SuperSonics coach George Karl doesn't know if he'll keep his job
when his contract expires this summer. In the past, such
uncertainty about his future would have left him disenchanted,
angry and even a little frightened. This time? "It's a relief,
actually," he says. "I have choices. I'm free."
Free to hold up Seattle for big money, provided the Sonics go
deep into the playoffs. Free to take his passionate,
iconoclastic and highly successful approach to another
franchise. Free to sit out the 1998-99 season at his summer
house in Idaho with his family, his Jet Ski and a six-pack of
his favorite suds.
Initially Karl told SI he couldn't talk about his contract
because of a promise he had made to Seattle management. But
while discussing his current players, a group he truly loves, he
couldn't help himself. He admits that even though he's pleased
about his impending freedom, the thought of walking away from
the Sonics disturbs him. "Most of the time I'm O.K. with it,"
Karl says, "but there are days of sadness and frustration when I
say, Why am I and my staff being treated like this? I make good
money. I could take a year off, but what about my staff? The
most disappointing thing is [the front office] still hasn't said
anything [positive] about what we're accomplishing."
Calmed by the departure of All-Star forward Shawn Kemp, whose
unhappiness infected the team last season, Seattle owned the
best record in the NBA (29-7) through Sunday. The Sonics were on
pace to join the Celtics and the Lakers as the only franchises
to win 55 games in six consecutive seasons. Yet as Karl
dutifully notes, the Sonics are the only franchise to win 55
games five straight times without winning a championship during
Maybe this year will be different. Point guard Gary Payton,
while still combustible, has matured into a bona fide leader.
Power forward Vin Baker, acquired from Milwaukee in the Kemp
deal, provides the post-up threat that is vital to success in
the postseason. And Karl has carefully shaped a kinder, gentler
environment. "This group cracks on the coach all the time," he
says. "Detlef [Schrempf] tells me I have only 12 minutes to talk
at shootarounds. Next year, he tells me, it will be down to 10."
Yet sources close to the 46-year-old Karl, citing his
disillusionment with president and general manager Wally Walker,
doubt that he'll stay in Seattle. Their relationship became even
more strained when Karl wasn't notified of the Kemp trade until
after it was completed. While acknowledging that Karl is "doing
a sensational job," Walker says, "The reason we're not going to
talk about the contract during the season is you don't usually
agree at the outset of any negotiation. That in itself could be
When the Sonics lost to the Lakers in the first round of the
1995 playoffs, Walker stuck with Karl amid cries for the coach's
scalp. In turn, Karl helped school Walker, who had moved to the
front office from the broadcast booth, on the ins and outs of
the league. But friends of each hold out little hope that
Walker, a conservative, button-down-shirt-and-khakis man, can
coexist with Karl, who has toyed with the idea of adding a
family counselor and a female assistant to his staff, vowed to
be the first NBA coach to wear an earring, and grown long hair
and a beard this season. Karl's makeover and eclectic wardrobe
have prompted more than a few derisive remarks around the
league. "I'm amused by the commentary," Karl says. "Look, I know
it doesn't look good. A lot of coaches like to dress up. I've
got expensive clothes, but I don't spend a lot of time trying to
match colors. Half the time I have to borrow Sam Perkins's shoes
because I forget my own."
Karl says he would have taken the once vacant job at his alma
mater, North Carolina, "for nothing," but he won't come cheap
anywhere else. Considering his success at managing the Sonics'
strong personalities, Karl deserves a deal in line with those
of the other top coaches in the league--at least $5 million a
year. He knows that he would have more bargaining power if he
minded his words, if he didn't insist on venting his feelings. A
shave and a haircut might not hurt either. "I've been advised of
that," Karl says. "But I don't know how to spin things. I don't
see why I need to."
ALL THE KINGS' MEN
Last summer the departure of guard Mitch Richmond would have
seemed catastrophic for Sacramento, which lost its other marquee
player, forward Brian Grant, to free agency in August. But with
sources saying on Sunday that a trade of Richmond and swingman
Kevin Gamble for forward Jamal Mashburn and center Ike Austin of
the Heat was as close as it's ever been (contingent upon
Austin's assuring the Kings he'll re-sign with them), Sacramento
was not despairing at the prospect of Life After Mitch. At 15-21
through week's end, the Kings were only four games out of a
Western Conference playoff spot and showing newfound resilience
under coach Eddie Jordan.
