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Originally published Monday, April 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Such good memories for George Karl in Seattle

On New Year's Eve in Madrid, in the final hours before 1991 melted into '92, George Karl gathered his family together to tell them his new...

Seattle Times staff columnist

On New Year's Eve in Madrid, in the final hours before 1991 melted into '92, George Karl gathered his family together to tell them his new plan for the new year.

Coaching Real Madrid in the Spanish League wasn't leading him back to the NBA. He was too far away from the action, and at age 40, after head coaching stints with Cleveland and Golden State, Karl was beginning to think he already was sooooo yesterday.

He told his family he was going to leave Madrid and start over as an assistant college coach. He was going to call his friends in the game — his former coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith; his longtime pal at Utah, Rick Majerus; and Kansas coach Roy Williams.

He was starting over.

"I thought my NBA door was closed," Karl said, sitting in a downtown hotel lobby early Sunday afternoon.

Karl didn't know that a young general manager in Seattle, Bob Whitsitt, was looking for someone to shake up the Sonics and had his eye on Karl.

In January 1992, Whitsitt asked then-Sonic coach K.C. Jones to add Karl to his staff. When Jones refused, Whitsitt fired him and took a gamble, bringing Karl to Seattle as the head coach.

Seattle saved Karl's NBA career.

He was back in the city to lead his Denver Nuggets against the Sonics on Sunday night. And as a show of his affection for Seattle, he wore a handmade Space Needle tie, designed by a Seattle artist, that he first wore in his last season with the Sonics.

"Whitsitt was very good at walking me through a lot of things," Karl said. "Trades, anger, losing streaks, fighting players. Whitsitt was very good for me."

They were good for the Sonics. Now, just 16 years later, that seems like an NBA lifetime ago.

Sunday night, Karl, in his fourth season with Denver, might have coached his last game at KeyArena. If things don't go well for the city in federal court this summer, this franchise most certainly is gone.

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"I think the pendulum has swung to where I don't see how it can be saved," Karl said. "And the feeling I have is sadness. I joke all the time that the only place I might have had my jersey retired would be in Seattle, and that's not going to happen now. I don't think they're going to retire it in Oklahoma City."

Like so many players, coaches and broadcasters who pass through Seattle this season, Karl doesn't understand why the league is in such a hurry to leave a place that has been so good for the game for more than 40 years.

"It's a good basketball city," said Karl, who coached six seasons for the Sonics. "And I think the roots and the soul of the game of basketball should be respected a little bit more."

In front of a raucous, throwback crowd, the Sonics played their most inspired game of the year, beating Karl's Nuggets 151-147 in double overtime.

It was another sign that Seattle isn't ready to quit on the franchise.

After all the turmoil of this season, the Sonics owed Seattle at least one game as good as this one, a game like so many that Karl's Sonics teams gave this town.

Before the game, Karl said he felt sadness for this city, where he has experienced so much joy. He could have given us a top 50 list of great moments he's had in Seattle. We settled for five, in no particular order.

1. April 30, 1992: Gary Payton throws a lob pass to Shawn Kemp, who somehow catches it, throws it down and is fouled. That play is the turning point in the 119-116 win that gives the Sonics their first playoff series victory in three years.

"Everyone, including me, thought that pass was going to be 10 rows into the stands," Karl said.

2. June 5-16, 1996: The Sonics lose the first three games of the NBA Finals to Chicago, then win the next two before losing Game 6 in Chicago.

"Down 3-0 and everybody was already practicing the Bulls' victory ceremony," Karl said. "Beating them twice and sending it back to Chicago was pretty special."

3. April 30-June 5, 1993: After winning 55 regular-season games, the Sonics come from 2-1 down to beat Utah in five games in the first round of the playoffs; go into overtime in a seventh-game win over Houston; then lose in seven games to Phoenix in Karl's first Western Conference finals.

"[Jazz executive] Frank Layden came up to me before the fourth game in Utah and said, 'You guys had a great year,' like our season was over," Karl said. "I used it as part of my motivational speech, and he wouldn't talk to me for, like, five years after that. He thought I was unprofessional using that to motivate my basketball team."

4. Oct. 1997-May 1998: With the relationship between Karl and team president Wally Walker deteriorating and Karl's coaching future in jeopardy, the Sonics win 61 games and beat Minnesota in a five-game series, before losing in five to the Lakers. It isn't enough to save Karl's job.

"We had kind of an 'us-against-the world, us-against-management' mentality," Karl said, "and that was a pretty fun coaching year. We took a lot of older guys like Jerome Kersey and Dale Ellis, got Vin Baker and won 61 games."

5. Jan. 25, 1992: Karl's first game as Sonics coach, a 104-103 loss to Utah.

"I was just back from Spain and I was speaking Spanish on the sidelines," Karl said. "And I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, these guys are really going to think I'm smart.' "

Just think — back then, the Seattle Sonics seemed eternal.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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