February 3, 1998 in Sports

Dear Barry: Keep Karl

Frank Hughes Tacoma News Tribune
 

Dear Mr. Barry Ackerley, In regard to the difficulty you and your advisers are having making up your mind about the coaching vacancy you will have with your NBA franchise, the Seattle Super Sonics, I wanted to voice my opinion on the subject. Give my 2 million cents, as it were in today’s NBA pay scale.

I know I am a small minion in your world, Mr. Ackerley - may I call you Barry? - and I know you would not regularly value the opinion of the average Joe on the street, unless, of course, it involves a Shawn Kemp-for-Scottie Pippen trade, but I just felt the need to weigh in.

It seems to me, Barry, there is an old saying I am fond of using, and that would be more than applicable in this case: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Considering the historical record of one George Matthew Karl, Barry, it hardly seems the wheels have stopped turning. Mr. Karl has guided your franchise to five straight seasons of at least 55 wins, and unless a bomb falls on that fine, refurbished facility, the KeyArena - a building, I might add, that Mr. Karl, in a sense, helped you refurbish and fill - he will record his sixth 55-win season, probably even his third 60-win season.

And it is no coincidence, Barry, that when you took over the team in 1984, the average attendance at a SuperSonics game was not even 7,500 fans. Now, Barry, that number is regularly 17,072, with 69 consecutive sellouts.

If the CEO of any one of the companies in your vast empire had such an impressive track record, I hardly think you would willingly ship them off, or allow them to be stolen by your fiercest competitors.

Now I know, Barry, that Mr. Karl - or should I call him George, for familiarity’s sake - is not the easiest employee to deal with. His mouth sometimes acts as if it needs an exorcist, a fact to which he freely admits. He often dresses like an insurance salesman. And his free-wheeling, liberal lifestyle may not jibe with the button-down feel any organization outside of Harley Davidson would want to portray.

But when it comes to such a unique profession, hey, what great coaches don’t have their idiosyncratic tendencies? That Phil Jackson in Chicago has his Zen and regularly pops off about his owner and general manager; the danger of hiring Larry Brown is his inner nomadic self may whisper to him at any time that he should wander once again; Pat Riley is a power-hungry executive with a taste for an expensive lifestyle - which, I might add, your colleague, Mr. Huizenga, pays for; and the Kingdome could not hold the ego of either Rick Pitino or John Calipari.

My advice to you, Barry, for the sake of your franchise and the people of Seattle, to whom, whether you like it or not, you have a certain responsibility - especially since they helped finance part of that nice, refurbished arena - is grimace and bear it.

I covered the Washington Bullets for the past three seasons, Barry, watching them go 21-61, 39-43 and then, finally, salvation, 44-38 and a trip to the first round of the playoffs last season, considered a major success in Washington and something that would be considered a failure here in the Northwest.

And since I grew up in Washington, Barry, ever since those Bullets lost to the Sonics in the 1978-79 NBA Finals, I have suffered through 18 abysmal seasons that, in all, totaled a 633-843 mark, with 44 wins being the most in that span. And you, Barry, have a team that has five straight seasons of at least 55 wins.

So, needless to say, Barry, I have first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to watch a franchise wither and die without resurrection. Through Dick Motta and Gene Shue and Kevin Loughery and Wes Unseld and Jim Lynam and now Bernie Bickerstaff, that Washington team never has been able to find one man to pull it out of its virtually inimitable depths and deliver it into the light you have seen for six straight seasons. Even now, with the third-highest payroll in the league, that team is mired at .500.

Now, Barry, you may have a grand plan here, a scheme far over the heads of peons like me. Perhaps you have known all along that you will re-sign George, you just want to pay him back for all the grief he has given you through the years.

Maybe you think that putting pressure on George to produce this season will bring out the best in him and the Sonics. Or, for all I know, you already have struck a deal with Phil Jackson and he will be coaching closer to his Montana home as soon as he finishes up with Michael and the boys. But Barry, neither you nor Wally Walker has told any of us what that grand plan is, so it is impossible to evaluate.

Therefore, I must tell you, Barry, that if there is no grand plan, find one - and make sure it involves George. There are too many franchises out there that have failed for you to throw away a coach who has consistently led this one to success.

And if money is an issue, it shouldn’t be. Not for an organization that is part of a group that just signed a $2.5 billion television deal. Not for a team that sells out every game. Not when players’ salaries have escalated to between $15 million and $20 million a season.

Barry, I know you gave George a chance when nobody else wanted him. But he has rewarded you with the second-most successful franchise the past six seasons. Reward him with a contract equivalent of his coaching brethren - $25 million over the next five years - and be done with it.


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