He is sitting in his office, which overlooks the Bucks' practice court. Peering out, he seems instead to be looking back to that court in Madrid. Listening. "Fernando est� aqu�" Karl says softly, shaking his head, marveling at the memory.
But Karl's team didn't win the championship, nor did it the next year when he went back to the States and the CBA. He returned to Real Madrid in 1991, but early in the season he concluded that he was spinning his wheels. He had no chance to get back into the NBA. So he decided that this was it for the pros, anywhere in the world. He decided that after the season he would return to the States and beg for an assistant's job at a college—any college—and maybe borrow money from his maiden aunt to make ends meet. The man who would be the highest-paid coach in the history of sport was, essentially, broke. His two kids were growing up. His wife deserved better. George Karl, alltime charmer, former All-America, boy-wonder coach, had just turned 40, and he was washed up. "The quiet desperation in our lives that Thoreau talks about, when there's no creative future—I fear that emptiness," Karl says, "and I knew it was out there."
But then, completely out of the blue, another miracle occurred in Madrid. Bob Whitsitt, president of the Seattle SuperSonics, telephoned Karl there. Whitsitt had decided to replace K.C. Jones as coach. Virtually all the couple of dozen NBA wise men whom Whitsitt had queried dismissed Karl—brutally. The one who did speak up for him was Don Nelson. He was the general manager who forced out Karl at Golden State and replaced him with his own self. "I hurt George's feelings," Nelson says, "but I thought he'd matured in Spain." So Whitsitt took a chance and gave back to George Karl a creative future to play games with.
Karl was a physical player, the Kamikaze Kid, so-called. The one thing all basketball coaches want is for their players to dive for a loose ball. It's vivid proof of sacrifice, team spirit, guts (and good coaching). Get this, though: Dean Smith, Karl's coach at North Carolina from 1969 to '73, thought he was the one player who hit the floor too often. "George'd dive anytime," Smith says.
In the pros Karl became even more of a tough guy, especially after he blew out his left knee in his first season, with the San Antonio Spurs of the ABA. You went to see George Karl play, and a hockey game broke out. He's been knitted with 100 stitches, not counting the snarly scar by his mouth, where a dog bit him when he was a kid delivering newspapers. He was like Horatius at the bridge, taking charges.
Still, even when he was at his most smart-ass, most people couldn't help but like Karl. He was a political-science major, a pretty good student at Chapel Hill, but in his last semester he blew off one course, in ancient history. Invited to tour with a U.S. national team against the Soviets, he had to petition the professor to take an early exam. He didn't know jack, and the professor knew he didn't know jack. Luckily, the professor was a big Tar Heels- George Karl fan. "Study the chapters on the Peloponnesian War," he told Karl.
"But, sir, I'm afraid I don't know any—"
He did. When he was handed the special exam, it had only one question. It was, in its entirety: "Who won the Peloponnesian War?" Karl wrote down " Sparta," left on tour and graduated with his class.
To this point, you see, this is the way life had gone for Karl. He signed a contract with the Spurs for a $25,000 bonus and three years at $30,000, $35,000 and $40,000. His father, Joe, a service rep for Bell & Howell, told his only son that that added up to more money man he'd made all his life.