America at Large: George Karl lifts the lid on drug use within the NBA
Veteran coach points to major drugs issue within “cleanest” of USA’s big three sports
George Karl: “I’m talking about performance-enhancing drugs – like steroids, human growth hormone, and so on. It’s obvious some of our players are doping.” Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Only four men have coached NBA teams to more wins than George Karl, an impressive statistic that says much about the longevity and the quality of his career.
Over 27 seasons at the helm of six different clubs, he missed the play-offs just five times, piecing together the type of consistent resume that should make him one of the most respected figures in the sport.
Yet, the abrasive title of his just-published autobiography, Furious George: My 40 years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs and Poor Shot Selection, indicates that on his way out the door Karl is more interested in settling scores than garnering accolades.
“Imagine I am on the next bar stool over and you’ve asked me what it’s really like inside pro basketball,” writes Karl in the introduction.
“You seem okay, you’re buying, and I want to say what I want to say. I don’t mind a reaction and I don’t mind pissing off 29 teams. The only team I want to be happy is my own.”
In an age when the sports memoir is too often a saccharine exercise in cashing an easy cheque, a genre where punches are pulled to spare embarrassment and to preserve professional relationships, here we have somebody willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of candour.
Players who failed to fulfil the expectations he had for them during his stint in charge of the Denver Nuggets from 2005 to 2013 come in for particular scorn.
While it’s no shock to point out that Carmelo Anthony didn’t like to play defence, describing him as “a user of people, addicted to the spotlight and very unhappy when he had to share it” is a much more comprehensive insult.
Similarly, it’s not just that Kenyon Martin was “one of the most insecure, immature players I have ever coached”, he also behaved more like the type of brat often encountered in junior tennis or golf.
For his part, JR Smith merely possessed “a huge sense of entitlement, a distracting posse, his eye always on the next contract and some really unbelievable shot selection”.
If these are the type of barbs that might be expected of an embittered coach who after too long in the game appeared to struggle to connect with the modern player, it was one criticism of Martin and Anthony that sparked a media firestorm.
In an unfortunate segue into bar-stool psychology and pseudo-sociology, Karl reckoned both “carried two big burdens: all that money and no father to show them how to act like a man”.
It was an especially pointed and deliberate remark in a league where many of the players were raised by remarkable mothers and grandmothers in exceptionally tough circumstances.
“The nerve of an AWFUL AND COWARD ASS COACH,” wrote Martin in a series of tweets. “I didn’t have a father growing up. We all know that. What’s George Karl’s excuse for being a terrible person? Everyone that’s played for that awful person and coach can’t stand the ground he walks on.”
Martin followed up his initial tweets with a much more considered essay for The Players’ Tribune but the name-calling ensured Karl’s book received the type of advance publicity publishers crave.
What is telling about the American sports landscape, however, is that the initial controversy about him lambasting those he once worked with overshadowed a much more significant and serious story.
“We’ve still got a drug issue, though a different one than 30 years ago,” writes Karl. “And this one bothers me more than the dumbasses who got in trouble with recreational drugs. I’m talking about performance-enhancing drugs –like steroids, human growth hormone, and so on. It’s obvious some of our players are doping. How are some guys getting older –yet thinner and fitter?
“How are they recovering from injuries so fast? Why the hell are they going to Germany in the off-season? I doubt it’s for the sauerkraut. More likely it’s for the newest, hard-to-detect blood boosters and PEDs they have in Europe. Unfortunately, drug testing always seems to be a couple steps behind drug hiding.”
Surely this is of much more import than reheating old personality clashes between him and his former charges?
But you wouldn’t think it from sampling the coverage of the two stories in the American media over the past week or so, proving yet again the public appetite for steroids yarns in these parts isn’t exactly ravenous.
Having nearly imploded due to cocaine use in the pre-Michael Jordan era, the NBA has lately boasted of being the cleanest of this country’s big three sports (not that much of a brag given how rancid baseball and the NFL are).
Blood-testing for HGH was introduced last season although a first offender still receives just a 20-game ban, hardly punitive in the context of an 82-game campaign.
Moreover, the fact a mere handful of players have tested positive for steroids in recent years suggests the league is either somehow immune to the grave problems afflicting all other sports or the cheaters are way ahead of the testers.
Well, we know what “Furious George” thinks.