|Monday, March 18
Updated: March 21, 10:24 PM ET
Why George Karl's comments were dumb
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
I put off writing this for a week, because I've been trying to wait to read this Esquire article in its entirety.
OK, I've read the whole thing now.
George Karl is a smart man who said a very dumb, offensive thing.
On Tuesday, Karl's Bucks play in Orlando, against Doc Rivers, the coach with whom George has had a silly, petty feud for the last two years. It doesn't matter who started it; it demeans both of them. But it shows no signs of stopping, and especially not now after Karl, in an interview for the April edition of Esquire, belittled Rivers, saying he had been "anointed" as a good coach -- by whom, he did not say -- and that this was not necessarily right.
"Doc does a great job -- and now there's gonna be four or five more anointments of the young Afro-American coach," he told the mag. "Which is fine -- because I think they have been screwed, deep down inside. They have been screwed. But I have a great assistant coach that can't even get an interview. So I get pissed off."
When I talked with George, I said that I didn't want to talk to him as a reporter, but as someone who knows him, likes him and, above all, respects who he is and what he's done as a coach. And because I respect him so much, I think his words and opinions carry a lot of weight around the league. And because of that, his words are especially hurtful. In short, I told George that I was terribly offended by what he said.
Again, because I wasn't talking to him as a reporter, I'm not going to give you chapter and verse on his response. But he said he was sorry for what he said -- though he said it was a 30-second part of hours and hours talking with the Esquire reporter in an interview he did seven months ago -- because he thinks it will be bad for the game. He was sorry because, he said, he cares deeply about black-white relations. He was sorry because he spends a lot of time with his foundation, Friends of Hoop, working with young black kids whom he loves and tries to help. And he was sorry because, he said, he was trying to make a larger point about the state of coaching in the NBA. That there are guys paying dues, like his assistant coach (more on Terry Stotts later), who are getting passed over for jobs by people straight out of the television booth.
OK, heavy lifting first. The stuff about Rivers is about 1/70th of the stuff in this article. It wasn't taken out of context, but it's not like that's all Karl was talking to the Esquire guy about. Was it dumb? No doubt. But it wasn't indicative of a darker strain to George's personality, in my opinion.
George Karl is no racist. I've been a reporter for long enough to know which white folks are genuinely comfortably around black folks, and which ones just tolerate us until we're out of earshot. I've never felt anything approaching discomfort from George, and this goes back to my beat-writing days. I do believe he didn't think before he spoke, which is endearing most of the time. Just not on this topic.
George claims he is "on record" as being just as critical when Larry Bird and Danny Ainge got their jobs with Indiana and Phoenix, respectively, without having done any dues-paying as assistants. I have no doubt that he believes he said those things, but I've gone back and checked, and I haven't been able to find any quotes from Karl criticizing either man's hiring. Maybe he didn't say it to a reporter. I don't know. I just know that, so far, the only person he's ripped is Rivers.
And who are these "four or five more anointments of the young Afro-American coach" George is talking about? (Memo to George: we don't really use "Afro-American" anymore, and haven't since, oh, I don't know, "Sanford and Son" was on.) Who else is going to come charging out of the TV booth to become a coach? The only person I know who fits that bill and has that ambition is Kenny Smith. This is the problem with classifying by race; everyone gets tarred with the same brush. Was George talking about Rick Mahorn, who went to the CBA and coached in Yakima and has been on the Hawks' bench for two years? Was he talking about Dwane Casey, who's been an assistant with the Sonics since 1994 and, for five years before that, was a head coach in Japan? Or Larry Drew, who has spent the past 10 years as an assistant for the Lakers, Pistons and Wizards? Or Larry Smith, who has been an assistant in Houston for nine years?
George says he wasn't talking about Mo Cheeks, who coached in the CBA and on Philly's bench. And he says the one guy that he would have made a coach right off the floor was his former Sonic player Nate McMillan -- which proves that George, like most everyone else, has hard and fast rules for everybody except people he knows and likes.
There are 14 African-American head coaches currently in the league. All but two of them had previous head coaching or assistant coaching experience for at least two years before getting their current jobs. Mike Evans was an assistant coach and scout in Denver for 10 years before getting appointed to the head job after Dan Issel's resignation. Frank Johnson was on Phoenix's bench for six years before ascending to the top spot after Scott Skiles' resignation. The two African-Americans who didn't have any coaching experience were Rivers and Isiah Thomas. The other 12 did exactly what George insists every coach should do -- pay some dues. So I ask, is two out of 14 some kind of ominous trend?
Now, to Stotts. George knows that Terry Stotts was interviewed by Atlanta two years ago, and by Detroit last summer. What he told Esquire was flat out wrong. Joe Dumars, the African-American GM in Detroit, picked another white guy to coach his team, Rick Carlisle. (And the evidence to this point would seem to indicate that Dumars made a hell of a choice. By the way, while he was out of coaching last season, Rick Carlisle was the analyst on Sonics TV broadcasts.) The white GM in Atlanta, Pete Babcock, picked another white guy to coach his team, Lon Kruger. In both cases, the races of everyone involved were wholly irrelevant.
Stotts is going to get a team someday. He's young and good and players respect him. I have no problem with George trying to help his guy out. But not this way.
I have interviewed George dozens of times over the years, with tape recorders and notepads, and with cameras and microphones. He is on the short list of the guys with whom I most enjoy talking, because there is no varnish, no spin, no bull. He tells you what he thinks about everything and everyone you ask. He has hated Gary Payton and revered him in the same sentence. He craves honesty -- about the league, about himself. When he is pissed, you know it. And there aren't three better basketball coaches in the world today.
This wasn't racist. This was stupid. There's a difference.
I asked George if he'd pick up the phone and call Doc soon. He said they aren't on speaking terms right now.
Pick up the phone, George.
David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.