Karl has matured since leaving Milwaukee

Karl has matured since leaving Milwaukee

Published Jan. 17, 2012 8:21 p.m. ET

MILWAUKEE -- High above the court inside the Bradley Center hang banners representing the Milwaukee Bucks' 16 division, conference and NBA championships.

There is a noticeable break in that timeline, with just one banner hung in the past 25 years. That one went skyward in 2001, when the Bucks electrified Milwaukee and came within a game of returning to the Finals for the first time since 1974.

The coach of that team was George Karl. Of all the men who have led Milwaukee's NBA franchise, few seemed to have the same fit with and affinity for the city as Karl. An intense, hard-working and results-driven coach, Karl led the Bucks back to respectability after 15 years as an NBA afterthought.

In the decade that followed that memorable postseason run, Karl had two battles with cancer and was fired following a 42-40 season in 2002-03. But he still looks back fondly on his five years in Milwaukee.

"I like Milwaukee," says Karl, 60, who has beaten prostate and neck cancer and coached the Denver Nuggets since 2005. "The people here are great. In the summertime, it's a fun place to be around. It's a great town. It's not a good weather town, but it's a great town."

The 2000-01 season still stands out as a career highlight for Karl, who was back in town Tuesday night for Denver’s 105-95 win over the Bucks. That Milwaukee team, led by the Big Three of Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and Ray Allen, won 52 games during the regular season, and the Bradley Center, packed to the rafters each and every night, became one of the loudest buildings in the league during the Bucks' run to the Eastern Conference finals.

Outside the arena, the excitement surrounding the team spilled out into the streets with pep rallies on the Bradley Center plaza and street parties outside bars up and down Water Street.

"It was a great time," Karl says. "It was something that (out) of all the places I've had success, I remember the streets of Milwaukee that year. It was pretty wild.

"There are so many people I run into across the country, and they tell me they're from Milwaukee and how they remember 2001. They remember specific games, favorite plays. It was a good run."

Karl is in his eighth season with the Nuggets, and the battles with cancer have changed the personable coach in many ways. It’s easy to notice he has settled down, even matured, for lack of a better term, as a coach.

"There's a point where if I get too wild and crazy, I say it's silly,” says Karl, whose time in Milwaukee was marked by frequent public needling of his players, including his stars. "It's silly to make yourself sick or make yourself feel unhealthy because of the game of basketball, which I did many times.”

Karl also is noticeably more svelte these days. He says he lost about 60 pounds after his surgeries and has regained about 10 pounds or so. But beyond the physical differences, Karl acknowledges he's a different person. As a coach, Karl is more open to delegating. He lets his assistants handle much more of the hands-on work during practices, and though he still describes himself as intense and passionate about the game, he doesn’t work as hard to get his point across.

"I don't coach as much," Karl says. "I direct more than I probably coach. I think I have more balance. .... Younger coaches have a tendency to be overboard in certain moments. I might be low-key in that moment."

For a basketball lifer, putting anything ahead of the game seems impossible at times. But today, Karl has no problem acknowledging that his top priorities are his family and his health, with basketball falling somewhere behind those two.

"I'm pretty clear that those are Nos. 1 and 2 in my life," Karl says. "And basketball might be three or four."

He's happy to report that's he's cancer-free but still has to spend plenty of time visiting doctors for checkups. Mix all that into a somewhat awkward year in the NBA, with its condensed schedule, and it's a delicate balance.

"From a standpoint of health, everything is in a good place," Karl says. "I'm feeling good, my energy is good. This is a crazy year, so you better have good energy."