On Monday, Ed wrote a nostalgic piece on Shawn Kemp and the Seattle Supersonics taking on Charles Barkley and Phoenix Suns 20 years ago in a Western Conference Finals for the ages. As I’m sure you all know, those 1993 Sonics were coached by none other than current Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl.
After reading the retrospective, I immediately harkened back to the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, in which the Philadelphia 76ers — led by MVP Allen Iverson, Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo, Sixth Man of the Year Aaron McKie and Coach of the Year Larry Brown — took on and bested George Karl’s Milwaukee Bucks — led by the big three of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell — in seven games.
Nowadays, after battling cancer and mellowing out a bit, Karl is seen as somewhat of a sympathetic figure — a good coach who has overcome health struggles and built a consistent team despite a lack of a superstar. Given the narrative today, it’s easy to forget that George Karl was a grade-A jerk for the majority of his coaching career — at least for the young heads. But I’m here to tell you that Karl was nothing short of a whining asshole, and he proved it inarguably during the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals.
That season, the Sixers were the toast of the Eastern Conference, jumping out to a 10-0 start, nabbing the top seed in the East and riding the MVP season of Allen Iverson and a cast of defensive-minded grinders to the brink of the NBA Finals. Under Brown and with trade-deadline acquisition Dikembe Mutombo, not to mention defensive-minded specialists like Eric Snow, George Lynch and McKie, the Sixers were as good as it gets defensively. And they showed exactly that in game one of the ECF — which took place exactly 12 years ago today — holding the potent offense of Allen, Robinson and Cassell to just 85 points in a 93-85 victory. In said game, Mutombo was absolutely dominant, scoring 15 points, grabbing 18 rebounds and blocking four shots.
This is noteworthy because before the series, Karl, being the asshole that he was, said Mutombo would be a nonfactor in the series and that he was irrelevant. George Karl said this, mind you, about the Defensive Player of the Year. You’d think Karl would know better, seeing as Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets became the first 8 seed to upset a 1 seed in 1994, topping the underachieving Sonics, coached by none other than George Karl. Like I said, the guy was a dick.
Then after the game, instead of showing some humility and giving Mutombo and the Sixers’ defense credit, he instead said the Sixers aren’t any good defensively without the injured George Lynch — they’re just good at getting away with fouls. I can’t make this stuff up. George Karl was that big of an ass.
Now, maybe you could argue Karl was just drawing attention to himself to take pressure off his team, and you could even argue that it worked, with the Bucks taking games two and three. However, the Sixers played game three without Iverson, who missed the game due to injury, and made a furious comeback after falling down by a ton early in the game. They came up short, but it showed the Sixers weren’t backing down from Karl or the Bucks under any circumstance.
In the series, the man who Karl said was irrelevant, the man who had already shown Karl what he was made of some seven years earlier, was not only a factor — he was a monster. Mutombo ate the Bucks alive inside, averaging 16.6 points, 15.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in the series, notching a double-double in every single contest. And he saved his best game for last, really sticking it to Karl with an absurd 23 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocks in game seven.
Naturally, following the loss and Mutombo’s flat-out dominant performance after Karl labeled him “irrelevant” prior to the series, the first question fired his way at the press conference was about Mutombo basically proving that George Karl doesn’t know a god damn thing. Upon hearing the question, again instead of being gracious in defeat and humbled by Mutombo proving him embarrassingly wrong, Karl got up and stormed out of the press conference like a baby, unable to even take accountability for himself.
So as you sit back and watch Karl fail time and time again in the postseason, now with a fun and energetic Denver squad that simply can’t get over the hump without a superstar, don’t let the sympathetic narrative fool you. Sure, respect Karl for beating cancer and continuing to be a good coach, but don’t let anyone tell you Karl has the same respect for his opponents. He doesn’t. He never has.
His ridiculously childish actions in 2001 are proof of that.