DENVER -- George Karl finds himself spending more time thinking about things that make him happy these days. He'll close his eyes and journey to his childhood home in suburban Pittsburgh, to the backyard with leafy trees and crisp air where he used to run. Those were the best of times for all of us -- just running in the wind, going nowhere and everywhere.
"I've always had my philosophical side," Karl said. "I think I have that side much more often. I don't think I meditate like the true meditation, like yoga and Buddhism and stuff like that. But I do try to take time every day to think about how I breathe or think about my childhood and how I had a backyard with trees and forests and how I used to run. I think about things that made me very happy and that were strong. And I do that every day now."
|George Karl reflects on his childhood quite often these days to help him cope with his illness. (Getty Images)|
And cancer. Cancer has elbowed its way into George Karl's life, boxed him out and knocked him to the floor and stepped on him on its way to the rim -- with no call, no mercy.
But Karl was not going to stay down for long. In this case, cancer had no idea who it was dealing with.
"The battles I fight in the NBA now are easy compared to my goals and my ambitions of being a great father, a great grandpa, and to live on this Earth for a long time," Karl said last week at the Pepsi Center. "Those challenges are scarier and need as much attention as probably my basketball. I've coached basketball long enough that my experience has helped me do my job. And I think I have time to do both at a high level. That's what I want."
In some ways, Karl, 59, feels better and healthier than ever. He has lost at least 25 pounds, so he's able to stand in the various hallways of NBA arenas doing interviews, shaking hands with well-wishers and old friends. The heavier Karl, so much stress on the knees, used to pull up a chair for these sessions -- always among the best and most educational fireside chats in the NBA.
His sheepish grin and words of self-deprecation when complimented by visitors on his appearance hardly explain how far he's come. Only a few months ago, basketball's oracle was robbed of his greatest gift: his voice. A lover of food and drink, Karl had to be nourished through a stomach tube. The burn marks on his face and neck from radiation -- the harsh antidote to his throat and neck cancer -- were hideous. And when it was finally over, when the chemo and radioactive rays were finally done with him, weeks and weeks went by before Karl got any relief from the pain. Friends said they looked into his eyes during that time, trying to find a man who was no longer there.
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"I think the low point was once the treatment was over -- and that was about the first week in April -- I was advised that you're going to have bad days and bad weeks because of the radiation," Karl said. "And I've always kind of been cocky about being a quick healer and a healthy guy. But it was six weeks, maybe eight weeks, where I felt just as bad after the process. And the depression got probably worse then, the physical and mental fight. I gave in probably more days after the treatment, just thinking, 'When is this going to go away? Is it ever going to go away?'"
That is what his 6-year-old daughter, Kaci, asked -- and we know that kids ask the toughest questions, speak the truest truths. The worst part of all this? Not the pain or the helplessness or the painkillers. It was, quite simply, Karl said, his voice cracking, "The fear that I've brought to my little girl."
"She asked me not very long ago, 'When are you not gonna have cancer?'" Karl said. "I think she just heard people talking about it probably. I tried to explain to her that right now, I don't have cancer, but I've actually tried to explain that we all have cells in our body that are mutated cells. And if you eat right and exercise and take care of yourself, you'll never have to worry about cancer. And that's what daddy wants to do now; he wants to take care of himself."
There were many long weeks and months, an excruciating time, when Karl couldn't do that. He needed what he called his "cancer angel," his life partner, Kim Van Deraa.
"There's a tediousness to not being able to not being able to take care of yourself that bothered me," Karl said. "I don't know how you make it in life in cancer situations like I went through without what I called my cancer angel. You have that person daily basically not thinking totally for you, but a lot for you -- taking care of you, taking you to the doctor. The different jobs that Kim had to do, I said to her, 'I don't know how to repay you. I have no idea how I can repay you.'"
In Dallas last February, Karl coached the Western Conference All-Star team without saying a word about the cancer diagnosis he'd received a few weeks earlier. Bret Adams, Karl's personal attorney and friend since the coach's days roaming the sideline with the Albany Patroons of the CBA, recalls a phone conversation with Karl that he'll never forget.
It was shortly before the All-Star break when Adams picked up the phone and called Karl to share good news. For weeks, Adams had been negotiating details of Karl's contract extension with the Nuggets. He dialed Karl, unable to contain his enthusiasm upon finally completing the deal.
That's when Karl, solemn on the other end of the line, told Adams, "We have to tell them now ..."
