Ready To Blow? -- Enigmatic George Karl Can't Understand Why He's Misunderstood

They say he's like a volcano, too long dormant and ready to blow. He rejects the image. But the more he protests, the more it appears as if steam is rising from the crater.

A day last summer is one of those days. George Karl is pacing the floor at the Pro Sports Club in Bellevue. The Sonic coach is raising his voice, waving his hands, stabbing at the air with his forefinger to accentuate his points.

All the while, his face is stern, almost frozen in anger.

"The game deserves more respect," he tells his audience, later adding that the attitude of some of the younger players stinks.

After considerable discourse on the iniquities of today's athlete, a familiar refrain for Karl, he launches Rickles-like into members of the audience, tearing into them with thinly veiled insults.

In the middle of it all, a woman turns to her neighbor, raises her hands and shrugs her shoulders in wonderment. Some of the others around her shake their heads, eyes glued to the floor. A couple mutter expletives under their breaths.

The objects of Karl's contempt, you see, are recently graduated high-school seniors, employed as counselors at his own basketball camp. And arrayed before Karl at rapt attention are several hundred children, ages 7 to 12. His subject matter seems to be shooting over their heads like tracers in an ambush.

This is vintage Karl. Right message, wrong time, wrong audience. Sometimes it's variations of that combination - wrong message, right time, wrong audience, or right message, wrong time, right audience.

And so on.

What is to be made of this?

George Karl says, "The perception of George Karl is not the reality of George Karl."

But how to get to the reality of George Karl? Does one judge him by what he says? He's all over the map. By what he does? He's a living contradiction. By his record?

Ah, there's one. The Sonics have won 70.1 percent of their regular-season games under Karl. But they've been wiped out in the first round of the playoffs for two straight years, earning a national reputation as flameouts or, worse, chokers.

If the Sonic organization simply established entertainment value as its standard, Karl's record would be more than laudable. His teams win, are hard-working, skilled and organized - easily worth the price of admission. Yet Karl and the Sonics have promised more.

On Nov. 1, 1993, shortly after the Sonics acquired Detlef Schrempf, Karl said, "We've opened up a two- to three-year window to contend for the championship. If we don't win a championship in two to three years, we should be scrutinized very closely."

Now it's two years later. There is no championship banner hanging beside the one captured in 1979, people are scrutinizing and Karl resents them for doing so.

The Big One has escaped Karl at every level. He had a career winning percentage of .727 in the CBA, including a 50-6 Albany team that set a record for all professional sports, yet was sub-.500 in the postseason. He also won 70 percent of his games with Real Madrid, but has nothing in the trophy case to show for it.

What is the reality of George Karl?

Karl is tough and competitive and intelligent. He's also sensitive in a profession that requires detachment. He is a poor loser in a game where even the best lose fairly frequently. He is a man who speaks his mind, yet changes his mind often.

Perhaps he is the right man at the wrong time: the purist most people applaud when Karl espouses team values and degrades the rising power of the big-monied athlete. Yet, the NBA has consciously rebuilt itself on the backs of individual stars.

This rightfully has been called a player's league. And in a player's league, the coach's job becomes accommodating, coddling and funneling the individual. Judging by what he says, Karl feels out of place in this bastion of the empowered athlete. He'd rather it be a coach's game, the way it is in college, where the likes of his mentor and idol, Dean Smith, are God-like figures. Karl has talked a lot about possibly succeeding Smith at North Carolina or even buying and coaching his own CBA team, a situation in which he'd have ultimate power.

The danger in Karl's stance is that criticizing the "spoiled-brat millionaires," as he calls them, is in effect criticizing his own players. He also broadcasts a mixed message by damning the dollar-consumed athlete.

It has been a frequent complaint among players throughout Karl's reign that the coach bends to the highest-paid and most well-marketed members of his team. In the beginning, those were the veterans. By now, the pendulum has swung to the younger stars, with complaints by others crescendoing last season about preferential treatment.

So, while assailing the system, Karl in some ways appears to have bought into it.

It was Karl, after all, who capitalized on the post-Bob Whitsitt disarray in the Sonic organization by putting a full-court press on owner Barry Ackerley, replete with media lobbying efforts by Karl's personal attorney, as well as well-placed whispers about other job offers. Ackerley responded by doubling Karl's annual salary to $1.1 million.

Karl also has not been shy about joining his coaching brethren at the trough, trading upon his name and success. When he wanted new furniture, he did tradeout advertisements with a furniture company. When he wanted a new car, he found a car dealer and did the same. And when needed work on a chronically painful back, he located a chiropractic group to promote.

On the other hand, Karl is just as quick to lend his name and his time to a charity. He is quick to put tickets into the hands of a stranger. He has been known to sign his home phone number alongside his autograph, or swap stories with a fan who's interrupted a dinner out.

What is the reality of a guy who can charm you out of your shoes, then thinks little about walking away in them?

Is this the reality of George Karl?

