SEATTLE -- He has allowed Kelci, his 12-year-old daughter, to pick members of his starting lineup. Last month, he started rookie Rich King against New York superstar Patrick Ewing because King was working hard in practice and because the team trainer and equipment manager favored the move.
In the mystery-novel world of Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl, forward Derrick McKey defends point guards, center Michael Cage shoots three-pointers and Nate McMillan, erstwhile point-guard-for-life, starts at small forward.
You get the impression that if Karl were not an NBA coach, he'd be Tim on the TV show "Home Improvement." The ultimate tinkerer.
"It's a screwy system, man," Cage said. "It has dumbfounded a lot of guys at times. He's done things I didn't understand right away, but then I realized he was preparing for sometime down the road -- next week or even next year."
Karl, 41 on May 12, is adept at planting seeds for the future. He has been nurturing his coaching career for 21 years. The greening of George Karl has been a long, tortuous -- sometimes, torturing -- process.
Is he genius or madman? Or both, because to be one, a person has to be a little of the other?
"He is what we affectionately refer to as a 'basketball nut,' " said Dean Smith, who coached Karl at North Carolina. "When he was here, George was always in the gym, of course. But he also was always thinking basketball and talking basketball."
He has also played or coached under three of the game's biggest innovators, Smith, Doug Moe and Don Nelson. Though much has been made of Karl's student-teacher relationship with Nelson, the voice from his past that speaks loudest belongs to Smith.
Karl went to North Carolina a highly recruited guard out of Penn Hills (Pa.) High School, near Pittsburgh. Smith was one of the few coaches who didn't promise Karl a starting position. One even offered to write a guarantee into Karl's scholarship.
In January of his freshman year at Carolina, Karl had back surgery. So he spent the rest of the season as an unofficial assistant coach to Smith, observing, asking questions. The first time he walked into a film room, Karl knew he belonged.
"Most players love to watch films of themselves playing," Karl recalled. "I found that I enjoyed watching film, not only of myself, but also of other guys playing."
In his sophomore season, Karl still was in pain, but was back on the court.
"He was in immense pain, but I tell you what, George was back drawing charges the next year," Smith said. "One of his nicknames here was 'Kamikaze.'
"When he first got to the pros, I remember him calling and saying, 'Coach, I drew a charge on George McGinnis tonight.' McGinnis told him, 'Next time, go ahead, I'm not slowing down.' That didn't deter George."
Karl was holding steady near the foul line when McGinnis chugged in like a freight train, recalls Moe, then Karl's coach with San Antonio. The impact sent Karl flying into the basket support.
Karl's grittiness was a bonus, however. His intelligence was a requirement, for Smith expects his point guards to be extensions of himself on a basketball court. They attend frequent sessions which Smith calls "quarterback meetings." Then, on the floor, they make most of the calls, especially on defense, which Smith and now Karl consider the foundation of a team's personality.
Smith's program has produced an impressive list of point guards who have become an extension of their coach in the game. Before Karl came Eddie Fogler, now Vanderbilt coach; Larry Brown, coach of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, and Roy Williams, Kansas coach. After Karl came Phil Ford, now a North Carolina assistant; Jimmy Black, a Notre Dame assistant, and Jeff Lebo, Eastern Tennessee coach.
Karl has been asked to join Smith's staff at North Carolina, and he has inquired about other college jobs, most notably Pitt, but the pros always beckoned. Still, under Karl, the Sonics have a distinct collegiate feel.
When Karl got the Seattle job, instead of hiring close friends, as most NBA coaches do, he chose the most technically able men available. Bob Kloppenburg (defense) and Tim Grgurich (offense, tutoring) have firmly defined roles and run parts of each practice session. Moreover, Sonics workouts have the intensity and structure of college practices.
While coaching the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association, Karl frequently had his players conduct shootarounds.
While he hasn't yet done this with the Sonics, he has allowed his players liberal input into game plans.
"If they have input, I think they feel much more in tuned to it," Kloppenburg said. "You have to be very secure [as coach], I think, to do that."
Security is a recently introduced factor in Karl's life and coaching career. Lack of it helped cost him his first two head coaching jobs. Both times, with Cleveland and Golden State, Karl lost his cool when things went bad.
Truth was, Karl was young -- 33 when he took the Cleveland job, 35 when he was hired by Golden State -- and maybe he was in a little over his head emotionally. Some people called him crazy. Most called him immature.
After a playoff loss, Karl destroyed Joe Barry Carroll's locker-room stall because the Warriors center had casually suggested that Golden State didn't belong with the powerful Lakers. Infuriated at the officiating after a big victory at Albany, Karl teed up the ball at midcourt and kicked it high into the stands.
"My temper might be my weakness, but it's my ego, too," Karl said. "My tendency was to lose focus whenever I had to take on somebody. The fear is gone in me now. When I was in the NBA before, I was fearful and scared, and that's how the anger came out. I have that under control now. I know a lot of people out there are waiting for me to mess up. I would bet that I won't."
