Karl Faces Another Cancer Fight
Immediate family members had been told. So had George's Karl's attorney, Bret Adams, Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, top Kroenke Sports executive Paul Andrews and Denver Nuggets executive Mark Warkentien.
Just about everybody else was in the dark. Karl, the Nuggets' coach who led the West in last Sunday's All-Star Game in the Dallas area, was determined to head into the weekend without it being known that last month he again had been diagnosed with cancer.
"He didn't want it to take away from All-Star Weekend," Adams said. "That's how unselfish he is."
Karl knew the weekend belonged to NBA stars and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who, teaming with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, paved the way for an incredible 108,713 fans to pack into Cowboys Stadium. Denver had two players in the All-Star Game in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, but even they didn't have a clue.
Not until Tuesday. That's when Karl met with his players before their first practice after the All-Star break and informed them he had been diagnosed with a very treatable form of throat cancer known as squamous cell head/neck cancer. He will miss at least two upcoming games as well as some practices while undergoing rigorous radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
"Just looking at the whole weekend, I think he did a terrific job," Billups said. "I didn't sense anything different about him or about his family. Wow. I don't understand how he did that ... Your heart goes out for him. All we can do is pray for him."
Karl, 58, remained cool throughout the weekend, but he has experience dealing with cancer. In April 2005, Karl was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he courageously steered the Nuggets into the playoffs, and news of his condition didn't surface until he had surgery three months later in July.
When Karl talked about his latest cancer Tuesday in Denver, he got emotional. He choked up, having to stop talking while fighting to hold back tears.
"Someone asked the question, 'Have I come to terms with this one?'" said Karl, speaking with all his players standing to the side. "I don't think I have. I still wake up and say ... 'I have cancer.' I wake up in the morning and, 'Oh, my God.' Cancer is a bitch to have. I don't care if it's a curable one or an uncurable one. There are not guaranteed contracts in this gig. Doctors are very confident. But mutations of cells come in different forms. We'll have to give it the best shot we have."
Adams watched Karl's press conference on the Internet at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He would have flown to Denver to provide support but knows he will be seeing Karl on Wednesday and Thursday when the Nuggets play at Cleveland.
Adams believed it was an outpouring of emotion Karl had Tuesday after having held in his secret for so long. He fully expects Karl to maintain good spirits during the process and battle as hard as ever to raise his career record to 2-0 against cancer.
"George Karl is the toughest guy I've known is in my life," Adams said. "He's so competitive I'm going to have to tell him he can't overdo it and that his health is most important."
Karl was talking Tuesday as if he knows that's the case. During the 6-1/2-week period that began Tuesday of having radiation treatment and chemotherapy, he said there will be missed games and practices. He's already planning to miss games Feb. 25 at Golden State and March 10 at Minnesota.
"Purely coincidental," said Adams when I asked if Karl is so competitive that perhaps he's making sure he misses games against lowly teams and is there for battles against heavyweights, such as the one at Cleveland and Sunday's home game with Boston.
Having covered Karl regularly since he arrived in Denver in January 2005, I won't be surprised if Karl makes sure some good again comes out of this battle with cancer. After his first bout with it, Karl began to work regularly with organizations and hold golf tournaments to raise awareness about the disease. Last month, he spoke at a banquet honoring former head coach Doug Moe held by the JoAnn B. Ficke Cancer Foundation, named for the late wife of former Nuggets assistant Bill Ficke.
Karl's fight against cancer had gotten even stronger when his son, D-League guard Coby Karl, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the spring of 2006, needing surgery a year after Karl did. Coby would need to have another surgery a year later, but is now doing well and recently had some fine moments on a 10-day NBA contract with Golden State before visiting with Karl during All-Star Weekend.
"I have no idea why there is no national program to cure cancer," Karl told me one year after his July 28, 2005, cancer surgery. "If I were a politician, that would be my first platform. Forty to 50 years ago, we said, 'Let's go to the moon.' Now let's cure cancer. Let's throw millions and millions of dollars in federal funding to wipe away the pain and the death that cancer causes."
You better believe Karl will do what he can to find positives in his new battle with cancer. In the meantime, there obviously will be some apprehension.
"Most people say the treatment is manageable the first three or four weeks," said Karl, who will be replaced on the bench by assistant Adrian Dantley when he misses games. "I hope to stay with the team (during that period). I might back off on practices ... There are tough stories about the last couple of weeks. It can be very difficult. I will have to put my health and my family first ... The major desire is for me to kick the cancer's butt."
Karl's physician, Dr. Jacques Saari, attended the press conference, saying Karl couldn't wait any longer to start treatment in battling this form of cancer. Saari said indeed the last 2-1/2 weeks of Karl's treatment will be the toughest.
Saari said the good news for Karl, who did not get the cancer due to tobacco use, is his condition is likely "viral," which increases the chances greatly for a full recovery. But Saari, who said Karl will undergo treatment five days a week and rarely can miss a day, said it will be four weeks after the radiation and chemotherapy treatments end before it fully can be known Karl is in good shape.
By that time, the Nuggets, who have the West's second-best record at 35-18, already will have started the playoffs.
"My hope, and I think the doctors are very hopeful and confident that it is a curable and treatable disease," Karl said. "And I also hope to be as close to 100 percent to start the playoff run come mid-April."
Nobody was talking about next season Tuesday but you know Karl also is remaining hopeful about that. He was in the midst of contract extension talks when Karl noticed a lump on his neck, had it checked Dec. 30, and ended up being diagnosed in January with the cancer.
Karl and Adams are tight. But Adams was busy working on contract negotiations, and Karl, not wanting to distract him, didn't tell him about the diagnosis until Feb. 2.
"George called me and said, 'Bret, do you think we're close?'" Adams said of contract talks. "I couldn't figure out where he was coming from. I said, 'George, I think we'll get it done.' He said, 'Bret, I need you to sit down.' I was thinking, 'I've known him for 20 years. What is he going to do? Fire me.'
"The reason he said he didn't want to tell me is he didn't want to disrupt contract negotiations ... But when I called Stan and told him (Feb. 3 about Karl's condition), he didn't flinch ... (The Nuggets) could have waited until George got further checked out. But kudos to the Nuggets (for going through immediately with the contract extension)."
Having been made aware of Karl's condition two days earlier, Kroenke met to hammer out a deal with the coach Feb. 5 in Los Angeles, hours before the Nuggets surprisingly beat the Lakers 126-113 without an injured Anthony. By the next week, Karl signed an extension next season for $4.5 million, a significant raise over the $3 million he's pulling down this season.
The cancer diagnosis of Karl, who also thanked Kroenke for standing by him, was not said to have affected negotiations. The sides came up with a compromise, with Karl signing for a good bit more than the one-year, $3 million offer he had turned down last summer and for more per season than the three-year, $11.25 million deal (with the third year not guaranteed) he had turned down in December.
Karl spoke freely about his contract extension to the media during All-Star Weekend. But he remained mum on his cancer.
Until Tuesday, when he was back with his team and all the fans long had filed out of Cowboys Stadium.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at tomasson@christomasson and on Twitter@christomasson