The freckled kid wanted the Seattle SuperSonics' ball boy job, and he landed it because he happened to know the head coach: Dad. Right off, he learned the rules. No asking Michael Jordan for autographs. No talking after losses. No noise during the halftime speech. Basically, he was not to be seen, or heard, and it all went smoothly until the errant pass, the errant pass that explains his whole life.
He was folding a towel on the baseline that night when Minnesota's J.R. Rider threw a brisk one-handed pass that had Mayday written all over it. The ball smacked the freckled kid in the face, hard enough to spin him around, flush enough to make him cry, in front of a crowd of about 17,000.
Naturally, all eyes shifted to the coach, who was perspiring through the last three minutes of another close game. What would he do? Leave his team to comfort his son, or ask Gary Payton to run another pick-and-roll? Those who witnessed it will never forget the tortured look on George Karl's face, the look of "Son or team? Son or team?"
He chose team.
THE FRECKLED kid is now a strapping 6'4", 210-pound NBA prospect at Boise State, and he's calling his dad, who is the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, with sobering news. Coby Karl says he is sick, that he's been sick for months. The kind of sick that can kill him.
George Karl is beside himself. He calls his friend Rick Majerus and loses it. He tells his coaching staff, and breaks down. "Just cried like a baby in front of grown men," George says. This is macho George Karl we're talking about. He drinks beer, grills steaks, wears ball caps, chest-bumps assistants. He fought Pete Maravich once. As an NBA coach, he tore up Joe Barry Carroll's locker. As a CBA coach, he booted a ball into the stands. Back as an NBA coach, he called Kenny Smith a big mouth, Kevin Johnson a princess. George Karl in tears?
He phones his son nightly and comes close to bailing on the Nuggets. Kenyon Martin is driving him nuts anyway, and Carmelo is going half-speed in practice. What's keeping him in Denver? But George lives by two rules: Never leave your team, and fight 'til the bitter end. So he stays. He has his college coach, Dean Smith, call Coby for him one night, and his Carolina friend, Larry Brown, call another. But George is a wreck. Those who witness it cannot forget the tortured look on his face, the look of "Son or team? Son or team?"
Why does this keep happening?
IT TAKES a village to raise a son, or in this case, two countries, three leagues and seven cities. George Karl married basketball before he married Cathy Cramer, and that meant 26 moves in 26 years, the 26th being a divorce.
Their daughter, Kelci, and son, Coby, were along for the ride, and the tales are poignant. There's George coming home from a long Cavaliers road trip, asking 2-year-old Coby for a hug, and there's Coby hiding behind his mom. There's George scooping up 2-year-old Kelci after she's run onto the floor of a CBA game, and then there's George berating a ref with Kelci in his arms.
Coaching can get a little—and this is George's word—goofy. But his kids didn't sour on it, not at first. Here's little Coby dressing as a Golden State Warrior for Halloween. And here he is naïvely stealing game balls from the Warriors' locker room. It was a life of privilege, at least until the Warriors fired his dad, but through stops in Albany and Madrid, then back to Albany and back to Madrid, the kids trudged on.
George was closest to Kelci, his eldest, but had big dreams for his son. He had named him after his former Spurs teammate Coby Dietrick, because "Coby Karl" sounded athletic. But as the years passed, George was never his son's coach—he was too busy being everyone else's. Shunned by the NBA for being volatile and an alleged drinker, George coached in the minors and overseas trying to repair his image. He figured he needed a near-perfect season to get back to the NBA, and he almost pulled it off, going 50—6 with Albany in 1990-91. He was egotistical, obnoxious and barely at home, and that's why it was Cathy—not George—who shagged rebounds for Coby.
The Sonics brought George back to the NBA in 1992, and if 8-year-old Coby wanted more than a nanosecond of his dad's time, he needed that ball boy job. When George was home, he took Coby to McDonald's, for a breakfast burrito and OJ, before dropping him at school and heading to practice. And they drove together to home games, Coby carrying his dad's suit and tie. These were cherished moments. Plus, he got to meet Charles Barkley.
Sir Charles' Suns and George's Sonics squared off in the 1993 Western Conference finals, and after Barkley shot 22 free throws in a Game 7 win, he consoled George. In the process, he met the kids and Cathy, who said, "C'mon Charles, the league wants you playing Michael in the Finals." Barkley, who liked the Karl family bluntness, answered, "I know," and handed his game jersey to Coby.
These were exciting times, except losing started to get in the way. The next season, the top-seeded Sonics blew a 2-0 series lead and were eliminated by the eighth-seeded Nuggets on a Saturday afternoon. By 2 a.m., George hadn't made it home. Coby feared suicide—"He should have been worried," his dad says—but it turns out George and two assistants were holed up in the locker room, pounding beers, taking steam baths and "cursing the world."
