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About the Author
George Karl is the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics.
Don Yaeger is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated and the co-author of four previous books, including the New York Times bestseller Under the Tarnished Dome.
George Karl is the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics. He is the author of This Game's the Best! So Why Don't They Quit Screwing With It?
DON YAEGER is a former associate editor for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of more than a dozen books and coauthor of five New York Times bestsellers, including George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution; I Beat the Odds: The Autobiography of Michael Oher; Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton; and Ya Gotta Believe!: The Autobiography of Tug McGraw.
Read an Excerpt
This Game's the Best!
By George Karl, Don Yaeger
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 George Karl and Don Yaeger
All rights reserved.
"Die Hard Three." The headline blared across the front page of the sports section of our Seattle paper. The Seattle SuperSonics had lost a first-round playoff game at home to the Sacramento Kings, and suddenly the end of the world was near. We had been among the favorites to play for the NBA championship in each of the previous two years, but had lost in the first round of the playoffs to teams we were supposed to beat. Now everyone envisioned this happening all over again.
Die Hard Three. The series was tied, one game apiece, yet everybody was abandoning ship. To my surprise, there was a lot of nervousness on our team. I don't think I've ever seen veterans react to a loss the way they did. I could see the doubt in their eyes. Athletes usually have the ability to hide their doubts. You can see it only if you study their body language or their lack of eye contact. But our guys were noticeably apprehensive, so much that so that the mood worried even me. I tried to keep everything cool in the locker room and worked to send everyone home in the right frame of mind.
* * *
Then I went home myself and had to face my son, Coby. It was a five o'clock game, so it was over by mid-evening. That gave him some time to let it sink in. Coby just lost it. I walked out on the porch to find him crying. He explained that he did not want to be in Seattle, he did not want to be a part of this, he wanted to run away to our summer home in Idaho. He sobbed, "I don't want to see you go through this again. I can't stand this."
I was shocked. Everything was so pressurized, and it indicated how I had to react. I could not go into the locker room the next day and yell at my players. I could not go in there and tell them they were worthless. I had to be different. I must say, in my career I don't remember any two better days, when my mind was as sharp as it could be. I just walked in and said, "I watched the film. Gentlemen, you don't play bad basketball games, but you played a bad basketball game against Sacramento. You may have played only five or six bad games all year long, and you played a bad basketball game. You're not going to play a bad basketball game again, and I don't think Sacramento can beat you unless you play a bad basketball game. The classy thing to do now is not to go down to Sacramento and win one game as your goal, but to go down there and win both of them. Show the league that, hey, it's okay, we're in charge here."
Our reaction to that situation was indicative of our entire playoff experience last year. We did something special in every series.
Game Three was an easy game to coach — and at the same time a very hard one. It was easy because I knew what I had to do, and that was to stay calm and keep the players believing. It was hard because, frankly, believing was difficult to do at that moment. For two days after we lost Game Two everyone was abusing us. So I had to say all the things right in the pregame, all the things right in the shoot around, all the things right in the practice. It was going well, I thought, until the game started and Sacramento was playing so well. I had been afraid of that because with their home-court advantage and a huge crowd, I felt they could embarrass us. I wondered if we'd keep believing. We did — even when we were down eight points with six minutes to go in the game. That crowd was wild. The ARCO Arena is one of the hardest buildings to play basketball in because the Kings' fans are so loud. They were especially loud right then because this situation was intense. Then Frank Brickowski made a three-pointer, Sam Perkins made another, Shawn Kemp played great down the stretch, and we won the game. After we hit those clutch threes and finished that game, I knew it was the beginning of the end for Sacramento. And it was a new beginning for us.
It was fantastic. I think that was the final piece of the puzzle; now this team was going to believe in one another because we had crumbled in many other situations. The monkey was finally jumping off our backs ... and we gladly killed the bastard. In my five years in Seattle, I can't think of a bigger win than Game Three in Sacramento.
The only situation that's even close might be when we were down two games to one in a five-game series, playing Game Four in Utah three years earlier. It was my second year with the Sonics, the year we went to the finals of the Western Conference and lost in seven. Before the game, the Jazz's Frank Layden said, "Congratulations on a great year." He was basically telling me our season was over. I walked down to our locker room and reported the exchange to our players, who used it as motivation and went out determined to win that game. Layden heard about it later and was upset with me because I had used that in the locker room. But, hey, if he didn't want it used for motivation, he shouldn't have said it. We won that game against Utah and came home for Game Five. At halftime of Game Five we were down thirteen points, but we pulled it out to win the series. Layden did not have anything to say to me then. We've patched up our relationship, although I have always felt Frank gave me just the tool I needed at the time to get my players motivated.
