George Karl One Away From 1000th Win
The first NBA team Karl ever headed, the 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers, started 2-19. The death watch already had started on the NBA coaching career of Karl, then 33.
"Everybody had me fired,'' Karl said. "And we made the playoffs.''
When the Cavaliers, who went 36-46 that season, did clinch an improbable playoff berth, Karl's players, burly Lonnie Shelton in particular, carried him off the court as if he were a football coach who just won a Super Bowl. Karl can't recall that ever happening another time in the NBA.
Flash forward more than a quarter century, and Karl probably won't be carried off the court this week. But there still figures to be plenty of folks happy for the Denver coach.
Karl, who has returned this season after missing the final 1 ½ months of last season battling a form of throat cancer, won his 999th career game Sunday, 108-107 over Memphis at the Pepsi Center. He can become just the seventh coach to win 1,000 NBA games Tuesday at Charlotte, the start of a four-game trip.
If it can't be in Denver, Charlotte is as good a place as any for Karl to reach the milestone. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, and plans to call his old college coach, the legendary Dean Smith, to see if he can make it to the game.
"I would probably like it in Charlotte and get it over with, and have some beers and keep our momentum going,'' said Karl, whose Nuggets (13-6) have won seven straight games.
The game being in Charlotte also means Bobcats coach Larry Brown, one of the three active coaches in the 1,000-win club, will be on hand. Brown is a good friend of Karl's and a North Carolina alum but obviously would prefer Karl hold off on reaching his milestone until Wednesday at Boston.
"There's no question I'm going to stick out in that group,'' Karl said of the 1,000-win club also including Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan and Phil Jackson. "(People might say), 'Karl, how'd he get there. Did they give him a couple of hundred wins or something?'''
But Wilkens, the first guy to reach 1,000 wins, said he will be proud to welcome Karl to the fraternity.
"He deserves it,'' Wilkens said. "He worked hard. He's a lifer. I think he's been a very good coach. He belongs (in the 1,000-win club).''
Karl's first win came 102-99 at Atlanta on Nov. 15, 1984, after the Cavaliers had started 0-9. His next victory was 118-111 against Atlanta at home Nov. 25, 1984.
"I do remember the first,'' Karl said. "I think my second was also done against (Hawks coach) Mike Fratello.''
Yes, it was. Karl finally beat somebody other than Fratello when he got No. 3 on Dec. 15, 1984, to raise his record to 3-19. While barely avoiding being fired, Karl went 34-27 that season after the 2-19 start.
Of course, Karl did get axed by the Cavaliers in March 1986. And he got fired by Golden State in March 1988 and by Seattle in the summer of 1998 and by Milwaukee in the summer of 2003.
Still, Karl has put together a 999-677 career mark, and is going for his 19th straight season of steering a team to a .500 mark or better. He's coached three teams that won 60 or more games, including the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics, who lost in the NBA Finals to Chicago.
"Unbelievable accomplishment,'' Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said of Karl about to reach 1,000. "He's a great coach. He's done a great job with multiple teams, multiple personnel within those teams and he's been to the Finals. He's won 60-plus games. He's done it all.''
Karl, who's done it all except win an NBA title, is in his seventh season with the Nuggets. Several of his players considered it mind boggling when contemplating how many wins he's registered.
"When you sit back and think about it, having 1,000 wins, that's a lot of darn wins,'' said forward Carmelo Anthony. "I know he'll be happy back in Carolina. The alumni is going to be there. I know he's excited about that.''
Anthony was 5 ½ months old when Karl won his first NBA game, while Nuggets players Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Gary Forbes had not yet been born.
"It's a milestone we want to get him over,'' Smith said. "Hopefully, we'll do it in Charlotte (in front of) his Carolina buddies. ... It's unbelievable that somebody can keep going through all the stuff he's been through, the great teams he's had. I'm proud of him.''
The Nuggets have the NBA's seventh-best record this season despite having a number of injuries. And it would figure Karl must deal with more adversity after learning Sunday that energetic reserve big man Chris Andersen will be out 10 to 14 days due to a small fracture in his left lower vertebrae.
Andersen crashed to the floor Friday against the Clippers, and sat out the Memphis game. Andersen had missed the first 13 games of the season recovering from knee surgery.
"We tricked it up for 19 games,'' said Karl, who has had to go to lots of small lineups this season due to power forward Kenyon Martin still not being back from offseason knee surgery. "Why not another five or six or seven more?''
Karl is up to the challenge. When the Nuggets are shorthanded, he often talks about his days starting out as a coach in the Continental Basketball Association, when nine-man rosters were cut down even more due to injuries and NBA call-ups.
Karl was named CBA Coach of the Year with the Montana Golden Nuggets in 1981 and 1983. That helped him get the Cavaliers job.
Karl was fortunate to make it out of his first December as an NBA coach. Flash forward, though, to this December and he will become a member of a quite elite coaching club.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter@christomasson