Karl believes his temper finally was reigned in Spain. In 1989, on the way to a game for Real Madrid, Fernando Martin, the king of Spanish basketball, was killed in an automobile accident. The ensuing three days, Karl says, "were the most emotional in my life."
Karl had to console Martin's brother in the Real Madrid locker room. The next day, a public viewing that lasted an unexpected five hours led to a mass, after which those who jammed a 7,000-seat pavilion rose and honored Martin with a 45-minute standing ovation. The casket was re-opened for another viewing that lasted until 4 a.m.
The next day, Real Madrid was scheduled to play a European Cup game against a Greek team that refused to postpone it. Karl offered to forfeit the game; his players declined.
That night, the team had dinner together and several players lost it emotionally. When they arrived at the arena, Martin's jersey was draped over a chair on the Real Madrid bench. In homage, each of the Greek team's 12 players laid a dozen roses before the jersey. By halftime, Real Madrid trailed by 23.
"Real eerie stuff," Karl said. "From that day on, the emotional part of the team went up and down all season. And I realized then how I could have an effect on the team when I myself was emotionally unstable."
So he endeavored to change. He observed and he studied. He recently read, for example, that information presented in a comical manner is comprehended eight times better. It made sense.
"So much of coaching is saying the same thing a thousand different ways," Karl said. "If you can get players to comprehend faster, through comedy, you won't have to repeat yourself as much."
Karl hasn't exactly transformed himself into Jerry Seinfeld. But, with the Sonics, he has balanced his approach, often taking the role of both good cop and bad cop. He often rides Gary Payton hard in practices, for example, then trades genial barbs with the motor-mouthed young point guard afterward.
Karl believes in tough workouts. But afterward, he'll spend several minutes betting with his players on a variety of crazy trick shots.
"Guys may have had their butts chewed during practice," Cage said, "but after all that betting and joking around after, they go home feeling good."
Kloppenburg said, "George knows how to handle the down days -- what I call 'tired days' -- and make the practices fun. He gets the players' attention that way."
In other ways, as well.
The Sonics began two games late in the season with plays calling for Cage to shoot three-pointers. Cage had casually mentioned that he'd never hit a three-pointer in his career. Karl remembered.
He has frequently used starting assignments as a dividend for patience and hard work.
"Before, everything was settled," guard Dana Barros said. "When you came to the arena, you could already count on not playing. Now, you might show up, and your name's written on the blackboard as a starter. It also makes practices interesting because if you have a few good games and a few good practices, you know you'll be rewarded. It keeps you on your toes."
"The biggest factor for George is that he's just a lot more experienced," said Coby Dietrick, Karl's roommate at San Antonio for whom 8-year-old Coby Karl is named. "He's learned that part of the trick is in what you don't say. And what used to frustrate him so much in the past was his trying to get everybody to be a George Karl type of person. I think he understands now that that isn't possible."
Actually, Karl began learning that during his final days with the Warriors. He realized his ego and personality were grating on players. He also realized the style of play he imposed upon them was a major factor.
Most players grow up playing a fast, wide-open game on the playgrounds. Karl was coaching a traditional, slow game. Karl decided to change with the times and immediately thought of Moe, whose Spurs and Denver Nuggets were the game's pacesetters long before Nelson coupled defensive pressure with a thrill-a-minute offense at Golden State. Throughout the '80s, Moe's teams led the NBA in scoring and forced turnovers, and finished last in defense but first in tempo. Moe used his players in unconventional combinations.
Karl deviates from Moe in that he still likes to maintain some control over his players and the game, and that he likes to work with his players one-on-one. Finally, while Moe would just as soon have spent afternoons at the dog track, Karl spends them thinking and talking basketball, adding a level of sophistication apparent in his coaching.
"George loves to move the chess pieces," Dietrick said. "He is constantly thinking of ways to change things, to throw the other team off balance.
The flexibility that so obviously has become one of Karl's strengths harkens back to Moe, and Smith before him. Mention his "system," and Karl bristles at the connotation. He prefers to call it a "philosophy." Make the same mistake with Smith, and discover where this notion was hatched.
"We've never had a system at North Carolina," Smith said. "A system is structured. We talk about having a philosophy, because a philosophy can be adapted to the players."
Flexibility is a necessity in the CBA. Because the CBA is a feeder league for the NBA, coaches often don't know who their players will be from month to month, sometimes night to night. It was in this environment that Karl plotted his comeback.
He was working the CBA draft for ESPN in August 1988 when he was approached by the Patroons. Antsy after six months of moping around after his resignation from the Warriors in March, he accepted.
Karl was happy to have work, but bitter that it was not in the NBA. A conversation with his assistant, Gerald Oliver, helped change that.
"He basically said: 'Don't waste it. Don't let your anger and hatred ruin it.' I thought about it, and he was right," Karl said.
Karl, who'd twice been named CBA Coach of the Year during an earlier three-year stint with Montana, directed Albany to a healthy 36-18 record in 1988-89. After his first stint in Spain, Karl returned to Albany in 1990 determined to fashion "something special."
The reason was twofold. First, Karl knew he could almost coach a CBA team blindfolded, and needed an extra challenge. Second, he wanted to make a statement to the NBA.