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Peerless in Seattle

With the voluble George Karl in control, the relentless Sonics are the team to beat

Sometimes George Karl talks to the gods. This is not exactly a news flash to NBA people, some of whom would probably tell you it means that Karl has finally found what he considers a peer group. But, no, Karl isn't claiming any special relationships. He's merely describing those nights after a game when he stays up into the wee hours, sipping a diet soda and thinking deep thoughts about how, despite all his planning, so much still comes down to fate.

In the past Karl has made some otherworldly pronouncements—such as that all the deceased NBA players and coaches are looking down at games and indulging their whims, making a three-pointer at the buzzer go in and out, or causing a referee to blow a call with the game on the line. So his invoking the gods for his own purposes might sound characteristically off-the-wall. But maybe an occasional chat with the deities is healthy for a coach of Karl's fiery intensity. Maybe they remind him that there's only so much a man can control and that the best place to start is with himself.

This season the dialogues must be exceedingly pleasant, because after all that has been done, by himself or others, to sabotage his NBA coaching career, the Fates have finally been kind to him. As Karl completes his second full season as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, he is blessed with a deep and balanced team, the security of a four-year, $2.5 million contract that runs through 1996-97 and, most important, maturity. Thanks largely to a trapping, switching defense (page 34) that resulted in a league-leading number of steals (1,053, only six shy of the NBA record set by Phoenix in 1977-78) and forced turnovers (1,666), the Sonics finished the regular season with the NBA's best record (63-19). If there is a team to beat in the wide-open playoffs that begin this week, Karl is coaching it. And after years of a nomadic existence—including previous head coaching stops at Cleveland and Golden State of the NBA; Great Falls, Mont., and Albany, N.Y., of the CBA; and Madrid of the Spanish League—last year was the first that Karl's two children, Kelci, 14, and Coby, 10, finished a grade in the same school in which they began it.

Things have not always gone so smoothly for Karl. As a guard in his college days at North Carolina, Karl, now 42, was known as the Kamikaze Kid for his willingness to toss his body around with abandon, and later the nickname was all the more apt, as Karl seemed bent on self-destruction. Perhaps the explosive side of his nature drew a disproportionate share of attention, but Karl's emotions did tend to come tumbling out unchecked. Once, while coaching the Albany Patroons, he was so incensed at a referee that he booted a ball into the rafters. Then there was the time, when he was coaching Golden State during the 1986-87 playoffs, that he punched out a locker in a fit of anger. But it wasn't always rage that drove him. Sometimes it was insecurity. Later the following season, only his second with the Warriors, he demanded a contract extension even though he knew his status was shaky and he was highly unlikely to get it. When the team refused, he quit. But then, his stint with Cleveland had also lasted only two seasons, from 1984-85 to '85-86.

After these and other incidents, the word went out that Karl was bad news, too volatile to be entrusted with a team. "People hated me," he says. "I don't know exactly what it was I did that was so terrible. I didn't even talk to that many people for them all to hate me, but they did. They thought I was nothing but a cocky s.o.b." Cocky was just the beginning of the list. Some people also considered Karl stubborn, loud, egotistical, paranoid, tactless and quick-tempered. He insists that he was never quite as bad as he was perceived to be, but he also admits he was in that neighborhood.

Now his friends can joke about the old Karl. "Fortunately, his ego hasn't gone crazy on us," says Sonic president Bob Whitsitt. "With the year we've had, the old George Karl would have been thinking he was James Naismith by now." It was Whitsitt who brought Karl back from Spain, with 42 games left in the 1991-92 season, for his third shot as an NBA coach. "I talked to a lot of people about him, and there was only one person who didn't actively discourage me," Whitsitt says. "Coaches think they're the closest fraternity, but they're also the first to rip guys behind their backs."

Whitsitt decided to take the chance on Karl, but with a few conditions, one of which was a clause in Karl's contract that prohibits him from drinking during the season. Even though Karl says he has never had a problem with alcohol, he did have a reputation for enjoying a drink, and the Sonics felt a completely clearheaded Karl would be a more in-control Karl. And Whitsitt knew there were other sides of Karl. There was the Karl who, while coaching Albany in the late '80s, discovered that one of his assistants couldn't afford to replace his broken-down car and bought him another auto. A few seasons before, in Montana, the owner of that CBA franchise bailed out, and Karl paid the players out of his savings. Those are no small things for a kid who grew up the son of a service representative in the blue-collar Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills. "He wasn't poor, but he certainly wasn't rich," says Karl's wife, Cathy.

Penn Hills was where Karl developed his all-consuming approach to basketball. He was a high school All-America, but North Carolina coach Dean Smith and assistant Bill Guthridge recruited him only after he caught their eye while they were scouting another player at an all-star game. Karl wound up as a Tar Heel co-captain as a senior. Recalls Smith, "He was the kind of player who would take a charge from anybody, no matter how big."

Karl went on to play five seasons as a pro with the San Antonio Spurs (career scoring average: 6.5), during which his reputation for combativeness grew. It was while he was with San Antonio that he met Cathy, then a flight attendant. "I thought he was awfully impressed with himself," she says. "He thought he was god's gift to women. Eventually I found that there was more to him. It's just that the public side wasn't the one that I liked."