"He asked me, 'Are you sitting down?'" Adams said. "I remember that. And I couldn't figure out. It didn't register because I'm coming at him with excitement and he's telling me to sit down. I didn't know if he was firing me because I did a bad job or what was going on.
"He said, I've been diagnosed with cancer and we've got to tell the team.'"
Adams, a friend for two decades, didn't know. Karl, a team guy who played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, didn't want him to. He didn't want his players to know, or anyone in Dallas for All-Star weekend, either. He could've signed the extension without saying a word, but that wasn't George Karl.
"He was not going to let them execute a contract," Adams said, "without giving them the opportunity to back out."
The two sides agreed on a one-year deal, with Karl's future to be revisited once his long-term prognosis was clear. He coached his final game last season on March 16, missing the rest of the regular season and the Nuggets' first-round playoff series against Utah. As painful as it was to watch his team unravel, Karl's personal struggle was only getting worse.
Weeks after the chemo and radiation were over, Karl was still unable to speak more than a few scratchy words, eat solid food or enjoy visits with his adult children, Coby and Kelci. Cancer will not be interrupted by life's happy moments; Karl became a grandfather again during this otherwise awful time when Kelci gave birth to her second child.
In May, he was hospitalized again with a blood clot in his leg. Untreated, the intruder could've traveled to his lungs or heart.
"He was struggling," Adams said. "I still think if you ask him -- because he's such a tough guy -- he'd say that he's 95 percent back when he's only 80 percent back. I can tell you from knowing him 20 years he's back, but not all the way."
Karl was far from 100 percent when he brought the house down with a moving speech at the ESPY Awards in mid-July, when he received the Jim Valvano Award for Perseverance. He turned it into his personal crusade to get the federal government on board with research to find a cure for cancer -- not just more drugs, more treatments. It had been a similar scene a few weeks earlier at Las Vegas Summer League, where Karl fittingly became the first recipient of the George Karl Award for Courage in Sport at the annual fund-raising dinner for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Karl was tired, his voice weak, his body wracked with pain -- but in his first public appearance since the treatments began, he came through. The dinner raised just shy of $100,000 for the fight against childhood cancer.
"Talk about a command performance," said former Trail Blazers executive Tom Penn, a St. Jude board member and current ESPN analyst. "He had the room in tears, and then he had everyone cheering, and then he had everyone inspired to go help."
Karl and cancer are old acquaintances who've been at odds before. In 2005, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and beat it. His son, Coby, signed by the Nuggets last April as a way to inspire his ailing father, has battled thyroid cancer.
"The more I learn, the more I get angry about our federal government and how they are not involved in this fight," Karl said. "I have no idea why we can't make this a partnership between private charities and corporations. There's been fantastic things done in the treatment of cancer. But the cure for cancer, you know, I haven't been knocked out with the commitment there."
In the hallways of the Nuggets offices, Karl moves deliberately, bantering with staff on his way from one interview to the next, from a film study to a team meeting. The creativity he's used for decades to win basketball games has now been turned loose on cancer. I'd pity the disease, but Karl is a two-time cancer survivor. He knows better than to underestimate this opponent.
With cancer, Karl said, "There are no guaranteed contracts."
Karl's contract with the Nuggets is up after this season. While sources say the team wants him back, Karl said this week he'll retire from coaching if he suffers any health setbacks or needs to reduce his stress to remain cancer-free. We had a chuckle at the kitchen table of the Nuggets' offices when that topic came up, and Karl said he's "trying to reduce my stress."
"Good luck," I said, and Karl smiled, knowing an NBA coach is always a phone call or short walk away from the next crisis. Stress is all around; the Nuggets are at a crossroads with a new management team deciding whether to grant superstar Carmelo Anthony his wish and trade him. Karl is working his motivational magic behind the scenes, but more than ever, he isn't sweating the small stuff. He's noticing subtle things about life that are good, like the snowcaps on the mountains surrounding the city, or the sun blazing in the sky.
"The older I get, the more I believe that life is simple," Karl said. "And Americans have a way of trying to make it complicated. Basketball is played best when it's simple. I think life is played best when it's simple."
He's already aced one PET scan, and the next test is coming between Thanksgiving and mid-December. For cancer survivors, the hurdles just keep coming. The doctors inject your body with dye, and if cancer exists, they will find it. The dye doesn't lie.
"That's a scary day," Karl said. "The 24 hours or 36 hours waiting for the result is ... you try to stay away from thinking the worst, but you do think the worst."
But if you're Karl, you snap out of it fast, close your eyes, and go somewhere simple and good.