It was becoming a pattern. In 1995, George's 57-win Sonics were again first-round losers, this time to the Lakers, and when Cathy called home from LA, Kelci and Coby—convinced Dad would be canned—announced: "We're not moving again." George felt their pain. The night the errant pass hit Coby's face, George had beaten himself up for being a bad parent, even though he'd carried Coby to the locker room after the game. He knew coaching was cheating his family, even scaring them. There had been threatening phone calls to his house and black roses sent to his hotel. So, after LA, George took the family away to "mope for three or four days."
Later that summer, Cathy found Coby weeping at their vacation home in McCall, Idaho, because George had just reamed him for playing half-ass basketball. Coby was a frail sixth-grader, and George was trying to toughen him up. But what was all this doing to the kid?
By the next season, Coby looked to be cracking up. The Sonics won 64 games, but after a firstround home loss to the Kings, a panicked Coby was talking about running away to Idaho. Then the phone rang. It was Barkley, telling him George would win the series. Sure enough, the Sonics escaped. Then, proving he was his father's son, Coby predicted a second-round sweep of the Rockets on a Houston TV station. That came true too. The series ended with ball boy Coby leaping into George's arms at midcourt. "Fondest memory of my career," George says. "I still cry about it."
A series later, after Seattle defeated Utah to reach the NBA Finals, Coby bear-hugged his dad on the court again. Their last public hug for a while.
DAD OR Mom? Dad or Mom? When Cathy filed for divorce three years later, that's what family court asked 16-year-old Coby to decide. If he chose Mom, he'd likely be moving to Las Vegas. If he chose Dad, he'd be moving to Milwaukee, because George had just been named Bucks head coach. He chose Dad.
Coby couldn't imagine life without the NBA, and George—whose own dad was dying—was thrilled, because he was feeling utterly alone. He and Coby moved into a hotel until Cathy, who wasn't about to lose her son, marched into town. The court ruled she had custody as long as she stayed in Milwaukee, so Coby began to shuttle between his parents. He felt trapped in a tug-of-war. George began dating an old high school flame, which angered Coby, and the freckled kid says the first two years in Milwaukee were the worst of his life.
The upturn came when George and Cathy bought a home for Coby. No more shuttling! George lived there eight days a month, Cathy lived there the rest of the time and Coby particularly enjoyed George's poker games and barbecued steaks. And he wasn't just cheering up, he was sprouting up. The boy who was once a 5'5" freshman with no hair in his armpits had become a six-foot junior. George couldn't make many of Coby's games, so Coby went to George's.
And it was in George's Bradley Center office that father and son realized they were exactly alike. Coby and his buddies loitered at George's desk on game nights, doing homework, raiding his fridge, telling George which players to get rid of. One night, Bucks guard Ray Allen teased Coby's friend Nick Moore for wearing loosefitting plaid pants, prompting Nick to say later, "We should TP Ray Allen's house." Boom, George slapped down a $100 bill without a word, and off went Coby, Nick and their pals to buy the Charmin. ("I guess Ray wasn't D-ing up," Nick says, "or George thought it was funny.") The next day, Allen saw Coby and Nick and asked them to find the culprit. "Oh, we will," they said.
By his senior year, Coby's swagger extended to the basketball court—he'd become a gunner—although George's travels still kept him from seeing most of it. That had become a sore spot, and Coby was glad to be heading off to college. But even George's close friend at Utah, Majerus, wouldn't take him. Coby was still rail-thin and didn't play enough D, so he ended up walking on at Boise State. Cathy, an Idaho native, moved with him, leaving a reeling George alone in Milwaukee with his team, which is usually how he liked it. But after he traded Allen and the imploding Bucks got him fired, it dawned on him he had someplace else to go: Idaho. "Coby became my team," he says.
The next 18 months saved their relationship. Coby started as a redshirt freshman, and George attended practices and games. They developed a routine: Over a postgame piece of chocolate cake at Chili's, Coby would ask, "How did I do?" The answer often was, "You've toughened up." Coby had grown to 6'4", with a 6'11" wingspan, and he D'd up and moved the ball and never played half-ass. "Coby's like his dad," says George's golf buddy, Jerry Troy. "If they're not bloody by game's end, they go cut themselves shaving."
George watched film with Coby, stayed at his home and gave him pregame pep talks. "It was all firsts for me," Coby says. "First time he wasn't coaching, first year he'd taken off in forever. When he came to town, he had nothing to do but me."