She eventually warmed to Karl, but the same can't be said of all of his colleagues, even now. Karl has done a remarkable job of reassembling the pieces of his shattered reputation, but every now and then someone picks up a shard and jabs him with it. "Seattle has the best team, but I think they have the poorest coach," Utah Jazz president Frank Layden said earlier this season. "He's a CBA coach. He has been fired everywhere. His team is going to require a lot of discipline, and he's not capable of [imposing] it."

Veteran Karl watchers waited for him to respond to Layden with something biting and sarcastic—especially considering that he was fired only once, in Cleveland—but the mature Karl emerged and bit his tongue. "I agree with him," Karl said. "We do have the best talent in the league. He's entitled to his opinion."

This does not mean that Karl has mellowed completely. "He's too honest," says Cathy. "He doesn't know how to duck a question; it's just not part of his character." Indeed, he has referred to Houston Rocket guard Kenny Smith as a "big-mouth" and during last season's playoffs had to be restrained from going after Rocket forward Otis Thorpe. Reminded that TV analyst Bill Walton has expressed skepticism this season about the Sonics' chances of winning the championship, questioning their discipline, among other things, Karl fires off an incendiary broadside. Recalling a six-game college all-star tour of the Soviet Union in 1973 during which the two of them were teammates, he says of Walton, "He was a loose cannon. He [missed] practice. He created a tremendously irresponsible atmosphere, faking injuries and laughing at coaches behind their backs, and now he's talking about words like discipline and responsibility. Here's a guy who didn't even know how to spell those words." (Walton declines comment.)

The essential George Karl hasn't changed; he has just learned to pick his spots better. He uses the locker-door incident to make his point. "I did that when there was a member of the media around to see the damage," he says with a rueful smile. "The difference now is that I would still do it, but I'd make sure nobody found out about it."

At first glance Seattle seems an unlikely place for Karl to find redemption, and not just because the city is famous for its espresso bars while no Java passes his lips (he doesn't like the taste, and he certainly doesn't need the caffeine). The Sonics are not an easy group to coach. They have their share of strong personalities, as well as nine players who think they should be playing 35 to 40 minutes a game and are all good enough to do so. Under Karl's system the range is more like 20 to 35 minutes. But Karl has shown the right touch with the Sonics, maintaining a loose enough grip on the reins to keep everyone happy but showing the willingness to give a hard tug when necessary.

"I'm still waiting for him to smash a chalkboard to pieces or stomp on a garbage can," says Sonic center Michael Cage. "Guys were bracing themselves for the hurricane when we heard he was hired, but we've got a different guy coaching us from the one that coached in Cleveland and Golden State. I'm not saying he won't scream or bench guys, but he never seems like he's out of control."

Karl's coaching philosophy crystallized during his second season in Albany, '90-91. He had been exposed to an uptempo offense as an assistant to Doug Moe with San Antonio, and he had been a part of an aggressive, pressure defense as a player at North Carolina. In Albany those elements came together. "The first year in Albany, everyone said we executed great and ran a precise offense, but it seemed like, So what? If you run a play to perfection and you miss the shot, what have you accomplished? We had the players who could run the floor and get in people's face on defense all over the court, so I decided to go for it."

The result was a 50-6 regular-season record, and Karl's teams haven't stopped running and pressing since. When he replaced K.C. Jones in Seattle, Karl retained assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg, a defensive guru who believed in trapping all over the court and switching constantly, and their philosophies meshed.

"He's one of the best, most innovative coaches in the game," Indiana Pacer coach Larry Brown says of Karl. "I think even the guys who criticized him in the past would admit he's a tremendously bright guy who's great at making adjustments during a game."

Karl is big on hunches. Two seasons ago he let little-used center Rich King start a game against the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing because King had been working hard in practice (the Sonics lost 92-87, and King played six minutes, scoring two points). "It's Looney Tunes playing for him," says Cage. "He'll play any combination—four guards and a forward, five forwards. It's like he's got the other coach in a constant game of dare."

Some players, too. The most intriguing relationship on the Sonics might be the incendiary one between Karl and All-Star point guard Gary Payton. "Gary and I will mouth at each other in practice, in games, anywhere, but that doesn't mean we don't appreciate and like each other," says Karl. "Gary will start mouthing off to the referee, I'll jump in and tell him to shut up, and he'll start yapping at me. That will happen tonight, tomorrow, five years from now. If I tried to take away that element of his character, Gary wouldn't be the same player. There's no way you're going to control Gary when he thinks he's right. He's going to stand his ground and let you hear about it. I don't know if a gun would shut him up."

That sounds like Karl describing himself, which hasn't been lost on Payton. "Coach looks at me and sees himself, only younger, skinnier and better-looking," says Payton. "Go check out the kind of player he used to be. You'll see what I mean."

Karl still approaches the game that way, still willing to take on all comers, supremely confident in his coaching ability. "The impression a lot of people have of me is that I think I know everything," he says. "That couldn't be more untrue. It's not that I know everything, it's that I believe very strongly in what I do know, in my philosophy and in myself. I believe I can almost will things to happen." Maybe he can't will the Sonics to the championship by himself, but perhaps the gods will help. Imagine the conversation they will have then.



Kendall Gill (above) is one of a band of talented Sonics who have helped Karl get a grip on himself.



As a Tar Heel in '72, Karl was a straight shooter; son Coby, a Sonic ball boy, prefers the dipsy doo.



After bouncing around, the Karls (from left: Cathy, Coby and Kelci, with Buddy) feel rooted.