Nelson's precise role in the whole situation remains murky. He and Karl both insist that the decision was made upstairs. "I may look naive, but I still believe Don Nelson wanted me to coach the Golden State Warriors," says Karl.
But it's hard to believe that Nelson had nothing to do with the decision. And, in fact, Karl's departure drove a wedge into his relationship with Nelson. They went months without speaking, even as Karl became a successful coach with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. Gradually, though, as they ran into each other at clinics and summer league games, they patched things up. "It was basketball that did it," says Karl. "Nellie and I both love the game too much not to talk about it."
Nonetheless, Nelson was the insider, Karl the outsider who wondered if he would ever make it back. He knew he had to change after the Cavs and Warriors rejected him. "I realize now that my ego was out of control," says Karl. "I changed. I got a little older and smarter."
And Whitsitt, who had grown tired of Jones's increasingly passive approach, liked what he saw. "I didn't necessarily want an ass-kicker, an up-tempo man or a motivator." says Whitsitt. "I wanted someone who understood coaching."
No one was happier to see Karl back in the league than Nelson. They resumed their late-night phone calls, discussing the Chicago Bulls' triangle offense or what Pat Riley had done to revive the New York Knicks. Before the Warriors and Sonics met in the final game of the regular season for both teams, the two coaches played tennis, hot-tubbed at Nelson's house and discussed, as Karl puts it, "which of us is the fatter pig."
But there was less gripping and grinning after the highly physical and hotly contested first two games. The series was very much in doubt at week's end, as was the reported disappearance of the old George Karl.