Once we went on to win Game Four in Sacramento and end the series, the relief was immense. Waiting for us was Houston, the defending NBA champions. But there was almost a coolness about us then. It helped that we hadn't lost to the Rockets in two years. For two years, under our breath, we had always said the Western Conference was a matchup conference. We had played Houston well, Houston had played the Phoenix Suns well, Phoenix had played us well. Even though Houston had won two consecutive NBA championships, I think we felt they were not that much better than we were, except they got the matchups in the playoffs that allowed them to win two titles.
Game Two of that series with the Rockets might have been the best game in the NBA all year long. We made thirteen consecutive three-point shots, twenty-three total, and Houston made nineteen. It was an unbelievable shoot-out. They gave us a big shock, playing us much better than they had in recent games. We won only because we made some shots we shouldn't have made. A bunch of the threes we hit were not good shot selections. But we had a momentum going, and we kept shooting the ball.
The end of Game Three in that Houston series was a special moment. I had taken Coby along with the team down to Texas for that game, and the buzzer had barely sounded when he ran and jumped into my arms. What a difference a week makes. It was a really good lesson for coaches. Our world is possessed by our winning and losing. I never wanted Coby to be affected by my career. My career is hard enough on me. But then the good of the game came through too, and my son was able to experience it. He got a look at the closeness and togetherness that comes from a team working hard together and fighting together, and persevering and overcoming. He saw us humbled in one period of time but then growing and directing our future. I hope all that registered with him.
Once we won Game Three, we knew we were going to win that series. In fact, before Game Three on Houston television, Coby predicted a sweep. I had been talking to my players about keeping their mouths shut, telling them not to say anything. Then we were watching TV and saw Coby being interviewed and predicting a sweep. I almost killed him.
But he was right. We went out and beat the champions, four — nothing. We swept the champions!
Houston had won the previous two NBA titles. However, now it was a different team. In 1994 and 1995, the Rockets had fought through injuries and problems. Their veterans Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who had been recently traded to Houston, had led a cast of solid role players. But last year it was as if they just did not have enough energy to overcome their obstacles. They started the playoffs strong by beating the Los Angeles Lakers, but I think in the end they knew the effort it would take to win it all and, subconsciously, I think they just did not have enough to give, a third year in a row.
Momentum seemed to be with us as we moved on to Utah, a series in which, I'm embarrassed to say, we lost our killer instinct. We blew an opportunity to make it a short series by losing Game Three. After that game I had a funny experience at dinner with some good friends, including University of Utah coach Rick Majerus. I gave the waiter my Sonics credit card to pay for the meal. A few minutes later the waiter came back a little red-faced and tried to whisper something in my ear. I told him not to whisper, that we were all friends. He then blurted out that my card was no good, which led to some good-natured ribbing about the Sonics already making plans for a new coach after a tough loss. Fortunately, it was nothing more than a computer error, and my assistant Terry Stotts's card still worked!
We went on and won Game Four in Utah, to give us a three-games-to-one lead. Then we celebrated too early. And Utah, led by John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Jeff Hornacek, showed their strength by winning a very tough game in Seattle.
Then they evened the series by winning Game Six in Utah. Of course, they did not just win that Game Six. They destroyed us by thirty-five points on national television. It was one of the few times in my life I was actually happy we had been beaten badly, because I knew we could forget about it. We knew Utah was not thirty-five points better. If we had lost a close game or choked or given away a big lead, our confidence could have been destroyed. I knew two things heading into Game Seven: Utah wasn't a lot better than us and the crowd was going to be loud and on our side.
What should have been a four–one series for us suddenly became one of the best series played in 1996. Not only did it go to the seventh game, but two very good basketball teams battled down to the last two minutes of the seventh game before Shawn Kemp showed why he's an All-Star. We won that series and Game Seven because Shawn won his matchup with Utah's All-Star, Karl Malone. In previous games against Utah, we'd shied away from that matchup because Karl had made the best of it. But on that day, Shawn was in a class of his own. We pulled away at the end and finally could really celebrate: We were going to the NBA Finals!
There are some people who feel that if we had won that series in a shorter period of time, our energy level would have been better for the Chicago series. Truthfully, I've wondered about it myself.
As a coach I don't ever prepare for the next opponent until we get there. But we had hired Brendon Malone to work with Dwane Casey in scouting Chicago. In fact, we had Brendon scouting the Bulls for two series, tracking their tendencies. We thought he was perfect for the job, having coached in Detroit. With the Pistons he saw Chicago a lot more often than we did. Besides, Brendon's a hell of a coach, which I think he proved as the head man in Toronto during the '95–'96 season. Brendon got screwed by the system. He did a top-ten coaching job in the NBA and was fired. But he and management did not get along because he wanted to play veterans and win immediately, while management was willing to play younger players and take losses. It bothers me when that happens to coaches, because I've been there.
Brendon was really taken by Chicago's amazing defense. I think the most intimidating time in basketball is when you can't score and, worse, you don't know how to score. You are just searching, and things that have worked with every other team suddenly don't work now. It is humiliating when, as five players, you can't figure out how to get a little ball into the basket. On the other side, great defensive teams gain so much confidence because they can sense how hard you're trying just to score a single basket. That's Chicago. So when Gary Payton was quoted as saying we were intimidated by Chicago, that's what he meant. At times, we lost confidence in our ability to score.
