stotts could’ve really stuck it to Karl and refused to take Coby. He didn’t. So, somewhere, love still exists between the friends.
“With Terry, we’ve gone from being an everyday friend to (now) we just pick and choose our opportunities to express our respect and love for one another,” Karl said. “You know, I wish we would have better – maybe more moments of coming together but the NBA is kinda (a situation) when you’re not on a staff together, you don’t fall into those opportunities as you much as you might in the past.”
So there you have it. They’re not BFFs, but they ain’t enemies either. To me, their relationship just seems real: if you ever had a falling out with a close friend, you know that things may patch up but they never truly return to the good times. It’s sad. But it happens.
Karl spoke about not having opportunities to have good moments with Stotts now that they’re not on the same staff. Consider tonight one of those opportunities.
The Nuggets and Blazers play tonight at 7 p.m. and you have to imagine that the two coaches will get together for a friendly “hello.”