Jordan, who took over for Garry St. Jean with 15 games remaining
last season, warned his players in November that he would bench
anyone who didn't work hard. Unlike many of his peers, however,
Jordan follows through on his threats. Veterans Mahmoud
Abdul-Rauf and Olden Polynice have found themselves on the pine,
replaced by two hungry rookies: 6'3" Anthony Johnson, who
finally gives the team some size at the point, and center
Michael Stewart, a Sacramento native and former Kings ball boy.
"I made changes because I saw guys who weren't sacrificing,"
says the 42-year-old Jordan. "I might be a young head coach, but
I've been around basketball enough to know the difference
between a sincere effort and a halfhearted one."
The undrafted Stewart, who averaged 6.3 points and 5.0 rebounds
as a senior at Cal, has been the biggest surprise. He had no pro
prospects until his coach at Berkeley, Ben Braun, persuaded
Sacramento director of scouting Scotty Stirling to give Stewart
a shot last spring. All the Kings offered was a job as a
sparring partner when they worked out potential draft picks.
"They just needed a body," says Stewart. "But after I blocked a
couple of shots, they started noticing me as a player."
Stewart has been hard to miss since. Despite doubts that his
6'10", 230-pound frame would hold up against the league's
powerful centers, he acquitted himself well against Patrick
Ewing in an 86-78 Sacramento victory on Nov. 9. On Jan. 6
Stewart rejected nine shots against the Clippers, tying a team
record. In 13 games as a starter through Sunday he was averaging
5.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.
Richmond's exit would leave a huge void on the Kings; during
their 13 years in Sacramento he has been the team's only
All-Star. But with the contracts of Billy Owens and Abdul-Rauf
up this summer and the Kings unlikely to pick up their option on
Polynice, Sacramento will have room under the salary cap to
upgrade its personnel. Sources say the team is prepared to offer
as much as $7 million a season to retain Austin. Stewart, who
makes the minimum salary ($242,000), can be re-signed for any
amount next summer because he went undrafted. He'll also draw
plenty of interest from teams that seven months ago wouldn't
spend a second-round pick on him.
THE LATEST LAETTNER
The Hawks' Christian Laettner has made a habit of changing his
image. He was a matinee idol at Duke, a bad boy at Minnesota
and, last season, an All-Star at Atlanta. For much of this
season, however, he has adopted a new look--that of a player
lacking his usual passion.
Although Laettner remains among the most productive power
forwards in the league, his scoring average (15.7 points per
game) was down 2.4 from last season, and his rebounds (7.6) were
down 1.2. He has been plagued by inconsistency--prone to
disappearing for key stretches and committing silly fouls and
turnovers. "I think I'm doing fine," says Laettner. "I could be
doing better, though. I could be rebounding more. I've been too
tentative at times."
Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens has tried to light a fire under
Laettner. "I want him to be aggressive all the time," Wilkens
says. "We need him to take charge." Some wonder whether
Laettner, whose wife, Lisa, gave birth to the couple's first
child over the summer, has rearranged his priorities. Entering
preseason camp, Laettner admitted he hadn't run for three weeks
because he'd been too busy attending to his daughter, Sophia.
Considering that Laettner will be a free agent after this
season, his uninspired play is even more puzzling. He says he
wants to stay in Atlanta, but last summer he turned down the
Hawks' offer of a seven-year extension because it called for
annual increases of only 20% above the $5 million he earns this
season. For a guy playing for a new contract, he has looked
surprisingly complacent. --MARTY BURNS
LINE OF THE WEEK
Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, Jan. 10 against the Warriors: 31
minutes, 5-12 FG, 3-6 FT, 14 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists. With
his team insisting days before that Pippen, recovering from
surgery on his left foot, could be "a couple of weeks away," he
made his surprise season debut in Chicago's otherwise drab 87-82
victory. Pippen had earlier vowed he would never play again for
the Bulls; sources say he's now likely to stay with the team for
the rest of the season.
