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Bye, George?

The Sonics could lose Karl

by Jackie MacMullan

Posted: Wed January 14, 1998

Sports Illustrated SuperSonics coach George Karl doesn't know if he'll keep his job when his contract expires this summer. In the past, such uncertainty about his future would have left him disenchanted, angry and even a little frightened. This time? "It's a relief, actually," he says. "I have choices. I'm free."

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Free to hold up Seattle for big money, provided the Sonics go deep into the playoffs. Free to take his passionate, iconoclastic and highly successful approach to another franchise. Free to sit out the 1998-99 season at his summer house in Idaho with his family, his Jet Ski and a six-pack of his favorite suds.

Initially Karl told SI he couldn't talk about his contract because of a promise he had made to Seattle management. But while discussing his current players, a group he truly loves, he couldn't help himself. He admits that even though he's pleased about his impending freedom, the thought of walking away from the Sonics disturbs him. "Most of the time I'm O.K. with it," Karl says, "but there are days of sadness and frustration when I say, Why am I and my staff being treated like this? I make good money. I could take a year off, but what about my staff? The most disappointing thing is [the front office] still hasn't said anything [positive] about what we're accomplishing."

Calmed by the departure of All-Star forward Shawn Kemp, whose unhappiness infected the team last season, Seattle owned the best record in the NBA (29-7) through Sunday. The Sonics were on pace to join the Celtics and the Lakers as the only franchises to win 55 games in six consecutive seasons. Yet as Karl dutifully notes, the Sonics are the only franchise to win 55 games five straight times without winning a championship during that stretch.

Maybe this year will be different. Point guard Gary Payton, while still combustible, has matured into a bona fide leader. Power forward Vin Baker, acquired from Milwaukee in the Kemp deal, provides the post-up threat that is vital to success in the postseason. And Karl has carefully shaped a kinder, gentler environment. "This group cracks on the coach all the time," he says. "Detlef [Schrempf] tells me I have only 12 minutes to talk at shootarounds. Next year, he tells me, it will be down to 10."

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Yet sources close to the 46-year-old Karl, citing his disillusionment with president and general manager Wally Walker, doubt that he'll stay in Seattle. Their relationship became even more strained when Karl wasn't notified of the Kemp trade until after it was completed. While acknowledging that Karl is "doing a sensational job," Walker says, "The reason we're not going to talk about the contract during the season is you don't usually agree at the outset of any negotiation. That in itself could be a distraction."

When the Sonics lost to the Lakers in the first round of the 1995 playoffs, Walker stuck with Karl amid cries for the coach's scalp. In turn, Karl helped school Walker, who had moved to the front office from the broadcast booth, on the ins and outs of the league. But friends of each hold out little hope that Walker, a conservative, button-down-shirt-and-khakis man, can coexist with Karl, who has toyed with the idea of adding a family counselor and a female assistant to his staff, vowed to be the first NBA coach to wear an earring, and grown long hair and a beard this season. Karl's makeover and eclectic wardrobe have prompted more than a few derisive remarks around the league. "I'm amused by the commentary," Karl says. "Look, I know it doesn't look good. A lot of coaches like to dress up. I've got expensive clothes, but I don't spend a lot of time trying to match colors. Half the time I have to borrow Sam Perkins's shoes because I forget my own."

Karl says he would have taken the once vacant job at his alma mater, North Carolina, "for nothing," but he won't come cheap anywhere else. Considering his success at managing the Sonics' strong personalities, Karl deserves a deal in line with those of the other top coaches in the league—at least $5 million a year. He knows that he would have more bargaining power if he minded his words, if he didn't insist on venting his feelings. A shave and a haircut might not hurt either. "I've been advised of that," Karl says. "But I don't know how to spin things. I don't see why I need to."

Issue date: January 19, 1998

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