MILWAUKEE — George Karl has been back in Milwaukee many times since he last coached the Bucks in 2003.
But that didn’t stop the veteran coach from reflecting again on his time sitting on the home bench at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bucks made the playoffs in four of Karl’s five seasons as their coach, including winning a Central Division title and making the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.
Though the 2001 season still lives in the minds of Bucks fans because the team hasn’t come close to duplicating the success since, Karl also remembers how fast a team one game away from the NBA Finals crumbled.
After making tweaks to the team for the 2001-02 season — including adding enigmatic forward Anthony Mason — the Bucks had chemistry issues and missed the playoffs with a 41-41 record. Milwaukee rebounded to make the playoffs in 2002-03 but was just 42-40 and lost in the first round in six games to New Jersey. Karl was fired right after the playoffs.
“Some of the greatest moments of my career was when I walked out here on the court and got the standing ovations,” Karl said. “I always thought that was eerie. Why are they doing that? And then they kept doing that. That was the year we went to the seventh game (of the Eastern Conference finals). A year later they boo you. I have a great memory and then a memory of how fast (it turned).
“I used to have a saying: Character is something, fame is fleeting. In the coaching business, popularity can be very fleeting.”
Though he may not say it, Karl is well aware of the ups and downs the Bucks have had since he was fired. After making the playoffs four times in five years with Karl, Milwaukee has made the playoffs just four times — including this season — in the next 10 years, never advancing out of the first round.
Karl has made the playoffs in all nine seasons as Denver’s head coach, winning three Northwest Division titles and advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2009. Without a so-called superstar such as Carmelo Anthony, who was traded to New York in February 2011, Karl has led the Nuggets to 56 wins with one game to play and is one of the favorites to take home NBA Coach of the Year.
“I have two philosophies on that,” Karl said of what’s happened since his firing for Milwaukee and himself. “Your greatest revenge is your own success, which I think is somewhat true. I also now read the book ‘Good to Great’. A great leader is a leader that leaves a franchise in a better place and when he goes it stays strong and progresses in a positive way. When I leave Denver, hopefully I’ll be a better leader than I was when I left Milwaukee.”