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Revisiting a Game Face

By Dave Bruning

My first article for the Sports Mixed Network was a commentary on Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl. Karl was in the midst of his second battle with cancer. Way too many people don’t survive their first battle with cancer. The theme of the commentary was a play on the traditional sports “game face.” It is clear Karl has a steely game face.

Karl’s health became an issue for the Nuggets, but more importantly, for himself and his family, about two-thirds of the way through last season. Denver was entrenched as a viable threat to the Los Angeles Lakers, sitting solidly as the #2 seed in the rugged Western Conference and having beaten the Lakers two out of three times. Soon thereafter, Karl was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer. The Nuggets season slowly spiraled downward and culminated with an early post season elimination at the hands of the Utah Jazz.

After having watched Denver lose to Utah, I pondered whether Karl should return. It is clear the Nuggets need his stern, disciplined and knowledgeable approach behind their bench. I did not want to see another season fall apart with a recurrence of Karl’s health issues (as a fan selfish, but honest.)

Carmelo Anthony’s impending free agency has overshadowed all other things Nuggets as the 2010-2011 NBA season has commenced. Lost in the shadow is that tough game face of George Karl. He has not only returned, but guided Denver to a very solid start despite the uncertainty surrounding Anthony. Karl has overseen the development and improvement of young core players Ty Lawson and Aaron Afflalo among others. The icing on the cake was Karl’s 1,000th victory as an NBA coach. He became only the 7th head coach to reach this milestone.

Karl’s formative years as coach of the Seattle Supersonics (who?) and the Milwaukee Bucks featured a hard-nosed coach who sometimes struggled to get along with or understand his players. His relationships with Gary Payton and Ray Allen are excellent examples. I believe Karl was always striving to make both of these talented players the best they could be. Sometimes the message got lost in the translation or delivery or the players refused to listen.

I believe Karl still maintains that hard-edged approach; he just has gotten smoother around the edges. JR Smith is a great example of this growth. Smith is perhaps the most frustrating player in the NBA to coach; so much talent, yet at times like a bucking bronco that cannot be ridden. Karl nurtures Smith and puts him in opportunities to succeed. He has said repeatedly Smith will play more when he plays smarter.

Coaches on all levels experience burnout. They must reinvent themselves while always clinging to the passion to share and teach their love of sport. The following quote from Karl after his 1,000th victory exemplifies not only his passion and growth as a coach, but the peace and contentment he has found:

"I just felt together with them, I felt connected with them," Karl said. "A lot of times during an NBA season, the coach and players aren't really connected, they're fighting a lot. This was a moment, not only on the court but in the locker room afterwards, there was a great connection."

Karl and the Nuggets are discussing a contract extension. Whatever the future may hold for Karl, Melo and the Nuggets, rest assured the game face of George Karl is tougher and better than ever.


  1. I also considered whether or not Karl should be back, but more due to a detriment to his health under the rigors of the gruling NBA season. Honestly, coaching seems to have a rejuvanative affect on Karl. Go Coach...Go Nugs!!!

  2. Karl to me is one of the most interesting active American coaches in any sport, it would be a shame to loose him to soon.