PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- In his younger days, a night like this would have resulted in a noticeable rage, a fiery demeanor that almost forced him out of the league for good in earlier stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors.
But Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl was the complete picture of calm as he watched his team fall behind by 17 points in the first half of Tuesday's game against the last-place Philadelphia 76ers.
Well, at least he was the complete picture of calm on the court.
"The blackboard," Karl said after the 92-80 victory, describing his sore right hand he hurt at halftime as he nailed a blackboard to make a point. "I've done it before, but this one hurt immediately. Blackboards used to have space in between. Now it's just a wall."
It's one of the few times this season that Karl, in his second year in Seattle, has had to express himself in that manner. The Sonics are 11-1 going into tonight's game with the Washington Bullets at the USAir Arena, after opening the season with 10 straight wins.
The impressive start has the Sonics in first place in the Pacific Division and now, one season after taking the Phoenix Suns into a seventh game of the Western Conference finals, there's talk among the players of the team's first NBA championship since Lenny Wilkens led the Sonics over the Bullets in 1979.
"I've said all along that, yes, I think we're ready," said Karl, now in his second season at Seattle. "Right now we think we're better than we were when we finished. And with [Michael Jordan's] retirement, I don't think anybody knows who the best team is right now."
That stage was reached with the off-season acquisition of 6-foot-10 All-Star forward Detlef Schrempf, and guard Kendall Gill. The Sonics had to send Derek McKey to Indiana for Schrempf, and Eddie Johnson and Dana Barros (now with the Sixers) to Charlotte for Gill. But everyone in the organization feels the recent additions (center Sam Perkins came from the Lakers late last season) make up for the subtractions.
"I still think that has to go down as an 'executive of the decade' type of maneuvering," Karl said. "How you do that with the salary cap today is unbelievable. The whole package of Kendall, Detlef, and Perkins, you add three starters without really messing up anything."
You add those three to players like All-Star forward Shawn Kemp, sharp-shooting guard Ricky Pierce, rebounder Michael Cage and point guards Gary Payton and Nate McMillan, and you'd think there would be a problem meshing all of that talent. But, if anything, the Sonics tend to be a little bit too unselfish.
"We realized, after the early games this season, what we're capable of doing," said Perkins. "We can't be selfish -- we have to stay focused because there's a lot of teams that can knock us off."
Only Cleveland, a 101-90 winner Saturday, has been able to knock off Seattle so far this year. The season-opening 10-game streak tied the second best streak in team history, and included four wins on the road.
What's scary is that the streak has been accomplished without Gill (10.6 points a game) and Schrempf (15.6) feeling totally comfortable with the Seattle system.
"I haven't gotten into a complete flow, and neither has Detlef," Gill said. "Once we do, we should have everything together. There are so many guys who can score on this team that you don't have to depend on anybody to score every night. When I was in Charlotte, it was me, Larry [Johnson] and Zo [Alonzo Mourning]. That's not the case here."
And Gill, who averaged 16.9 points last season, does not mind his scoring totals decreasing.
"As long as I win that championship, I have no problem with that," Gill said. "In Charlotte, we were playing to get to the playoffs. Here, we're out to win the whole thing."
Karl thinks it will take that to give Kemp, one of the league's best leapers, the star status that he deserves.
"I don't think there's any question that Shawn is in that group with Shaquille [O'Neal], Larry Johnson, Derrick Coleman, Patrick [Ewing] and Hakeem [Olajuwon]," Karl said. "The one thing he's comfortable with is that a championship will get him that [status] as much as his playing. His focus is toward winning, more than some of the entertaining things that he does."
And that's what has made the Sonics so successful so far, the ability to place "team" first. On a team loaded with scoring potential, there isn't a 20-point scorer.
It's a team that appears to absent of egos, which just might be a championship ingredient.
"We know we have to grow and learn from each other," Perkins said. "We need a flow of games to continue to see what we have here. I think when we do realize what we have, it can be kind of scary."