AROUND THE RIM
Steve Nash, the Suns' second-year point guard, has drawn
interest from a multitude of teams--among them Dallas, Golden
State, New York, Orlando and Sacramento--but Phoenix wants to
hold on to him. With Kevin Johnson, who makes $8.0 million,
planning to retire after the season, the Suns will have money
available to sign Nash to an extension. His initial asking
price: $6 million to $7 million a season....
Charles Barkley met with Rockets management early last week to
express his frustration with the state of the team (which was
17-15 through Sunday, following three straight losses).
According to sources, Sir Charles said that depending on the
destination, he might not refuse a trade. But the Houston brass
assured Barkley that they want him to stay and that changes will
be made. Expect the Rockets to part with Clyde Drexler, who has
clashed with Barkley and whose contract is up this summer....
Detroit was in the hunt for Vernon Maxwell before he signed with
Orlando, but the team that had the real inside track--if it
wanted him--was Chicago. The Bulls talked to Maxwell in
November, but management didn't think that he would help the
team win the title....
Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' association,
has expressed skepticism at commissioner David Stern's assertion
that almost one third of the league's 29 franchises are losing
money. Preparing for what promises to be a summer of labor
unrest, the union plans to randomly audit five franchises.
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) The newly hirsute Karl has Payton (left) and the Sonics scrapping on the court, but not with one another. [George Karl; Gary Payton lying on court in game]
B/W PHOTO: HAL STOEZLE [Dick Vitale]
COLOR PHOTO: MARK LIPOFSKY A hidden jewel in Miami at the end of last season, Bowen was grabbed by the Celtics, who love his D and his drive. [Bruce Bowen in game]
WHO IS BRUCE BOWEN?
Within the first minute of his NBA debut last March 16, guard
Bruce Bowen had reason to believe his future in the league was
bright. In the middle of a game against the Rockets on NBC,
Bowen, who just two days earlier had been called up from the CBA
by the Heat, heard coach Pat Riley bark his name, so he bounded
off the bench, nervously fumbled with his warmups and sprinted
onto the court. When Sedale Threatt drove to the hole, the 6'7",
200-pound Bowen swatted his shot away. "My family was watching
back home in California," Bowen says. "Greg Gumbel was doing the
game, and he said, 'It's a blocked shot by...by...' and then he
stopped, because he had no idea who I was."
No wonder. Although Bowen scored 1,133 points in his four
seasons at Cal State-Fullerton, he didn't receive an invitation
to any of the NBA's postseason camps, and no team picked him in
the 1993 draft. After playing in France, Bowen, 26, then spent
two seasons in the CBA, putting up the kind of modest numbers
(12.7 points a game) that usually spell doom for an NBA aspirant.
But when he rejected Threatt's shot on network TV, Bowen was
sure his career was finally going to take off. Instead, Riley
sat him down after only 33 seconds and didn't put him back in
for the rest of the season. The Heat's rotation was set, and
because Riley liked the potential Bowen showed for slowing down
big shooting guards, he wanted to keep him under wraps until he
could sign him to a deal for 1997-98. "I thought that was my
break," Bowen says, "then I wasn't even on the playoff roster."
Riley's plan to retain Bowen began to unravel last May when
Celtics president-coach Rick Pitino hired Miami director of
player personnel Chris Wallace as his general manager. "Rick and
I were talking about how he needed some shock troops who could
play his up-tempo, defensive style," says Wallace. "I told him,
'You know, there's a guy like that in Miami.'"
Bowen agreed to work out for the Celtics. That single session
convinced Pitino that Bowen had the defensive energy he was
seeking. While the Heat offered Bowen a nonguaranteed contract,
Boston gave him a guaranteed one-year, $430,000 deal with a team
option for the second year. Although he still hasn't developed a
consistent NBA jumper, Bowen has thrived in Pitino's frenetic
scheme. He has started nine games, averaging 6.6 points and 22.8
minutes, and has 47 steals. Pitino recently said that he
envisions Bowen being part of the Celtics "for another 10 years."
