Men's Journal

Life Advice from Coach George Karl

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This story first ran in the November 2010 issue of Men's Journal.

How does cancer change a man?

My whole thing right now is: Life is precious, my time is important, so don’t waste it with your goofball mentalities. This will affect my coaching a little bit. But also I will be more balanced. The thing about basketball is that it’s a game of mistakes as much as it’s a game of success. I now realize you have to respect the game when it is being played well and respect that the game will not always be played well.

What’s the worst physical pain you’ve experienced?

The treatment I just went through — the combination of chemo and radiation, what it does to your mouth, taste buds, even your ability to breathe and talk — it was as difficult as anything I’ve ever done.

What skill should every man have?

I like people who can make people laugh. I used to be the clown of the party, but I’ve lost that a little because of the cancer — people are more sympathetic to me now, and being a clown is kind of disrespectful of that. I’d like to get it back.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My dad’s theory was: “I know nothing about who the best player is — I just know who’s playing the hardest. I want you to be the kid who plays the hardest.”

What adventure most changed your life?

Coaching two years for Real Madrid — living in another country, overcoming language problems. My coaching vocabulary was, like, 35 words. All along I thought mierda meant “look at me.” Turns out it means “bullshit.”

What should every man know about women?

If they can trust you, they will love you immensely.

What should every man know about money?

It’s overrated. It causes as much pain as happiness. I was the highest-paid coach when I was in Milwaukee, and that is not a good position to be in. When you’re the highest-paid coach, they expect you to win championships. The criticism and sarcasm that come with being number one was not worth it.

What is your greatest fear?

Motorcycles. I had one when I coached in Montana, but I just had too many close calls. It’s kind of crazy to put yourself on something going 70 mph when one wheel on a crack can throw you to your death. I won’t even go on a moped now.

When is it okay for a man to lie?

It took too many years for me to realize that when dealing with the toughest things, honesty makes you feel better — and usually works out better.

What one item of clothing should every man own?

Being a bald man, I’d say you gotta have a hat. Ideally, a North Carolina hat.

Is there a graceful way for a man to go bald?

Vanity went out the window for me once I started getting fat and losing my hair.

Do you have a scar that tells a story?

I got bit near my mouth by a German shepherd while delivering the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at 7 o’clock in the morning when I was 11 or 12. The dog and I were friendly for about two weeks, but then one day I went to pet him, and he just snapped at my face. I was bleeding all over the place. I rode home on my bike thinking I was gonna die of a dog bite. It took 13 stitches.

What advice would you give the younger you?

Life is simple. Don’t make it complicated.

What’s the best way to stop a scorer?

Deny him the ball. He can’t score without the ball. Don’t let him get into his comfort zone. If he does, it’s over. Be physical and let him know he’s gonna have to go through some bumps, elbows, and grinds before he gets his shot. Be annoying. I got in a fight with Pete Maravich once because I was playing under his chin the whole game. I was more of an annoying player than a good player. I’m proud of that.