Tempered, focused . . . humbled

Perhaps he is the wrong person at the right time. By all accounts, Karl has pulled off the most business-like and feel-good training camp witnessed in these parts in some time. With his franchise reeling over its premature postseason ousters, yet still brimming with championship-quality talent, Karl has been tempered and focused.

Those who have followed Karl's career say he's at his best when he has been humbled. He was fresh out of the CBA when he led the Cavaliers to an impressive turnaround into the postseason. He then was fired by Cleveland before a similar boom-bust with the Warriors. To join the Sonics, he'd been rescued from a life sentence to basketball obscurity in Spain.

Karl has denied he ever thought he'd lose his job after last spring's playoff loss to the Lakers, but sources close to him say he went through a period where he was simply "waiting for the ax to fall." The experience - the doubts and rampant criticism - may have created a sufficiently humbling atmosphere for another George Karl miracle.

To be sure, the Sonics' success in their championship quest relies, to a large degree, in preventing Karl from tripping over his ego.

Bob Whitsitt did a masterful job of helping Karl rein himself in and the immediate payoffs were a playoff upset of Golden State in 1992 and a postseason run in 1993 to the conference finals. Whitsitt inserted non-drinking, weight and appearance clauses into Karl's contract, and coached his coach before allowing him on the public airwaves.

Whitsitt's successor, Wally Walker, true to his self-imposed professionalism, lengthened the leash considerably. Occasionally, Karl took that leeway and wrapped himself around a tree or two.

"I'm the first to admit that I've stuck my foot in my mouth," Karl says. "But I feel that 95 percent of the time I've been professional."

That other 5 percent has been a doozy.

It was Karl who suggested last season that NBA referee Ted Bernhardt "should be shot." For that, he was fined $10,000.

It was Karl, on his weekly radio call-in show, who guaranteed that his team would beat the Lakers if they met in the playoffs last season. For that, he received a comeuppance.

And it was Karl, also on his radio show, who said of Kendall Gill: "He's not totally happy with the circumstances, and we understand that. We may not be totally happy with the money we're paying him."

For that, well, he may still be paying. The comment, for which Karl later apologized, set off an ugly, public battle between him and Gill. The same sort of bickering preceded Karl's departures at Cleveland, where he jousted with World B. Free, and at Golden State, where he went at it with Joe Barry Carroll.

The feud between Karl and Gill ultimately tore at the fabric of team chemistry and may have contributed to the Sonics' postseason failure. At best, the constant discord created an uncomfortable atmosphere on the team. At worst, it forced players to choose between a coach and a teammate, creating a fissure of distrust and disunity.

Three Sonic veterans - Shawn Kemp, Nate McMillan and Gary Payton - approached Karl late last season with concerns about the effect the squabbling was having on team morale. The gesture came after Gill blew up at Karl in the coach's office over a 17-minute scoreless stint by the former Sonic guard against Minnesota. The attempts at rapprochement were too late.

Shortly after, Gill took a one-week leave of absence for what was called clinical depression. He returned a week later, calling it metabolic imbalance. But it didn't matter which because it wasn't over. His smile soon disappeared and he was back to grumbling about his treatment by Karl.

The night the Sonics were eliminated from the postseason, Gill publicly declared that he and Karl could no longer coexist. A month later, the disgruntled guard was traded back to Charlotte for Hersey Hawkins and David Wingate.

How the rift between Karl and Gill developed largely remains a mystery. Gill was a player Karl had lobbied Sonic management to acquire; shortly after Gill arrived from Charlotte, in fact, some of his teammates took to referring to him as "Coach's son." Yet the two never really got cozy.

Throughout the strife between the two, Karl maintained he never harbored any personal animosity toward Gill. However, Karl provided reasons to doubt that.

After being approached about the relationship by Gill's agent, Arn Tellem, in the summer of 1994, Karl leaked to the local press that Gill asked for guarantees of minutes and shots and had threatened to boycott training camp over the issue. Gill and Tellem steadfastly refused to comment on the assertions until after Karl made his ill-fated radio comments in November.

Throughout Gill's stay in Seattle, Karl was asked by reporters if he thought the shooting guard misunderstood the coach's system and approach, and if a meeting between the two might clear the air. Except for a very public discussion in front of the local media at practice, Karl decided against a private meeting. When asked why, he told reporters: "Why should I lower myself?"

What is the reality of George Karl?

Cleaning house

Perhaps he is the right person at the right time. After three straight summers of housecleaning, it would seem that all of Karl's adversaries have been swept away. Gill, Dana Barros, Michael Cage, Eddie Johnson, Derrick McKey and Ricky Pierce, as well as assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg are all gone.

"I honestly have a tremendous love for this basketball team," Karl says. "There is a special bond between me and Nate and Sam and Detlef and Vinny and Gary and Shawn. I like being with them, fighting with them, competing with them."

Karl seems sincere. And some of his players believe he is.

Last spring, in the aftermath of the Laker debacle, amid all the criticism and the talk about firing Karl, Payton offered public, insistent support of his coach.

"Coach was ailing," Payton explains, "and I felt he needed to be supported."

