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Aging Ungracefully in the NBA

George Karl and Phil Jackson haven’t changed, but the world around them has. Jackson’s recent comments about Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, and Karl’s controversial new memoir, find these legendary tacticians behind the times.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It must be jarring when the things you once got away with are no longer allowed to slide. A person might wonder, “When did the world change?”

Take the recent cases of a pair of former coaches, George Karl and Phil Jackson. Karl distilled into book form his career-long penchant for being something of a dick (stealing a move from Jackson) with Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection, which comes out this week. And in November, the Zen Master, widely famed for his gamesmanship, took a shot at LeBron James and Jackson’s old nemesis, Pat Riley, which went sideways when he used the racially coded term “posse” in reference to James’s inner circle. Both men were just being versions of who they’ve always been.

As you get older, your mind generates the solipsistic illusion of yourself at your peak. Whoever you were when you felt like you had life by the reins is who you will likely, upon light-to-moderate, non-therapy-induced reflection, think you still are. The mind can be a cunning beast, conning you into forgetting you have moved inexorably closer to the casket. Put another way: Life comes at you fast.

Consider Phil. At the height of his influence, there was no greater winner or more masterful narrative chess master in the NBA. A wizardly chess master, he maneuvered opponents and acolytes alike without ever uncrossing his rangy arms.

We all like to think of ourselves as natural winners. The taking of L’s is due to circumstances beyond our control. This is why Jackson’s brand of dominance, robed in an aura of mysticism, is (was?) so intoxicating. Self-help books, TED Talks, philosophies, and religions all have the same pitch: This is The Secret. And Phil had the inside track on how to discover it.

Maybe it was in 1973, on a Malibu beach with an unnamed actress and a head full of acid. Maybe it was when he met Tex Winter and received the wisdom of the triangle offense. As a coach, Jackson gave his players books — Montana 1948 by Larry Watson for Kobe, a graphic biography about Che Guevara for Adam Morrison, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities for Bill Cartwright, and so on, all per Hoops Hype — which must have contained some shards of truth, some hidden horcrux of the eternal spirit of winning, because … Phil’s teams stayed winning.

Back in 2000, with the sheen of twin Bulls three-peats outlining him like red-tinted armor, Jackson could totally get away with very normal gamesmanship, like having a video depicting Kings head coach Rick Adelman alongside Adolf Hitler and Sacramento’s point guard, Jason Williams, to Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi character in American History X.

No one really questioned how the Zen Master motivated his charges, because he got results. At the time Phil arrived on the West Coast, the Lakers hadn’t won a title since 1988 and hadn’t been to Finals since 1991. According to Jackson, the team had “a habit of thinking that the world was against them and that other people were at fault.”

“[American History X] is a crude story,” remarked Jackson about a film that includes a scene in which a guy’s head gets stomped against a street curb as a diegetic sound effect resembling a cantaloupe dropping from a third-story window plays in the background, features multiple n-bombs delivered in anger, and portrays a graphic prison rape. But, because Norton’s character becomes ostensibly not-a-racist by the film’s third act, Phil felt that, “like in the movie, where people broke through prejudice, [the Lakers], too, could do so.”

Of the Adelman-Hitler connection, the accompanying wire report about the video incident notes, dryly, that:

I’ll bet. It was not lost on the Lakers players that Hitler was bad.

You can see why it must have come as a shock to Jackson to find himself recently being criticized for his usage of the word “posse.” When did reality turn upside down? When did everyone become so sensitive? Where once he could produce a video that invoked a rival basketball coach and one of the most evil figures in history, now he can’t even use “posse” in an off-the-cuff, shade-throwing, backhanded compliment. CHARLEY ROSEN, WHAT HAPPENED TO THIS WORLD?

What happened is three things, tightly intertwined:

  1. When people are successful, they can, for various reasons, get away with stuff.
  2. Phil stopped being successful.
  3. The world changed.

Phil’s Hitler video (VIDEO! I mean, DOES THIS STILL EXIST SOMEWHERE? DOES HE HAVE IT AT HOME? DOES HE POP IT INTO THE VHS EVERY SO OFTEN AS HE ENJOYS A JOINT AND A GLASS OF SCOTCH?) is an objectively worse trespass than his “posse” comments. The former was an ugly attempt to demean another person based purely on the way he looked. The latter, while certainly offensive, can at least theoretically be chalked up to Phil being a 71-year-old white man from Montana. It’s possible he didn’t know any better, just like when Steve Kerr referred to Yao Ming with the blatantly derogatory term “Chinaman,” during a 2004 TNT broadcast.

But there’s no way Phil didn’t know that Hitler’s racist ideology resulted in the murdering of millions of people.

