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Sonics Have Bargain In Karl

Thu., Oct. 31, 1996

Before the first official 10-count on a Karl Malone free throw commences the NBA season Friday, let us pause to reflect upon a summer’s developments surrounding the heart and soul of pro basketball in its 50th anniversary year:


No, not Shawn Kemp’s “renewal” that might have been the worst basketball idea since Manute Bol tried a coast-to-coast dribble drive. Not Jim McIlvaine’s $35 million deal that is largely attributable to his haircut being 7 feet from the floor. Not even the $20 million Gary Payton will get. THIS YEAR.

The most astonishing fiscal development is a little $3 million that club owner Barry Ackerley will give to George Karl to coach the Sonics.

(Part of the astonishment is that I chose “little” as the adjective modifying $3 million, as good a sign as any that the republic is near collapse. But I digress.)

The $3 million will be the most ever paid anyone in the NBA who is merely a coach.

It’s going to a man fired from two previous NBA head coaching jobs, who nearly completed the unemployment hat trick little more than a year ago. And was encouraged to do so by almost everyone important to him, including his wife.

It’s going to a man who helped direct a team that averaged 60 regular-season wins to consecutive firstround playoff eliminations, flops unprecedented in NBA history.

It’s going to a man who watched in horror as his immediate boss, Bob Whitsitt, his protector and benefactor, was blown out of his job.

It’s going to a man generally disliked among his peers, sometimes disrespected for his egotistical, confrontational approach and unconventional hoops style, and disdained by some media whom he nevertheless supplies with entertaining quotes and the heart-on-a-sleeve pathos.

It’s going to a man who throughout his basketball career, player and coach, has punched his self-destruct button so many times the ooga horns have been worn out.

And the deal is coming from a man who, besides being impulsive and belligerent, can be so unaccountably cheap that he refused to pay overtime to his low-level sales people, which cost him a $13 million court judgment.

To top it off, this bit of NBA coaching history was negotiated by a rookie agent who was the Bellevue youth basketball coach of Karl’s son, Coby.

Here’s the most amazing part of Karl’s whopper contract: He deserves it.

For no other reasons than the foregoing.

Well, there is the matter of taking the Chicago Bulls, alleged to be the greatest team in NBA history, to six games in the Finals. That counts for something.

But just to get where he is, from where he was, well … for a guy who will pack a dog-bite scar on his lip for the rest of his life, reward for past sufferings must come sometime.

“Getting the highest contract is a respect thing, that puts him in the upper class of his profession,” said agent Price Johnson, a businessman and trucking-company owner, who befriended Karl after he spoke at Johnson’s basketball clinic a few years ago. “He wanted the respect of the ownership, and from the city, that he was wanted here.”

It was a respect that eluded him for much of his career, and will still be withheld in some quarters despite last spring’s achievements. Which is probably a good thing, for the sake of Sonics fans.

After all, what would happen to Karl if he’s not on a crusade to prove something to somebody?

Perhaps he has his fresh crusade all set up: Winning a title the hard way.

As if Karl is capable of doing it any other fashion.

Maybe Karl’s new contract isn’t so amazing after all, relative to his contribution.

But he’s still doing it without a net, still doing it through flaming hoops, always the hard way. Forget the won-loss record. He’s worth the three bills, just for the drama alone.

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