How George Karl Broke My Heart

Book Discussed:
Furious George by George Karl with Curt Sampson. Harper, 228 pages. January 10, 2017.

Here are some recent headlines concerning former NBA head coach George Karl and his autobiography, Furious George:

Former players trash George Karl over new tell-all bookSports Illustrated
George Karl sounds more deranged every dayNew York Post
George Karl will not rest until EVERYONE hates himSB Nation
Compared to vending machine by George Karl, Derrick Williams sitting out latest fraySouth Florida Sun Sentinel

In the era of Trump(ism), this kind of publicity probably augurs well.

Yes, Furious George is an apt title for the former NBA head coach’s autobiography. Co-authored with Curt Sampson, Karl’s story of “My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection” is littered with rage: feuds, bad feelings, misogyny, and racist rhetoric of the “dog whistle” and more obvious types. It is the portrait of an angry man likely to refer to the “haters” and “losers.”1

While many autobiographies are marked by implicit or veiled bitterness, Karl attempts to set his apart by owning up to its dark heart via his preferred mode of “happy sarcasm.” He concludes his introduction by listing “the usual criticism of autobiographies[:] they’re self-serving, too obviously written to even old scores, … their main purpose is to get the last word in. Will that apply to this book? Hell yes. Might as well admit it.” We should excuse Karl for his contempt and ill will, he posits, because he owns them. By “owning” them, he can be dismissive of any repercussions. Per the President-elect, if you keep yelling objectionable things loud enough, it apparently stops mattering what you say.

I might as well admit it: I loved rooting for George Karl-coached basketball teams. The Seattle Supersonics of the 1990s were to me paragons of basketball possibility, not merely for the fact that they succeeded (though never completely, of course) but for how they did it. They are still sources of potent nostalgia (of the type about which I know to be wary) and deep longing for the return of Seattle’s stolen NBA franchise. Karl’s Sonics, led by brash defense-first point guard Gary Payton and high-flyer nonpareil Shawn Kemp, played basketball at a pace, and with an intensity, that overwhelmed opponents. It didn’t matter that, as Karl admits in Furious George, the team had almost no half-court offensive strategy to speak of: as long as the defense and transition games were clicking, the Sonics were an ocean of dunks and layups, demoralizing opponents with wave after wave of fearless attacks on the basket.

That George Karl sourced this mode of unrestrained basketball aggression via a personal penchant for wildness and ferocity was not opaque to me, or anyone who closely followed the team: one merely has to read David Shields’s powerfully disconcerting Black Planet: Facing Race During An NBA Season (2001)—a chronicle of the fan author’s experience following the 1994-95 Sonics—to see the connection between Karl’s confrontational persona and his teams’ basketball aesthetic. But I naively considered Karl’s abrasive temperament to be ironic in a mode similar to the “happy sarcasm” he touts in Furious George’s introduction: even as he publicly feuded with players and NBA management, it seemed to me that Karl did so with a twinkle in his eye—as if he meant to convey that he was merely performing the role of the angry coach, that sincere relationships with his players existed beneath his bristling public persona.

Whatever good-natured irony I, or even Karl, believed his publicly-mediated demeanor conveyed, the coach’s apparent private disdain for many of his black players is expressed in Furious George on patently racist terms that merit even more public excoriation than he has already received. He characterizes his “usually black” players as arising from “me-first street ball, where defense is for emergencies only” and suggests that they aren’t coachable because they have “money in their ears.” Karl asserts that young basketball players, which he calls “AAU babies,” can’t handle early professionalization—they “learn only to keep their hands out. They learn entitlement and greed”—but golf and tennis prodigies can because they “are country club sports, with country club parents.” He lambasts African American stars Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin, who played for Karl during his tenure as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, as carrying “two big burdens: all that money, and no father to show them how to act like a man.”2 Less than two pages later, he praises Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who is white, for excelling “despite a broken home and poverty in his childhood, and a two-year suspension from the NBA for drug use.” No wonder, despite his belief that “the NBA is the most postracial league in sports,” Karl considers it “understandable if a black player doesn’t trust me right away.”

