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A lifer with a life

No need to feel sorry for George Karl.

Yes, his Denver Nuggets trail the Lakers in their first-round playoff series, 2-0. Yes, they have lost the first two games by 14 and 15 points, have self-destructed with two late technical fouls at Staples on Wednesday night, and seem to have about as much chance of winning this series as a mule has in the Kentucky Derby.

But if you tune in today for Game 3 in Denver, and feel a little tug at your heart as the camera goes to a soon-to-be 58-year-old who is slightly overweight, limps on a replaced hip and is taking on the Lakers with guys who seem better at acquiring tattoos than playing defense, save it.

Life is good for George Karl.

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“My daughter is pregnant with my first grandchild and my son made the Lakers,” Karl says. “I’d say that’s a pretty good year. My outside world is solid and happy.”

Karl’s image didn’t always include an outside world. From afar, he is this tough-looking presence along the sidelines, intense and serious, a man whose world seems to be clipboard, locker room and team bus.

He has been a coach in the NBA for 20 seasons. He is currently the 10th winningest of all-time in the league. As another measurement of where he stands in a business as tough as any in sports, Karl has 879 wins. Phil Jackson, the man on the other bench and already in the Hall of Fame, has 976.

Jackson, of course, has won nine NBA titles. Karl’s best shot was 1996, when his Seattle SuperSonics lost in the Finals, 4-2. The winning team was the Chicago Bulls and the man on the other bench that time, as now, was Jackson.

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Karl’s reputation is of a guy who knows the game, teaches it well and turns a team around fast. Also, a guy who never quite gets to cut down the net. In his 20 seasons, Karl has failed to get his team into the playoffs only three times. He won 40 playoff games in his seven seasons with the SuperSonics but never quite got a ring.

Where that once ate at him, it only nibbles now.

“I’ve mellowed, yes,” he says. “But I certainly haven’t lost my passion for the game or for winning. Now, players don’t really want a coach to be the one in the spotlight. There was a time when that was important, but I don’t need that anymore.”

The mellowing of George Karl accelerated on July 28, 2005, when he had surgery for prostate cancer. Life and death took center stage over wins and losses.

Then his son, Coby, a good college player at Boise State but on few NBA draft lists, had two bouts with thyroid cancer, the last in 2006.

Then Coby made the Lakers, and is a reserve on the team that is currently beating up on his father. The thought of that still sometimes turns mellow Karl to mush.

“Coby making the Lakers,” he says. “That’s the greatest gift basketball has ever given me.”

One of Karl’s best friends, Rick Majerus, describes what the father thought of his son’s chances to make the NBA. “Coby told George he was going to give the NBA a shot,” Majerus says. “George just rolled his eyes. It made the Jim Belushi eye-roll look like a wink.”

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Majerus, now coach at St. Louis University, says that Karl saw as many of his son’s college games as he could and always felt badly that the NBA schedule kept him away from so many of his high school games.

“He’d spend as much time as he could with Coby,” Majerus says. “He’d sit around and play cards with Coby and his friends, and then pay off all their losses when the game was over.”

There were soccer games too, and despite not understanding the game, Karl always tried to be there when his children -- Coby and daughters Kelci and Kaci -- played.

“He dragged me to one,” Majerus says. “Neither of us knew what was going on. Somebody told us we should keep yelling ‘change it.’ So we did, until somebody else came along and told us we should only yell that when our team had the ball.”

Majerus thinks Karl ought to be in line for two honors.

“NBA coach of the year and No. 1 soccer mom,” he says.

Karl buys tickets for every home Nuggets game and donates them back for use by charitable causes. He funds high school tournaments in Seattle and Milwaukee (he coached the Bucks for four seasons), with little fanfare and no agenda.

Ralph Lawler, the Clipper announcer, has been around the NBA since the mid-1970s and has known Karl since his days as a scrappy guard with the San Antonio Spurs of the old ABA and their early years of the NBA. He has a quick summary of the man.

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“Neat guy, terrific coach,” Lawler says.

Lawler also says that Karl was among his best resources when Lawler went through his prostate cancer surgery 11 months ago. “It was comforting when somebody could tell you what to expect,” Lawler says. “It was better than something coming from a doctor.”

Coby Karl played the last two minutes of Wednesday night’s Lakers rout. In the chaos of NBA garbage time, he committed one foul and had one assist. His father sat quietly on the Nuggets bench, between trusted assistants Doug Moe and Adrian Dantley, and watched with no show of emotion.

When the game ended, Coby headed for the Lakers bench to join the celebration. George Karl rose slowly and, without a glance, turned the other way toward the tunnel leading to the Nuggets locker room.

There was no eye contact, no nods. For those who didn’t know better, the player and coach with the same last name were not even related. But then, with George Karl these days, looks are deceiving.

He was asked if, given a choice between his Nuggets winning or son Coby having a great series, what would he choose. Karl smiled and took a long pause.

“I’d choose that he have a great series and we win Game 7 at the buzzer,” Karl said.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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