While Brendon was focusing on the Bulls' on-court performance, I was more struck by their team mental toughness.
I told my assistants that the Bulls' mental toughness was almost like that of the premiere teams of the '80s, not the teams of the '90s. That mental toughness was where I knew they had the edge. They learned their toughness from the Pistons and the Lakers and Boston Celtics. In my opinion they're really the only team left from the '80s era of the NBA, when players never let up, when every possession was a war. The playoffs are so much more mental than the regular season. The physical talent is more evenly balanced in the playoffs, so the difference is your team's willingness to do the dirty work, earn the extra possessions through hustle.
I decided that the mental aspect was going to be the focus of my attention in our first team meeting heading into the finals. I told our team we needed to tell the Bulls to shove it — we're going to fight you and we don't care who you are or what you've done. The sooner we did that, the better it would be for all of us.
I knew we could not win until we made this an "F — — You" series, until we believed we could play with them and weren't intimidated by them. So I called everyone together. I told the team we needed, as quickly as possible, to turn this into an "Up Yours" series. I wanted them to knock people on their asses and not help them up. For us to win, we felt we had to do the dirty work — go harder for rebounds, dive for every loose ball — and be the aggressor.
I wanted them to open Game One with a business-only approach. I suggested to Sam Perkins, who went to college with Michael Jordan, that I did not want him to have dinner with Michael when we were in Chicago, which Sam usually does. I said, "Sam, I don't think it's time for you to be friendly with this guy. I think Michael uses that friendliness against you." In the previous series, between the Bulls and the Orlando Magic, Michael had said he was worried in the first game when Shaquille O'Neal knocked him down. But Michael said he stopped worrying when Shaq picked him back up. Michael knew Shaq wasn't mentally tough enough.
I told my own son, Coby, that he wasn't to ask Michael for sweatbands and shoes, which he usually does. I don't think it looks good for me when my son is running around in Chicago's locker room high-fiving Michael Jordan.
The team knew I have a good-fellow North Carolina Tar Heel relationship with Michael. We've played golf together. But I told the players that none of that mattered to me. When we walked out for Game One, I was going to acknowledge Michael, shake his hand, wish him luck, but not talk to him again until the series was over. That was my contribution to developing that "Up Yours" attitude. No smiles, no friendship. I'm thinking I'm giving everyone this macho toughness, building the competitive spirit. I'm thinking I'm establishing the attitude that's necessary to really be serious about a seven-game series that is going to be physical.
Well, we walked out for Game One, and I was ready to set my example. I saw Michael, and I waited for the right time to shake his hand. He never acknowledged me. He never even said hello. He did not say hello the whole series. He was tougher than even I had planned to be. He one-upped my "Up Yours" game plan. He was all business. All business. I think everyone on our team saw that, and Michael won. He intimidated us all. There's no question in his mind that that incident had something to do with our poor start in the series.
That's what makes Michael Jordan so special. He's not only the most physically gifted athlete in the game, he's also the most fundamental player and he has the toughest mind in the game. Michael Jordan is a great talent, and everybody wants to talk about his dunking and his moves. He's an animal as a competitor, and he never dies. You might beat him, you might stop him, you might cover him, you might hit him, but he never stops playing. And to beat that guy you've got to cut his heart out. There aren't many in the league who are even close to that tough. But of those who are, two of them play on our team — Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.
The series started out with a thud. We came to Chicago flat and could not shoot the ball worth a damn. The Bulls were ready and rested, and they thumped us good, winning by seventeen in Game One. We made it a little more respectable in Game Two yet still lost, 92–88. In those two games I believe we played more minutes of better basketball than Chicago did. But they had their two six-minute runs that were dominating — so dominating that they built large leads and then coasted. I did not feel so bad at the time because we just had not shot the ball well in those games, even though we're a decent shooting team. There's a theory that you don't win on the road in the NBA unless you shoot really well. Close, low-scoring defensive games seem to go to the home team. So I did not worry too much about those losses. Besides, we were heading home, and we had played great in Seattle all year long.
Excerpted from This Game's the Best! by George Karl, Don Yaeger. Copyright © 1997 George Karl and Don Yaeger. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
TWO: A BOY FROM PITTSBURGH,
THREE: PLAYING FOR COACH,
FOUR: THOSE ABA DAYS,
FIVE: TOWNS YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF,
SIX: TOO YOUNG TO KNOW BETTER,
SEVEN: MY OWN PURGATORY,
EIGHT: THE RESCUE,
NINE: LOSING AND LEARNING,
TEN: SHAWN AND GARY,
ELEVEN: COACHING IN THE '90S,
TWELVE: A FIX FOR THE GAME,
About the Authors,