Cancer, hoops ties that bind the Karls
Seattle Times staff columnist
Like listening to the voice of God from some far-away mountain top, George Karl, twice since the summer of 2005, has heard the doctors, in their most somber, clipped, sympathetic voices give him the biopsy's bad news.
Twice in Karl's recent past, he has had to hear that the tests were positive, which made him wonder why anyone would call a cancer diagnosis "positive."
Twice, once for himself and once for his son Coby, he has heard that word and dealt with that disease.
"Cancer's a pretty powerful word," Karl said Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a conference room in a downtown hotel. "It scares you."
Near the end of the 2004-05 season, in his first year as coach in Denver, Karl was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had surgery that July.
"I had a period of at least three weeks after I was diagnosed where I'd wake up in the middle of the night and think about dying," he said. "Prostate's one of those most curable cancers, but there's no guarantee. And the doctors can say you're cancer-free, but still you think about it, think about dying."
Then late last March, the biopsy on his son, a senior guard at Boise State, confirmed that Coby Karl had thyroid cancer.
"The first thing I thought of was a story I'd read about [former Supreme Court chief justice William] Rehnquist. He had died from thyroid cancer," Karl said. "So I'm thinking, 'Oh, no, this is one of the bad cancers.'
"I was scared to death. But fortunately it's a cancer very similar to prostate. It has a percentage of life-threatening possibilities, but if you handle it, it's a very treatable, fixable cancer. Still, you wake up, I don't want to say in a cold sweat, but you wake up thinking you could lose your son. That happened a lot."
Karl will be the first to admit he hasn't always been a candidate for Father of the Year. He has spent all of his adult life in a kid's game and that game has consumed him. It seemed he always was rushing to the gym, or to the office, or the airport instead of rushing home to his family.
He was looking at game tape, instead of reading his children a book. And he was on the road, traveling with the Sonics, or the Milwaukee Bucks, when Coby was in middle school and high school.
He missed school events, social events and missed many of his son's best basketball games. He went through a divorce.
The absences created a rift between the coach and his son. Their cancers helped heal that rift.
"He and I kind of had our problems," Karl said. "I was always kind of closer to my daughter [Kelcie]. Then my divorce kind of separated Coby and me. We as people in the NBA family live in this fairytale land, being obsessed with winning a championship, being spoiled by the money and the lifestyle. I cheated my family.
"But now Coby and I have been united into a very good relationship. I think he's still mad that during his senior year of high school, when I was coaching in Milwaukee, I didn't get to see many of his games. I think he still has anger about that."
But geography and illness have brought them closer than ever. Karl estimates he will be able to watch in person "10 to 15" of Coby's Boise State games this season. They talk frequently, bonded by basketball and their shared cancer experiences.
"I think the combination of me, and then Coby, going through cancer finally helped me realize that life is about life and not about basketball," Karl said. "That's something most people realize at a much younger age than I did."
Karl learned a lot about his son, witnessing the strength Coby showed during and after his thyroid surgery. He saw a toughness, a willingness to do whatever had to be done to beat the disease and get back on the basketball floor.
The father was inspired by his son.
"Coby had already declared for the NBA draft, but after his surgery he was bloated and got tired easily. We went to the gym two days in a row and he was awful," Karl said. "I had to talk to him. I told him, 'No one in the world would blame you for saying that you're not going into the draft. That you're going to take your time getting healthy.
" 'But if you're going to do this, go through the tryouts and the workouts, you're going to have to go to the gym twice a day, spend six-seven hours in the gym.' I told him that if he wanted to take six months to get ready for next season, he could. But I could tell he was mad at me for even saying that."
Coby did the workouts, got in shape and played well enough at the pre-draft camp in Orlando to know that, after this senior season at Boise State, he has a legitimate shot of following his father into the NBA.
"You can't believe how much fun it is to watch him play a great game," Karl said. "It's the best. Better than anything. Anything. What a gift."
Coby is leading Boise State, averaging 15.4 points per game and 4.1 assists per game. He is a candidate for Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
And since their surgeries, both father and son have been cancer-free.
"Basketball's always been our fiber of togetherness," Karl said, "and now it's moved to the point where he's an NBA prospect, and that's the greatest gift the game of basketball has ever given to me."
Karl has three years remaining on his contract with the Nuggets. If he properly manages the egos of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony and mixes them with the rest of his roster, the Nuggets have a chance to win the Western Conference.
But, at 55, Karl can see the end of his career and already he is imagining the dream scenario.
"I never thought I could coach Coby because he was too cool and casual," Karl said. "I knew if I coached him I'd yell at him and really nail him. But now he understands why coaches don't want that cool. And when I see him play with our guys in the summer, I see that toughness coming out. Other than winning a championship, I think coaching him would be the perfect completion of my coaching career. It would be the perfect ending."
That ending would be Hollywood-good. Father and son, reunited by their cancer fights, joined together by the game that almost split them apart.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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