Whether Denver Nuggets coach George Karl realizes it as he leads his team into the NBA playoffs, he recently passed the silver anniversary of one of the lowest moments of his professional basketball life.
In late March of 1988, Karl parted company with the Warriors as their coach after less than two seasons. It was officially termed a resignation but was widely viewed as a firing that paved the way for Don Nelson to initiate his legendary run with the franchise the following season.
It's doubtful that any grudges still exist after 25 years, but it will be the first time the 61-year-old Karl has faced his old team in the postseason.
Karl is viewed as the leading candidate for NBA coach of the year -- an award he never has won -- after guiding a Denver team devoid of stars to the franchise's best regular season ever. The Nuggets are 57-25 overall, 38-3 at home and had a 23-game home win streak to finish the season.
It's a small miracle that Karl has had this success, particularly in light of how his brief Warriors run flamed out in 1988. Just 36 at the time, he had 119 wins and been let go by two teams. Known as "Furious George," he had a reputation for temper outbursts, wild off-the-court escapades and confrontations with star players, most notably Joe Barry Carroll.
In what might be the most indelible memory of Karl as Warriors coach, he ravaged Carroll's locker during a playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I tore his locker up," Karl recalled. "Basically, we lost the third game of the second round and were down 3-0 to L.A. I was angry and mad. And he walked into my office and said basically, 'Coach, cool down man, we had a great year, relax, the Lakers are good.' I don't remember exactly what he said, but basically he said we're dead in the water, and I wasn't ready to quit. So I walked out and I lost my cool, threw some balls at his locker, slammed the door and it fell off."
It was classic early Karl. He took losses extremely hard and seemed like a classic candidate for quick burnout.
"When George came to the Warriors, he was just nuts," recalled broadcaster Greg Papa, whose first years as the team's broadcaster coincided with Karl's arrival. "He would do things like jump on the desk in his office and dance. We'd fly on airplanes and he'd stack up beer bottles pyramid-style that would invariably fall and break and he'd just laugh. But he was like a big brother to me. He was fun."
The Warriors thought so, too, at first. Despite finishing 42-40, Karl took the Warriors to the playoffs in 1987 after a nine-year drought. The Warriors won a best-of-five, first-round series against the Utah Jazz, coming back from an 0-2 hole.
"That was a tough team to coach, kind of set in its ways with guys like J.B., Sleepy (Floyd) and Purvis Short," Papa said. "But George came in and just challenged them all and got every bit he could out of that team."
Short, who lives in Houston, remembered Karl as the kind of coach the Warriors needed at that time.
"We had talent, but we needed a demanding leader like George to succeed," Short said. "Obviously, his style clashed with a lot of the players, but I had nothing but respect for him. I hadn't been to the playoffs in my eight-year career with the Warriors, and he got us there."
But things turned sour quickly, starting with the draft, when the Warriors took one of the biggest busts in league history, Chris Washburn, with the No. 3 pick. Short was traded. A 24-year-old Chris Mullin was having alcohol issues. Standout rebounder Larry Smith played only 20 games because of an injury. When the team languished out of the gate, Carroll and Floyd were dealt to Houston for a weak-kneed Ralph Sampson.
Karl couldn't cope. He felt the pressure from owners Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane to return general manager Nelson to the bench. Finally, after a five-game losing streak that left the team at 16-48, Karl "resigned" on March 21.
Reflecting on his exodus in a 1990 interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Karl explained the meltdown.
"I think at the time I was a little too intense and dogmatic," he said. "Those are the things that make me a good coach, but at the same time I have to see the trees around me. We traded Short, Chris (Mullin) was in rehab, we traded for Sampson, and Sleepy wasn't on the court anymore. We were starting guys like Dave Feitl and Winston Garland, somebody who I had waived earlier and had to bring back.
"With all the trades, I didn't handle them well," he continued. "I got paranoid, and you don't listen as well. You do crazy things when you're paranoid. So the Warriors made a decision that turned out to be a good one -- by hiring Nellie, not firing me. The only sadness I have is I wanted Don Nelson and George Karl to work. But it didn't, so you go on."
Karl offered a fresher reflection this week, admitting he was a different guy back then.
"I would think so," he said. "That was a young part of my career. I really enjoyed my time in Oakland and it was one of my favorite places to live -- except for the traffic."
Papa believes Karl might be the all-time winningest coach right now if he hadn't been missed those three years after Golden State. He was pretty much banished from the league. He had to coach overseas and in the CBA -- which he did with great success -- before the Seattle SuperSonics finally gave him another chance in 1991.
He now is the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history, and has gone to the playoffs in 20 of the last 21 seasons he has coached. Two years ago he beat cancer.
"I always thought the league was unjust to him," Papa said. "He never should have had those years away. He won wherever he went. I love Nellie, but George is every bit the coach Don Nelson is, with more of a defensive emphasis. He's just a fantastic coach."
Now, Karl and the Warriors will be together again for an extended stretch, only this time it will be on opposing sides. It's a remarkable 25-year reunion.