Item no. 1 in the list above can’t be entirely blamed on the particular bad-acting successful person. Very successful people materially support a great many others. Entertainers — athletes, musicians, whatever — provide a break from the rough edges of everyday life. Their success brings us joy, so we cut them slack when they act badly.

Phil is seven years past his last title as head coach with the Lakers. His once-mysterious triangle offense has been disrobed by the pace-and-space small-ball era. The system is seen as overly complicated, too reliant on post-ups, and old-fashioned. This summer, he signed 31-year-old Joakim Noah to a four-year, $72.6 million deal, despite signs that the New York City native was washed. Early this season, Jackson’s longtime triangle acolyte Kurt Rambis was hired to manage the team’s defense. The result is a defensive rating that places the Knicks firmly among the worst in the league.

The dearth of public capital based on wins means that even standard Phil moves, like criticizing his star in the media, receive pushback. Phil used to rip Kobe in the press regularly, much to everyone’s fascination. Jackson ruffled feathers 15 years ago, but all his success made him impervious to criticism and above it all, playing a different game than everyone else.

Today, if Phil tried to pump up his team by talking about the opposition and Nazis in the same breath, he’d be fired within 72 hours. And only that long because the owner is James Dolan. Our current sports-media-industrial complex means that no stray comment, veiled insult, or out-of-touch barb scoots by without scrutiny. And without recent success, what were once perceived as mind games or next-level motivational tactics now come off as the statements of someone who is lagging behind both the game and progressive society.

This brings me to George Karl. He won 72.7 percent of his games in the Continental Basketball Association, including a 50–6 run in 1990–91. Karl won 70 percent of his regular-season games over seven seasons as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, 54 percent of his games in five years at the helm of the Milwaukee Bucks, and 62 percent over nine campaigns with the Denver Nuggets.

Karl has always been something of a prickly character, and he has leaned into this persona (just see the name of his memoir). I say “something” because I’ve never met him, so I’m just going by the public record.

He did asshole-ish things in the course of winning lots of games. This is the guy who once screamed “the game deserves more respect” in front of a bunch of 7-to-12-year-old malingerers at his own basketball camp. In 1996, as coach of the Sonics, and after a playoff win, he suggested that the game’s referees should be shot. Karl carried on an ugly feud with Seattle shooting guard Kendall Gill, whom he accused of being overpaid, and who would eventually be diagnosed with clinical depression. Gill’s teammates Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, and Nate McMillan tried to put a stop to it. When reporters asked why Karl didn’t meet privately with Gill to smooth things out, Karl asked, rhetorically, “Why should I lower myself?”

In an interview with Esquire in 2002, Karl, then the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, pondered Doc Rivers’s rapid rise through the ranks, making comments that many read as Karl bemoaning discrimination against more experienced, white coaching candidates. “Doc’s been anointed,” Karl observed. “And that’s OK. I understand that that happens, but it’s not necessarily right. Doc does a great job — and now there’s gonna be four or five more anointments of the young Afro-American coach.” George then hedged, adding, “Which is fine, because I think they have been screwed” — here, Karl is presumably referring to the effects of several hundred years of slavery and racism — “deep down inside. They have been screwed. But I have a great assistant [Terry Stotts, now head coach of the Trail Blazers] that can’t even get an interview.” Stotts had previously interviewed for positions with the Hawks and the Pistons.

So, that’s George Karl. Same as the George Karl who evidently walked into HarperCollins with a pitch that went something like, “Yo, the world has to hear this decade-old Denver Nuggets gossip that’s been burning a hole in my dream journal.” Karl’s amateur-sociologist remarks disparaging the fact that some of his players didn’t grow up with fathers in their lives are truly the work of an unfiltered gasbag with a victim complex. And this is what he has always appeared to have been. Again, never met the guy, but the public record is extensive.

With this week’s publication of his memoir, Furious George, he’s napalmed every last bridge in sight, including, I assume, one as a talking head on NBA TV, the last refuge for league figures (Isiah Thomas, Stu Jackson, Greg Anthony, Derek Fisher) who have screwed up in some way. Even Karl protégés aren’t having it. This is from Stotts, who was reacting to comments Karl made about Portland star Damian Lillard while he was on the promo circuit for his book:

Good riddance. But it’s hard not to think it would all be different if George were still racking up 60-win seasons.

His last stint, a shambling stagger through less than two full seasons with the Sacramento Kings, was marked with various internal feuds and an attempt to trade the team’s best player, DeMarcus Cousins, stuff that matches Karl’s track record with other teams. He agitated for shipping Shawn Kemp to Chicago for Scottie Pippen in 1994, all while raking the aforementioned Gill over the coals in the press. Karl won 63 games in 1993–94. He went 44–68 with the Kings.

Karl and Jackson got a pass. Winners always do.