George Karl’s glad to be back from battle with cancer

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak watched an old friend walk toward him Saturday night, but just stared for a moment when he got there.

His friend didn’t look like he remembered him, at least not in the body. “The face looks like George,” Kupchak said.

Much of the rest doesn’t. George Karl, the Denver Nuggets’ coach, underwent treatment for a form of neck and throat cancer in the off-season, and has lost about 50 pounds.

“I haven’t found many suits that fit me, I know that,” Karl said. “I’m hoping I get some new ones here soon.”

But, as if foreshadowing Kupchak’s initial response, Karl, 59, said few people have struggled to recognize him. Why?


“My face is still ugly,” he said, laughing, his voice a little weaker.

Karl, who also battled prostate cancer in 2005, said he feels better these days, especially now that he’s much slimmer.

“That’s the one thing about cancer,” he said before Saturday’s exhibition game against the Lakers. “You never really feel it. Some cancers make you sick, but I wasn’t feeling that. My treatment made me feel pretty bad.”

During his treatment with chemotherapy and radiation, Karl said there were times he couldn’t eat, when he’d have mucus all though his throat, when he felt as if he were choking. (He often fed himself through a feeding tube.) Rashes and burns marked his face and neck at times, drawing worried looks from his daughter, Kaci.

“When your 6-year-old child looks at you like you’re a monster, it bothers you a little bit,” Karl said.

His family and his health were often the only things on his mind, but Karl said basketball was never far.

“I’m addicted to it,” he said.

Karl is entering his seventh season with the Nuggets and his 23rd in the NBA. He’s 14 wins shy of 1,000 for his career, and only six coaches are ahead of him on the all-time wins list, including Phil Jackson.

“We were really nice to him last year, but now he’s healthy, we’re not being nice to him,” the Lakers’ coach said jokingly before getting serious after practice Friday. “It’s good to see him back. Happy he’s back.”

Karl said he is too, and that even with as long as he’s coached, returning is like riding a bike.

“You have to get the feel of it back, but I don’t think you forget,” Karl said.

Guard Steve Blake, who joined the Lakers this off-season, played under Karl for 49 games during the 2006-07 season, and credited him with turning around his career.

Karl told Blake to play more freestyle and up-tempo, and also gave Blake more court time (33.5 minutes per game) than he had gotten before, partly because Karl needed a point guard on the court with injuries leaving them low on options.

Because of that situation, Karl had to play Blake, and told him before his first game, “You’re the luckiest guy I’ve ever coached.”

Blake flourished in his mile-high stint, averaging 8.3 points and 6.6 assists.

“And it made me feel like I really belong up here,” Blake said.

His stretch with the Nuggets also helped him prepare for the Lakers, in a way. In Denver, Blake played with two stars in Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. Here, there’s Kobe Bryant and Co.

But looking back, Blake said he was thankful for Karl. “I’ll never forget that,” Blake said. Times staff writer Mike Bresnahan contributed to this report.