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Anthony isn't the first star to be singled out for harsh criticism by Karl. After Karl led the Milwaukee Bucks to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals in 2000-01, his already tense relationship with several of his players escalated into open hostility over the next two seasons. He grew so frustrated with his Big Three of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, as well as veteran forward Anthony Mason, that he says he "shut down for at least the last year, maybe a year and a half" before he was fired in July '03. In the summer of '02 he was the coach of the U.S. team that was torn apart by its squabbling superstars and finished a disastrous sixth at the world championships in Indianapolis.
Throughout their five seasons together, Karl publicly accused Allen of being "soft," "pretty" and uninterested in practicing hard or playing defense. A six-time All-Star, Allen believes that Karl's tendency to be toughest on his stars can be traced to the 1970s, when he was a backup guard for the Spurs. "He used to tell me--a lot--that ' George Gervin would be looking at me, and I'd be wide open, and he wouldn't pass me the ball,'" Allen recalls. "I think as a coach he gets that opportunity now to make sure that everybody's equal, and there's no one player above the next."
Not surprisingly, the Nuggets who have the closest kinship with Karl are his role players. "I can't see why somebody would have a problem with Coach," says hustling reserve forward Eduardo Najera. Adds backup point guard Earl Boykins, "He's fair with everyone." Told that elite players haven't always shared that opinion, Boykins says, "Before I got here, George got a bad rap because if [a coach] doesn't satisfy the star players, they're going to kill you. There are a lot of sensitive stars in this league."
Two days after his benching in Memphis, Anthony requested the first of several private talks with Karl. The player realized that he needed to seek a truce and that he was, in fact, alone in his misgivings about the new coach. His teammates were rallying around Karl, whose emphasis on team play and up-tempo basketball spurred them to a 32-8 finish and a surprising playoff berth.
It wasn't love, but it was a breakthrough.
The day after the Nuggets' 2005-06 season ended with a first-round loss to the Spurs, Anthony asked strength-and-conditioning coach Steve Hess to join him for a four-mile run through Anthony's suburban Denver neighborhood. For the rest of that summer Anthony undertook an intense regimen that included running steps at a Denver-area ampitheatre and hitting the weights. "He was telling me that I didn't take the game seriously," Anthony says of Karl. "I told myself, I'm going to prove to him that this is what I like to do. That this is what I love to do."
A crucial buffer in the relationship between player and coach has been Nuggets assistant Tim Grgurich, a longtime Karl confidant who worked with him in Seattle and Milwaukee. After each shootaround Grgurich and Anthony study video of all his touches from the previous game, evaluating every decision he made with the ball. Should he have taken that shot? Did he make the right pass? "I talk to Grg way more than I talk to George, which is better for both of us," says Anthony. "I can go to Grg and say, 'Grg, I don't like this,' or, 'What do you think about this?' And he'll go back to George and won't say it's coming from me. He'll just say, 'What do you think about this? ...'"