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Book Review: George Karl’s Furious George

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Longtime NBA coach George Karl led six different franchises in his career, and now spills all the controversial details in his new book, Furious George.

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Former NBA coach George Karl went out of his way to stir up controversy while promoting his autobiography, Furious George, earlier this year. Karl drew ire for comments about Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, Performance Enhancing Drugs in the NBA (PEDs), and fatherhood. The concluding chapter about Karl’s tenure with the Sacramento Kings was reportedly so controversial it had to be excised entirely from the final publication.

Publisher Harper Collins and Karl sent a clear message: this book is an uncensored look at the NBA. According to the dustcover, “Karl holds nothing back, talking candidly about the greed, selfishness, and ass covering he believes are characteristic of modern professional athletes.”

The actual finished product, however, comes across as less controversial than Karl’s promotional interviews—but still somewhat unprecedented for an NBA insider. He spends time honestly critiquing and evaluating a range of NBA personalities across eras from his perspective as an admittedly acerbic and aggressive coach.

Readers learn about everything from the evolution of Karl’s coaching relationship with the Cavaliers’ prodigious gunner World B. Free in the ‘80s, to a truce-turned-friendship with the hot-tempered Seattle SuperSonics Guard Gary Payton in the ‘90s. Karl’s ongoing frustration with Carmelo Anthony’s lackadaisical defensive effort for the Nuggets in the 2000s is extensively covered, as well. Throughout, Karl’s single-minded passion for coaching basketball dominates the prose.

None of his stories is particularly novel in a vacuum—long-time NBA fans already know that Joe “Barely Cares” Barry Carroll would frustrate any intense coach, and that La La Vasquez’s desire to live in New York ultimately undermined Anthony’s future in Denver. And other books have been far more comprehensive in their player profiles—David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game and Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules come to mind.

Even though Karl comes up short of painting a complete profile of his subjects—and despite local media beating him to the punch on the controversies—this is one of the first times a true insider has been willing to name names. With that context in mind, even the boilerplate and clearly one-sided stories take on a degree of intrigue and meaning, given insights unique to the author.

Reading between the lines, Karl likely published this book because he’s already burned any bridges he cares about in the NBA. The head coaching tenures with each of the six franchises he helmed generally follow a similar pattern: in nearly every city, Karl turned around a moribund organization by cajoling the most efficiency out of the available talent. Eventually, his demanding and unforgiving attitude would lead to a fiery fall from grace, resulting in his departure from the city. Karl pulls no punches about this, admitting to multiple interpersonal conflicts and acknowledging that he was nearly blackballed from the league early in his career.

Karl also hedges his bluntness on controversial topics by echoing commonly accepted opinions or giving them only a cursory mention. For example, he complains that Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson received preferential officiating during the 1993 and 2001 playoffs, respectively, in order to ensure more popular NBA Finals matches—hardly groundbreaking revelations.

Throughout the book, Karl throws in offhand paragraphs about the NBA’s PED problem, also making sure to include inflammatory remarks about bloggers. These musings often feel tacked on for the sake of—what else?—ruffling feathers.

Ironically, Furious George may well derive much of its controversy from Karl’s candid storytelling which reveals an “old-school” coach in tension with modern society. He is unrepentant with comments about “playing like a girl,” and un-nuanced in his hot takes about racial diversity in coaching or the role of fatherhood in America. Multiple times throughout the book, Karl seems to delight in mocking (bullying?) players. He’s clearly been around the game for 40 years and is still adapting to the the mindset of younger generations, but to Karl’s credit, he does talk about the need for compassion and patience when dealing depression and other mental illnesses.

While the controversial material may have received the most press, most of the book is actually dedicated to exploring Karl’s personality and mind. Basketball coaching dominates the book, with very little mention of his childhood or personal life away from the sport. The majority of the friendships he describes are with fellow coaches like Utah’s Rick Majerus. North Carolina great Dean Smith is also mentioned several times as a key mentor.

Karl also lets the reader know that his happiest days of coaching involved his son, Coby. His candor feels earnest, but it’s hard not to notice the number of words devoted to his time as an ESPN announcer are probably equal to those spent on his son. It’s apparent that Karl loves his family deeply, but it’s also clear he’s more comfortable discussing his public identity as a coach than anything else.

Blazers fans will be most interested to learn that Terry Stotts—who followed Karl as both a player and assistant coach—is mentioned repeatedly. However, Karl has an unfortunate tendency to insert Stotts into controversy.

For instance, he recounts suggesting that African-American former players were receiving head coaching jobs by unfairly jumping ahead of qualified assistants. He used Stotts as an example of a qualified assistant, leading to a media firestorm in 2002. As mentioned above, he also needlessly inserted Stotts into controversy by suggesting that Lillard is a problem for the current Blazers.

The book is written accessibly for casual fans; they do the courtesy of giving an overview of the Continental Basketball Association and describing basic basketball evolution, among other helpful tidbits. But Karl’s autobiography will be most interesting to the diehards.

Learning about his reasoning for leaving Gary Payton off Michael Jordan in the 1996 Finals, or hearing Karl’s explanation of how Anthony Mason tanked a promising, young Milwaukee Bucks team in 2002 helps answer questions, or provide new perspectives—but these issues are mostly relevant to hardcore NBA fans specifically.