But in 2005, midway through Coby's sophomore season, George was faced with that choice again: Son or team? He'd been offered the Nuggets' head coaching job, and Coby, of all people, voted team. "I told him to go," Coby says. "He'd shown me as much love as I'd seen in my life, and I could tell he hurt not being around the guys."
George went 32—8 the rest of the season, but carved out time on an off-day to take his staff to see Coby in a WAC tournament game. The kid made 7 of 10 shots that night against nationally ranked Nevada, with four steals and five assists. Afterward, he asked his dad, "Was that good enough for you?"
George remembers thinking, "I don't want to go home," then leaped into Coby's arms, in front of his staff.
"It was the Houston hug, reversed," Coby says. Nine years later.
"COBY, I have prostate cancer."
The kid was hearing this seven weeks after the hug, and his first thought was, "I just got my dad back and now he's gonna die?" George calmed him by saying the prognosis was good, but deep down, he was contemplating death, too. "I'm not saying I cried every night," he says, "but—what's the word? Melancholy? Drifting? You get scared, you cuss a lot. There were a lot of days I woke up thinking about dying, and I didn't like that. Talking about dying is hard. Especially when you're in the business of being macho." The timing of it tore him up. He'd just had a baby daughter with his new girlfriend, a former Bucks secretary. And he and his son spoke so much, he even knew what Coby ate for lunch every day. So why this? Why now?
George got through the rough patches by taking walks, spending time "in thought" each morning, and commiserating with Coby. After their time in Boise, Coby could relate to George now. "It would've been worse if the cancer had happened in Seattle," Coby says, "because I didn't know who my dad was then."
The operation in July 2005 was successful, and by autumn, George was coaching again and traveling to many of Coby's games on a private jet. Coby, a junior, had emerged as Boise State's top scorer and playmaker, and during Nuggets games, George would tell his assistant Doug Moe, "Coby's as good as that guy and that guy." George considered Coby "a tougher Brent Barry," or he'd say, "I hate to compare him to a Dukie, but he's a Mike Dunleavy."
In January, though, George noticed Coby was struggling on the court, and soon heard from Kelci that Coby had a lump on his throat but wouldn't see a doctor. George told him, "If you don't get this checked, I'm going to kick your ass." The kid relented. He'd had the lump since November, but told no one because, like George, he didn't want to leave his team. But would George now leave his?
Eventually, Coby called with numbing news: He had thyroid cancer. George wept, still didn't know whether to stay or go. After timeouts, his Nuggets would chant: "One-two-three, Coby!" Marcus Camby would bump fists with George and say, "This one's for Coby." Barkley called. But here was tortured George, still hung up on "Son or team? Son or team?"
Coby wasn't going to ask him to come; that wasn't his style. And when Larry Brown called to ask how he was, Coby wanted to say, "Better than you—you're coaching the Knicks." The kid didn't want to be fawned over. But George was squirming down in Denver: I don't think I can stay with the team. Cancer had grounded him. "I hate to act like I've matured, because I hate the word mature, but I'm not the man I used to be," he says now. He headed to Boise right before Coby's surgery, last March, and stayed for three days. He'd done it. He'd left his team. The doctors assured him Coby's prognosis was excellent, but on the day of the operation, George broke down at his son's bedside. "Stop being a wuss, Dad," Coby said. "Shut the f— up," George said. Two peas in a pod.
COBY CONVALESCED in Denver, with his dad. He attended Nuggets-Clippers playoff games in April, and didn't talk after losses or make a peep during halftime speeches. He went with George every morning for a breakfast burrito and OJ, and carried George's suit into the arena, just as he once did. "Full circle," he says.
They were inseparable now, partly because cancer had brought them even closer. Together, they decided Coby should test the NBA draft waters. They figured the predraft workouts would put him on the league's radar, and he could always return to Boise for his senior year. Problem was, surgery had left Coby puffy and sluggish, and in pickup games friends were telling him, "You're horrible, you have no lift." George told him, "You don't have to do this," but Coby kept pushing. He auditioned for five NBA teams, with a long scar on his neck. Some GMs considered him a cross between Kirk Hinrich and Matt Harpring, but most felt he needed another year.
So he's back at Boise State, healthy and first team All-WAC, and George, after checking the Nuggets' schedule, thinks he can get to 15 of his son's games. That's 15 postgame pieces of cake and 15 times Coby will ask, "Well, how did I do?"
Each time, George's answer will be, "You'll play in the league." He wants to draft Coby in the second round next June—unless the Nuggets front office is compelled to take him earlier. And if that happens, it would be a first for the macho coach and the freckled kid. It would be son and team, son and team.
In the same gym.