"He's done even more than I thought," says Wallace. "I think
there are more Bruce Bowens out there. The moon and the stars
have to be aligned properly for guys like him. But all they need
is the opportunity to show they belong." --J.M.
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
When the Nets were negotiating their six-year, $21 million deal
with point guard Sam Cassell last summer, they were concerned
with his shoot-first, pass-later tendencies and his occasionally
harebrained playmaking. So New Jersey put a clause in Cassell's
contract, similar to one in Heat point guard Tim Hardaway's, to
encourage Cassell to give up the ball. The Nets will pay him a
$250,000 bonus if he finishes the season with a 3-to-1 ratio of
assists to turnovers. At week's end Cassell had 257 assists and
135 turnovers, a ratio of slightly worse than 2 to 1.
TRAIL BLAZERS coach Mike Dunleavy loves point guards who
distribute the ball. Kenny Anderson, Portland's playmaker, has a
scorer's mentality. Sources close to the team say Anderson, who
was shooting 38.9% from the floor through Sunday, has grown
increasingly frustrated by Dunleavy's tendency to give him the
hook when the game's on the line. Anderson has been spotted
yapping at his coach on the way to the bench.
MICHAEL JORDAN was a victim of a hoax on Dec. 30 when someone
purporting to be his brother called the Target Center at
halftime of the Bulls' game against the Timberwolves. The caller
said Jordan's mother was ill, which caused MJ to miss three
minutes of the second half while he checked out the story. Since
then Jordan has established a secret code by which those closest
to him will identify themselves.
IS GRANT HILL worn down so early in the season? Detroit's
coaching staff has tried to scale back the superstar's workload,
but in Hill's last seven games through Sunday, he had averaged
just 2.7 shots and 2.0 free throw attempts in the fourth
quarter. His 41.0 minutes per game leads the Pistons.
IN THE WAKE of the injury to 7'7" center Gheorge Muresan, who
suffered a stretched tendon in his right ankle during training
camp, the Wizards find themselves wondering, What if? Washington
received a number of offers for Muresan last season but decided
not to deal him. Muresan, who had his cast removed last week but
still hadn't practiced as of Sunday, has lost some of his value
on the trading market.
A GLANCE at the fan voting for the All-Star Game shows three
Lakers guards in contention for a starting spot: Eddie Jones
(second), Kobe Bryant (fourth) and Nick Van Exel (sixth).
Bryant's surging popularity is a thorny problem for L.A. The
front office feels that both Jones, who was a first-time
All-Star last season, and Van Exel, who has never been invited
to the game, should get the nod over L.A.'s 19-year-old sixth
man, who is destined to be an All-Star many times.
On Tap: MIAMI AT L.A. LAKERS, Jan. 17
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and Heat center Alonzo Mourning
trade elbows for the first time this season in a possible NBA
Finals preview. The enmity between the big men, both of whom
were sidelined with injuries for Miami's 103-86 victory on Nov.
25, runs deep. When Zo signed a seven-year, $105 million
contract in 1996, O'Neal sniped, "He must have a great agent."
Referees, start your whistles.
REVERSALS OF FORTUNE
As his Nuggets (2-31 at week's end) stumble toward the NBA
record for ineptitude, held by the 76ers of 1972-73 (who went
9-73), Bill Hanzlik can take solace in the fact that a number of
distinguished coaches also endured rocky rookie seasons. Here
are a few who hung in and turned their careers around.
COACH FIRST-YEAR RECORD LEGACY
Bill Fitch, 15-67 (.183) Guided Celtics to
Cavaliers in 1970-71 1980-81 championship
Chuck Daly, 9-32 (.220) Won titles with Pistons
Cavaliers in 1981-82 in 1988-89 and '89-90
Al Attles, 8-22 (.267) Led Warriors to championship
Warriors in 1969-70 in 1974-75
Gene Shue, 16-40 (.286) Two-time NBA Coach of the
Bullets in 1966-67 Year; 784 career wins
Larry Costello, 27-55 (.329) Coach of 1970-71
Bucks in 1968-69 title-winning Bucks
Dick Vitale, 30-52 (.366) Inventor of phrase
Pistons (above) in 1978-79 Diaper Dandy