NBA award is team effort for Nuggets coach George Karl

Denver coach credits organization, assistants, family, friends and mentors for success
by Aaron Lopez

As a service representative for the manufacturing company Bell & Howell in Pittsburgh, Joseph Karl was a blue-collar worker in a town that cornered the market on blue-collar living.

He never played sports but understood the impact they could have on a person’s legacy because they offered the unique opportunity to accomplish things that could never be taken away.

Not by your fellow competitors. Not by your harshest critics.

George Karl has spent more than five decades as a player and coach proving his father right by imprinting his name in basketball history.

With 1,131 career victories, Karl is the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history. He has led the Denver Nuggets and four other franchises to the playoffs 21 times, and he hasn’t had a losing season since Ronald Reagan’s final year in the White House.

Karl added to his impressive list of accomplishments Wednesday when he received the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year. He won the award for the first time in his 25 NBA seasons after guiding the Nuggets to a team-record 57 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

“When we won 57 games, that is something that will be difficult for some other (Nuggets) team to take away from us someday,” Karl said. “We did things this year that were pretty impressive.”

As someone who embraces “teamness” and “oneness,” Karl was quick to give credit to the people who helped him along the way.

Donnie Wilson and Artie Barr, his friends and childhood teammates from Penn Hills, Pa.

Roger Brobst, the junior high coach who ignited his passion for basketball, and Dick Mizenhelter, the high school coach who made him work even harder out of the fear of being cut from the team.

Bill Guthridge and John Latz, two North Carolina assistants who started him down the path to a coaching career by breaking down game film with Karl after he had back surgery as a freshman.

Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame coach, who provided the blueprint for Karl’s coaching philosophy of respecting the game by sharing the ball and playing the right way.

His friend Rick Majerus, a fellow coach, basketball junkie and hoops innovator who passed away of heart failure on Dec. 1.

His life partner Kim Van Deraa and their daughter Kaci, who often get short-changed by the scheduling demands of an NBA coach.

“Friends and family are so important in what I’ve become and what I am,” Karl said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Without them, you cannot be successful. What I hope is everybody understands this is not about me, it's about a lot of people.

“This was probably in my career the most ‘oneness’ of an organization, a basketball team, a coaching staff, a support staff, administrating staff (and) ownership. I get the award in my name, but it is totally because of the ‘oneness’ that we have brought to the table this season.”

At the forefront of that tight-knit group are the members of Karl’s coaching staff, from his assistant coaches to the athletic trainers to the strength-and-conditioning guys to the video coordinators.

“I don't think people understand the amount of time we spend together trying to help our team,” Karl said. “A staff has to work together and fit together. The unity of everybody’s talents is greater than any one personality.”

It took two battles with cancer – once in 2005 and again in 2010 – for Karl to truly understand the importance of delegating responsibility and putting implicit trust in his assistants.

The willingness to let go improved his health and his coaching.

“I think I always felt that way before I got sick, but I definitely feel that way now that I’m back on the job,” he said. “I wish I would’ve gone that way 20 years ago instead of five or six years ago.”

As one of the league’s longest-tenured coaches, Karl’s influence can be seen with a quick glance around the NBA.

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts and New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson are former Karl assistants, while Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro played for Karl for two seasons in Milwaukee.

Brooks was the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year, while Woodson finished third in this season’s voting.

“The truth of the matter is there's not very much bad coaching in the NBA,” Karl said. “There are so many talented people that help every organization do their job at a high level, but unfortunately, half of us lose every night and it's very stressful.”

Karl and his assistant coaches leaned heavily on one another to help manage the stress of guiding the league’s third-youngest team through a schedule that called for the Nuggets to play 17 of their first 23 games – and 22 of their first 32 – on the road.

They bonded during breakfast meetings, late-night dinners and countless bus rides from the hotel to the arena.

“We knew it was going to take everything in our tank just to get through the first two months,” assistant Melvin Hunt said. “That kind of galvanized us and brought us together. It was really tough. We had to turn to each other.”

After ending the calendar year 17-15, the Nuggets found their stride in 2013, going 40-10 the rest of the way to overtake the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies in the West standings.

In the process, the Nuggets put together a franchise-record 15-game winning streak and won an NBA-best and team-record 38 home games. Of the seven NBA teams who won at least 50 games, Denver was the only one without an All-Star selection.

Karl gave credit to Hunt and fellow assistants, Chad Iske, John Welch, Ryan Bowen and Patrick Mutombo and Vance Walberg for helping the Nuggets exceed even the coaching staff’s expectations.

“Every year, whether he gets award or not, he gives us thanks in his actions and his words,” Iske said. “He is very good at spreading the credit amongst everybody when we have success.

“There are a lot of coaches out there that deserve that award and George has probably deserved it several times. It’s kind of a body-of-work accomplishment. It’s not necessarily one year. We’d like to think we give it our best and do a good job every year.”

Though the season ended with a first-round loss in the playoffs, the coaches were able to smile and share the moment with Karl on Wednesday. It won’t be long before they reunite to start building a game plan to get better next year.

“Hopefully come next Oct. 1 that (disappointment) will be forgotten and we'll move on knowing that we have a great young basketball team that is growing, that got better this season,” Karl said. “None of us are happy with the result, but I think we're also motivated by the challenge.”