George Karl Back in Spain; Talks of Returning to Coach One Day
SEVILLE, Spain (AP) _ George Karl hopes to return to coach in Europe one day, where two tragedy, injury-plagued years with Real Madrid gnaw at him as much as losing to the Chicago Bulls in last season’s NBA final.
Karl has little to prove in the NBA, where he will reportedly earn $3 million in 1997-98 and become the league’s best paid coach.
Real Madrid _ Europe’s most decorated basketball team _ is another matter. Karl’s first stint ended when he was fired. His second was cut short when he quit midway through the 1991-92 season to join the Seattle SuperSonics.
``I was happy in my time here,″ Karl said Saturday, on the eve of Sunday’s exhibition between his Sonics and the Indiana Pacers in this palm-lined, southern Spanish city. ``But they were also very difficult times for me. I wouldn’t deny that.″
Indiana defeated the Sonics 98-95 in Friday’s exhibition game in Berlin.
NBA fans might not believe it, but there was more pressure on Karl at Real Madrid than in Seattle.
The Spanish club is the New York Yankees of European basketball. The often-caustic Spanish sports press automatically demanded victories from an American coach with NBA experience. When they didn’t always come, Karl had trouble defending himself with his abysmal Spanish.
``I fought the press too much and said stupid things that they wrote. Some things they held back and then used against me later,″ the 45-year old Karl admitted.
``Not winning here is a thorn in his side,″ said David Becker, who covered Karl during his two seasons in Madrid for the Spanish sports daily Marca. ``People still ask how he could win in the NBA and not win here.″
In truth, Karl did win _ about 70 percent of his games. But that wasn’t good enough at Real Madrid.
His first year (1989-90) was marked by tragedy, when former Portland Trail Blazers player Fernando Martin was killed in a car accident. The team never recovered, and Karl was fired after the first year of a two-year contract.
The next year, he went of 50-6 with Albany in the CBA. Real Madrid, which had just been through another nightmare in which coach Ignacio Pinedo died on the court, asked him back.
That team _ which Karl left at midseason _ eventually won the Spanish league title and one of Europe’s smaller tournaments.
``I felt like that was my team even though I was gone,″ he said. ``I feel like I can take some of the credit.
``Some day I’d like to come back to Europe and try to win the European championship.″
This drew an immediate wisecrack from his Sonics star Gary Payton, seated next to Karl during an interview.
``OK baby, all right. Go right ahead,″ said Payton, patting his coach on the back.
Karl, laughing, said he wasn’t quite ready to go until his two teen-agers were a bit older.
``To win a championship you’d have to be with one of the best teams in Europe, and Real Madrid would be one of those teams,″ Karl said. ``It would probably be in a few years and I’ll wait until my children graduate form college or go to college. If Real Madrid wants me back, I would definitely consider it.″
Some recent reports in the Spanish press and elsewhere suggested Karl had been critical of European players’ dedication to practicing hard, and added that the ritual glass of wine with lunch might not have helped their motivation.
``It’s difficult because I don’t know what my comments were,″ said Karl, who told a Spanish journalist he didn’t recall saying any such thing.
If Karl had any clash with European culture, it was most evident in his inability to speak Spanish with any fluency. Spanish journalist Javier Cabrera asked Karl on Saturday to answer a question in Spanish. Karl didn’t understand what he was being asked, and when the request was translated he replied with a few butchered, half sentences.″
``OK, stop there,″ Payton joked again.
Karl’s stuttering attempt still drew applause from several hundred Spaniards attending the news conference. They clapped even louder when he said he might be back.
Karl’s Spanish is a marked contrast to that of his successor. Yugoslavian national coach Zeljko Obradovic, who won Real Madrid’s eighth European title in 1995, speaks the language quite well.
``For whatever reason he was here two years, and didn’t learn much Spanish,″ Becker said Karl. ``There are American players who come here and play for years and never learn a word.
``Obradovic, on the other hand, came in and in a few months he was speaking on television, in the papers. I’m not saying that’s everything, but it might have helped George.″