Then there’s Karl’s account of the controversial 2002 incident in which he effectively espoused his belief in reverse racism, asserting that young black coaches like (the then-young) Doc Rivers had been “anointed,” depriving white assistant coaches (like his own) of opportunities. Oblivious to it all, Karl asserts that “all I was doing was standing up for my assistant,” and besides, he can’t be racist: “there’s really no room for a bigot in our league; we’ve got problems, but racism isn’t one of them.” The recent, most flagrant example provided by Donald Sterling apparently doesn’t spring to mind. Ranting about racism on binaristic moral terms that reveal little empathy and less understanding of structural forms of bias, Karl stops just sort of a diatribe on the supposed tyranny of “PC” culture. Per Brian Phillips’s eloquently pessimistic notion of coaches as authoritarian fan surrogates, it feels like Karl has metastasized into one of those “frustrated-dad types who most want to see players put in their places,” providing that “ugly little thrill in seeing a famous young athlete get his head ripped off, in seeing a star humiliated on TV.”

As if that weren’t enough, Karl also attests to a penchant for violence, asserting that basketball must be physical such that players are “able to hit each other,” a crusty machismo truism made especially malignant by Karl’s bizarre confession that he “hit[s] someone before every game,” usually one of his assistant coaches. What’s more, Karl boasts of motivating his players by insulting their masculinity and intelligence, and backs it up by using misogynist pejoratives on several occasions. As for his players’ intellect, Karl is blind to the hypocrisy inherent in his own assertion that he doesn’t “care about stats during the game unless the data jibes perfectly with what I’m sensing.”3

What one senses about Furious George, in the end, is that Karl—twice a cancer survivor and well past his coaching prime—has no bridges left to burn in private, so he might as well burn them publicly. The size of the paycheck that will result from having written what Nuggets player Wilson Chandler referred to in a tweet as “a confessions of a video vixen book smh” remains to be seen of course. But if revealing your ugliest, truest self is going to pay off in any modern era, it’s this one. Sad!

On the level of my personal fandom, I am sad. In his piercing essay on athlete autobiographies, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace characterized the fans’ desire to better know an athlete as a compulsion “to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story.” The problem for Wallace, and indeed for most fan-readers of most athlete autobiographies,  is that an “air of robotic banality suffuses not only the sports-memoir genre but also the media rituals in which a top athlete is asked to describe the content or meaning of his [genius]” and the result “seems way out of touch with reality until we realize that the kind of reality the author’s chosen to be in touch with here is not just un- but anti-real.”  Coaches are different, less aesthetically profound creatures than athletes, to be sure, and, in the case of Karl’s coaching memoir, banality is not a problem, except perhaps of the Fox News talking point variety. But Karl’s anti-real view of his tremendous successes, spectacular failures,4 and the athletes whose unparalleled skills propelled both, are by any measure much more troubling than Austin’s robotic clichés concerning her “country club sport.” I did want “the Story” of George Karl, at least as it pertained to his time in Seattle, and I expected it to provide a glimpse of his “genius,” insofar as insight into his strategies and relationships could be called that. Instead, I found truth in advertising: Furious—and poisonous—George. I’m sorry I did.

1 Insofar as they consistent enough to be characterized, Karl’s politics in the book bend toward the logics of neoliberalism and naturalized injustice favored by the right wing. And while Karl doesn’t mention Trump, he does employ the word salad phrase “Hillary Clinton broke” as an apparent pejorative.
2 Karl doubles down on these racist characterizations by later pointing out—as something he apparently takes as a compliment—that those Nuggets teams must have “hurt the feelings of some of those teams whose asses we beat, because our nickname was Thuggets.”
3 In a statement even more likely to delight the ghosts of the baseball stats’n’satire blog FireJoeMorgan, Karl later asserts that he doesn’t like “bloggers [because they] don’t have editors or training or ethics. It doesn’t pay very much, so it doesn’t attract the best people. Sorry bloggers: have at me.”
4 Including the Sonics’ infamous 1994 first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, which marked the first time a #8 seed had upset a top seed in the NBA postseason. Karl variously blames the ignominious defeat (a 3-2 series loss in which the Sonics won the first two games and lost the last three) on the altitude in Denver, the fact that he only packed one suit for the trip (thus motivating the Nuggets), and “random luck.” Imagine me weeping on the floor, clutching a basketball over my head like Dikembe Mutumbo.



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