This is the same Karl who is popular on the local speaking circuit, partly because of his propensity to rip his players in public. And the same Karl who told several out-of-town writers late last season that he "hated" certain Sonics and that several of his top players were bringing him down.

This is the same Karl who once wanted to trade Payton to Dallas for Derek Harper. The same Karl who tried to trade Kemp to Chicago for Scottie Pippen, then publicly pouted when he was overruled.

These are some of the reasons why Karl is regarded as somewhat of an outsider in his own profession. Some of Karl's brethren say the Sonic coach is one of the most disliked of NBA coaches because of his apparent lack of respect for his players and other coaches. Karl, for his part, has said he has few friends in the business, attributing what he regards as the unsavory nature of the NBA fraternity.

Karl has gotten himself into further hot water by tilting at the wrong windmills. His assertions that his teams play the game "the right way" tend to alienate coaches who employ a competing philosophy. And then there's his tart tongue.

"Yeah, Pat's into the big ego, grabbing all the attention," Karl told a reporter for Esquire magazine, in reference to Pat Riley. Karl had incited a rivalry with Riley two years ago by saying "the Knicks have cheated all season. They have used an old philosophy very successfully. They foul so much, the referees get tired of calling it."

Regarding Houston Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Karl made this expletive-riddled comment to the same magazine, (sans four expletives): "Rudy's forgetting who kicked his ass last year. Our `tricks.' All I know is last year he had one play. Throw it to Hakeem. All the other plays he ran didn't work. All that pick and roll and all those other things he thinks is real cute? We took them out of everything they had."

Isn't this the George Karl to whom Whitsitt referred during the Sonics' 1993 training camp?

"With the success we had last year," the then-Sonic president said, "the old George Karl would be thinking he was James Naismith by now."

What is the reality of George Karl?

The steam appeared to be rising on Media Day, the first official event of the Sonics' 1995 training camp.

"What part of your job do you enjoy least?" Karl is asked by a new reporter on the beat.

"Dealing with the media," Karl snorts.

"What you guys did at the end of last season was unbelievably cruel," he adds. "The fairness factor of the written media is hard for me to handle. There is a desire there to focus on the negative, to cause problems."

Karl began this refrain, in earnest, about midway through last season. His almost-daily diatribe against the local press culminated near the end of the season in his suggestion that reporters be more supportive of him and his team. He'd also asserted that the then-visiting New York media had agreed with him that the Seattle press corps was the toughest in the country.

The latter suggestion is ludicrous, of course. If Karl had coached championship-potential teams to two straight first-round playoff losses with the Knicks or Nets, they'd have paraded his head on a stick down Broadway.

Usually, the relationship between coach and media should be of little concern to those who plunk 35 cents into a newspaper machine. This case, however, is different. It is a fixture of Karl's past reality that the bile he directs toward sportswriters rises in direct proportion to the pressure he either is exerting on himself or is feeling from another source.

Which, in turn, has been a precursor to an implosion.

Karl left his previous two NBA stops - Cleveland, in particular - replete with tales of media conspiracies to bring him down. He'd left his last job, with Real Madrid in Spain, locked in mortal combat with the European press. Now the betting among longtime Karl watchers is that the embattled coach won't make it through this season with the Sonics.

Once Karl regarded the media as a beast he could tame, even train to do his bidding. He has cultivated the national media so well he has been elected coach of the NBA's All-Interview Team for three years running. He even on occasion has suggested that sportswriters spy on his players for him.

Clearly, Karl now is frustrated that the media is too big and too independent-minded for him to control, and he is lashing out.

Last spring, stung by on-air criticism, Karl met with KJR talk-show hosts. A couple of years ago, he'd regarded the whole lot as little more than buffoons, but pleaded, "I've got to play the game with them. You know that. These guys can kill me with public opinion."

This year, Karl is giving up his radio call-in show, saying, "I was a hypocrite. I was making money off something that was hurting our profession."

As for the print media, Karl has essentially declared war on certain writers, who he claims "brought a sledgehammer to me and my basketball team." While Karl says his relationship with the media isn't a big concern, he also admits he took seminars and correspondence courses, as well as held discussions with 15 to 20 people he respects, about the media.

Karl also has spent considerable time and effort trying to pry his players from the media. He has closed practices and placed locker rooms off-limits. He also has asked players to stop talking.

He decries his team's national reputation as wild and crazy, yet it is he who has been the Sonics' loosest cannon. Whatever Kemp and Payton contribute to the image is negligible, limited to a few gestures and yaps on the court. It is their coach, however, who is being fined for his comments, to whom outrageous statements are attributed in the national media and who constantly appears on radio and TV shows across the country berating today's professional athlete.

Karl's revisionist approach to himself, meanwhile, has been difficult to follow. The conflicting signals have confused not just the media, but some of his players as well. His credibility has been undermined and, when under duress, his team has paid a price.

What is the reality of George Karl?

The reality is something fluid, dictated by whatever happened last or what is to happen next. Whatever it is, the Sonics and the city of Seattle await the next transmutation.

Seattle Times staff reporter Glenn Nelson has covered the Sonics and the NBA for 14 years.