By Doug Ottewill, Mile High Sports Magazine
In January of 2005, not even a season and a half after the Denver Nuggets had drafted aspiring superstar Carmelo Anthony, concern was beginning to set in at Pepsi Center. In the previous spring, Denver’s rookie sensation had taken the team to the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1995. The excitement of the 2004 playoff run had subsided, as the Nuggets limped into the new year with a 17-25 record, looking nothing like a playoff contender.
But the Nuggets general manager, Kiki Vandeweghe wasn’t about to sit back and watch the unexpected fall. Instead, he hired coach George Karl, who’d been let go from Milwaukee in 2003.
Karl, not only redirected the fortunes of the Nuggets that season, guiding the team to an incredible 32-8 finish and a second-consecutive spot in the post season, but he kicked off what would ultimately become a 10-year stretch in which Denver never missed the playoffs.
As the head coach of the Nuggets, Karl never once missed the playoffs. His 2008-09 team advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the eventual champion Lakers in six games.
Simply put, with Karl at the helm, the Nuggets were always a contender. That reality didn’t always come easily though. In July of 2005, not even a full year after taking reins in Denver, it was announced that Karl had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Following surgery, and through treatment, Karl still managed to lead the Nuggets to the Northwest Division title, something the franchise hadn’t done since the 1987-88 season. In 2010, he was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer. After a leave of absence that included the 2010 playoffs, Karl returned to coach every game in the 2010-11 season despite enduring regular chemotherapy treatments; it was then he recorded his 1,000th win as an NBA coach, becoming just the seventh coach to do so. Health was not the only major obstacle Karl faced en route to the playoffs that season, however. During the season, Anthony, the star forward who, like Karl, had never missed the post season as a Denver Nuggets, requested a trade. That trade was ultimately granted, giving the Nuggets an entirely new, young look. Yet, they still managed to find their way to the post season. Karl did so in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons as well.
In fact, Karl was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2013 – directly before being let go by the organization, an odd scenario to be sure.
A decade removed, however, Karl’s tenure in Denver can be viewed as nothing short of spectacular. His 423-257 record in Denver is just nine wins shy of Doug Moe’s franchise-record 432 wins. His coaching career spanned nine different teams in three different leagues (CBA, NBA, Liga, ACB), earning Coach of the Year honors on three separate occasions. Karl is one of just nine NBA coaches to win more than 1,000 games. While he never won an NBA championship, Karl made the post season 22 times with five different teams, including a trip to the 1996 Finals with Seattle. Karl was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2022.