From his playing days in North Carolina and the ABA to a coaching career that spanned 35 years, few have had more success in basketball than George Karl. The 2013 Coach of the Year is one of seven coaches to have won 1,000 NBA games, and has helmed some of basketball’s most exciting teams—including the Seattle SuperSonics of the ’90s, where he gave a young coach named Dwane Casey his first NBA job. Karl, a current ESPN analyst, recently spoke with Sportsnet about his former assistant, basketball’s forgotten history and what makes the Raptors offence tick.
Sportsnet: So the Raptors are in first place in the East, and thus far it’s been their offence that’s carried them. How much does that have to do with Toronto’s glut of talented guards?
George Karl: In today’s game—when you consider the use of the three-point line, great coaching of defences and the way it’s refereed—I think it’s better to play fast and quick. And that style is generally controlled by guards.
You think of the talent in the backcourt—Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Vasquez and then Lou Williams coming off the bench—and it allows you to play a certain way. I compare it a lot to Oregon football; you want to play quick, you want to play before the defence gets set, and you want to make smart, simple decisions.
I think Coach Casey has done an incredible job with the Raptors. It's interesting, because the first year there he built a really sound, strong defence, and now you're seeing it’s opening up the offence.
SN: How have you seen the game progress toward faster-paced, guard-oriented offences like Toronto's since your career began?
GK: Wow. How much time do you have?
Well, I started coaching in—let’s see, my first job was in 1984. The game was much more of a possession game then, much more orientated toward the big man and protecting the basket. But, you know, the Lakers soon helped evolve the game into a fast-break game. And then in Seattle we were a very defensive-oriented team who placed a focus on converting that defence into offensive opportunities, which I think you started to see more and more. Looking back, I think the impact of zone defences and the changing of the rules with regards to that has made a difference. I think in the same sense the three-point line has gotten to be such a powerful part of our game.
I like the game today. I like the three-point shot, and playing fast, but you can’t deny that the big man is kind of being lost, in terms of where he fits in the equation at times because of the way the game is now played.
SN: And it seems most big men now need to be able to stretch the floor a little to stay on the court, and are taught that at an early age.
GK: I still believe the big man has to live in the paint—protect the basket, rebound, do all that dirty work. But it's true that there are very few teams now who throw the ball down low to their big man over 20 times a game. Maybe half a dozen teams go to the low post that often. The game has become more about speed, execution and penetration.
SN: You gave Dwane Casey his start in the NBA, with the Seattle Supersonics in '94. What kind of role did he play on your staff at first, and what's it been like watching him evolve as a coach?
GK: You know, Dwane is really a class coach who has done a great job in his career, and I’m proud that I kind of started him in the league in Seattle, and that we’ve remained close ever since then.
His first year in Seattle, Dwane was a rookie NBA coach, and in many ways it was a learning situation throughout the season. But we didn’t have first, second or third assistants like a lot of teams. I didn't believe in that. Everybody coaches the game and has the ability to have an impact. He always had assignments in terms of both teaching and game planning, and certain games his role may have been bigger than others.
The one thing I’ll say about Dwane is that he was a professional sponge. He was always searching for more information, for the “whys”, “whats” and “hows” of professional basketball, and he’s proven over the years that it’s helped him become one of the best coaches in the NBA.
SN: You also have a strong connection to the old ABA, having made your pro debut with the San Antonio Spurs. How do you look back on your experience in that league today?
GK: I probably wasn't going to be able to play in the NBA, so the ABA really gave me an opportunity to start my career; I wasn’t a great player coming out of North Carolina, but I got a contract with San Antonio [in the ABA] and played for five years. The last couple I had some injuries—knee injuries—and [then-Spurs coach] Doug Moe kind of put me under his wing and gave me the chance to become a coach. San Antonio was fantastic. I’m very proud to be able to say I’m both a Tar-Heel and a fraternity member of the San Antonio Spurs.
SN: Even back then the Spurs had their s--t together more than any other franchise, right?
GK: Yeah, you know I think when San Antonio got into the ABA [in '73], the league was floundering and had some financial troubles. But the owners in San Antonio were very committed to the idea of [merging with the NBA] and having an NBA basketball team—from Red McCombs to Angelo Drossos, there were probably about five different owners. We weren’t very good early on in my rookie year [also '73], but they spent some money to make our team better. By the end of the year we were a good team, and we made a playoff run before losing to the Indiana Pacers, who won the title. The Spurs, along with the Pacers and the Kentucky Colonels, and I guess the Nets with Julius [Erving] playing in New Jersey were the class of the ABA.
SN: Do you think there's enough being done to preserve the ABA's legacy?
GK: There’s no question in my mind that two parts of the history of professional basketball are being forgotten. And that’s the Harlem Globetrotters and the ABA. You go all the way back to things that league was doing—I think of Connie Hawkins, who I remember going to see play in Pittsburgh when I was growing up in the '60s [Hawkins, a New York playground legend, was expelled during his first year of college for his suspected role in a point-shaving scandal. He was blackballed by the NBA, but was offered a contract by the ABA's Pittsburgh Pipers.]
The league was a vehicle for some really elite talent. I know the NBA was Broadway, so to speak, but the ABA provided an opportunity to a lot of people.
SN: Who's a player from the league who never quite got his due?
GK: Guys I don’t think get a lot of love? Well, there’s certainly Connie. I think Roger Brown in Indiana was a really good player. There was a guard in Utah, Willie Wise, who was a fundamentally talented winner. You know, the best guy I ever played against was a guy named Jimmy Jones. He was a guard, and actually played alongside Willie Wise in Utah. Jimmy eventually played a couple of seasons in the NBA, but didn’t have much of a career there. For me, though, that’s the most difficult guy I ever covered.
SN: Thanks again for doing this.
GK: No problem, say hi to Dwane for me.