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Sonics’ Exit Leaves Door Open For Karl

Sun., May 7, 1995

If Shawn Kemp is the Rain Man, what does that make George Karl?

The Blame Man.

He’s getting it, the brunt of it, and you’d have to think the CBA gig he’s always dreaming out loud about is looking pretty good to him right now. Except that George Karl’s teams always fizzled in the playoffs in that league, too.

Is it all George’s fault, this latest public pantsing of the Seattle SuperSonics?

Of course not. But this is the National Basketball Association, where the bromide “hired to be fired” is not nearly cynical enough. NBA logic suggests a coach can’t win you a game, he can only lose you a championship. And now George Karl has lost the Sonics a pair.

Not that there aren’t upsides to this disaster. Less money in owner Barry Ackerley’s pocket, though he’ll get you on the rebound with higher ticket and payper-view prices next year. An amnesty on Kemp’s post-dunk testosterone seizures. Kevin Calabro can come up for air.

And at least Karl’s cut-ups didn’t exit the playoffs as gracelessly as the conspiracyimpaired Charlotte Hornets - or Sonics East, if you prefer.

Then again, it’s the Sonic way to save the gracelessness for the off-season. No doubt everyone will hide out for awhile as Karl twists in the wind. Then some appropriate ugliness will break out just in time to poison the draft.

Speaking of the draft, the Sonics have narrowed their needs to a guard who can shoot the 3 and knows the Heimlich maneuver.

That doesn’t speak to the question of the coach, however.

This was the man, remember, who back in February guaranteed his team would rout the Lakers in the playoffs. This was the man who has spent his 3 seasons in Seattle developing the depth and versatility needed to execute his daring defensive traps, only to revert to a six-man rotation and abandon that singular strength at the first sign of trouble.

But mostly, the Sonics have plunged into a tango of reciprocal contempt.

“I get tired of managing baloney rather than character, toughness, discipline,” Karl was quoted as saying after the Sonics had been eliminated Thursday night.

Yet what of George’s own character, toughness and discipline? He vowed after last year’s playoff fiasco that tough love was the ticket from now on, yet applied it only to the hyper-sensitive Kendall Gill - entombing him in the pine-time doghouse without rationale. Kemp and Gary Payton, meanwhile, could show up after the anthem every night and still start - a double-standard Payton repaid by giving Karl the phoniest vote of confidence this side of George Steinbrenner.

Karl knows his job is in jeopardy, yet insists he won’t quit because “coaching is the only thing I do really well.”

One-hundred twenty victories the past two seasons would seem to bear that out. The flip side? Last year’s playoff bellyflop was a fluke until it happened again.

The Sonics are given more credit than they deserve for their talent, though talent they have. Kemp’s gifts are obvious, but fundamentally he’s a mess. Payton, likewise, is the Nuke LaLoosh of point guards. Detlef Schrempf was once the NBA’s best sixth man two years running; perhaps he still should be. Sam Perkins’ career peaked four years ago. Gill’s jump shot is as fragile as his psyche. Every team should have a Nate McMillan, but not to take the game-winning jump shot.

Karl’s challenge has been to disguise those weaknesses and nurture a compensatory strength. He’s chosen energy and emotion - good answer, at least until April comes.

“The regular season has a degree of fraud in it,” he insisted before Thursday’s game, “in that the teams that play the hardest usually finish with the best records. But in the playoffs, everybody plays hard.”

Some play smart, too. Not Seattle.

Stubbornly, Karl dismisses the playoffs as a gauge of his effectiveness. “Daily progress, building fundamentals, working together over the course of the season - that’s what coaching’s about,” he said.

But Karl also made it about fomenting discontent, redefining disrespect and fostering indifference.

There is plenty of fault to go around, but this is the NBA and Bob Whitsitt isn’t around to buffer George anymore. Last year, it was Ricky Pierce who was exiled.

This time, Karl is the Blame Man.

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