Losing his Carolina Way

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

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NEW YORK – They forever worship at the altar of Dean Smith, the lost souls of the Carolina Family talking about basketball's honor, about a right way, as though they're these pristine disciples descending to cleanse the unwashed. These phonies spread a gospel about an NBA of selfish players. Some sermon they love to spread, some load of pompous garbage.

Together, George Karl and Larry Brown had going one of the biggest cons in the game, and on Monday it finally came crashing down on Karl, the Denver Nuggets' coach. His silly sandbox desire for revenge on behalf of Brown, the exiled New York Knicks coach, cost the Nuggets a basketball season.

When Karl was declaring on Monday that Knicks coach Isiah Thomas was an "[ass]" and "full of [crap]," that he was guilty of Saturday night's premeditated and evil act, Karl should've been apologizing to his own team for creating a circumstance that let that night, this season, spiral out of control.

Karl should've been begging his owner for forgiveness and for his job.

Instead, there goes Carmelo Anthony for 15 games and J.R. Smith for 10.

And there goes the Nuggets' season.

"I'll swear on my children's life that I never thought about running up the score," Karl said.

Just like Isiah Thomas swears that if the Continental Basketball Association had given his business plan a little more time, it would've made the cover of Fortune together.

If you're being honest here, you'll see that Karl has managed the most improbable feat of the season: He's turned the Machiavellian Knicks president and coach into a sympathetic figure. It takes some sort of mangled plot to make that possible, and Karl delivered. He refused to take into consideration the fragile psyches and volatile dispositions of his players when he was busy doing his end-zone dance on the Madison Square Garden floor up nearly 20 points in the final minutes.

So, Anthony flipped out and started swinging.

And Smith broke out of an official's bear hug and tumbled into the stands with the Knicks' Nate Robinson.

Karl knew the dispositions of those players and still was willing to risk all hell breaking loose.

"He put his players in a tough position," Thomas said Monday morning. "He put his players in a very bad position."

Nobody likes Thomas, true, but that doesn't make him the instigator of Saturday night's melee. He alone wasn't responsible because people believe he ruined the CBA, made a mess of the Knicks and maybe sexually harassed a female Knicks executive. Feel free to pile on Thomas, judge this Bob Knight protégé with those holy Dean Smith values, but try telling yourself that there isn't a self-respecting coach in the NBA who wouldn't have told his team the same thing.

No more layups, fellas. No more dunks.

Had former Knicks coach Pat Riley ever been probed about telling his team that he wouldn't stand for one more dunk, one more uncontested layup, he wouldn't have flinched. Riles would've gone Colonel Jessup and the basketball world would've applauded him.

Hell, yes, Isiah called for the Code Red.

Welcome to the NBA.

Three weeks ago, Kobe Bryant scored 52 points on the Jazz at Staples Center. After the game, Utah coach Jerry Sloan wished his Jazz had stopped letting Bryant leap and shoot over them, wished they had been more physical. He suggested his team hadn't showed a lot of toughness and concluded that it would've been much harder for Kobe to make shots lying on his back.

Everyone laughed, and no one blinked. Sloan wasn't advocating that the Jazz hurt Bryant, that they do something dirty. If Bryant had been clobbered, the story would've been played this way: That's good, old-fashioned, hard-hitting Midwestern basketball. That's Jerry Sloan being Jerry Sloan.

Thomas does it and he's bringing the street into the NBA.

Listen, do I believe Thomas when he says that he was just pleading with Anthony to stop embarrassing his players instead of warning him of a hard foul, that he told him, "You shouldn't be rubbing it in"? Of course not.

Still, there's a fine line between calling for a "hit" on a player and delivering the familiar get-a-body-on-someone message. And Thomas is culpable when that duty falls on rookie second-round pick Mardy Collins, who probably felt torn between his better judgment and an understandable survivalist instinct to please his coach, who, as team president, also happens to hold immense influence over his future.

"It's very difficult to judge," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "If I had thought someone had given a specific order to injure another player, I would've reacted very differently."

So Stern did the right thing: He called a jump ball on New York and Denver, fining each franchise $500,000 for breaking the spirit of the law.

This isn't to suggest that Thomas didn't play a part in escalating the fight, but Karl takes most of the blame.

It isn't illegal to run up the score and leave four starters on the floor with 1:15 left in a 123-100 victory. It's just unprofessional, a reckless judgment with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of players on the floor.

If this had been Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, another Brown ally, running up the score, he wouldn't be so inclined to worry about his mature, polished stars flipping out in a fight. Of course, Popovich has won three championships. Yes, he is indebted to Larry Brown for giving him his start in the NBA, but he would never have endangered his chance for a fourth title by exposing Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to a two-bit bid for vengeance.

But George Karl did.

And he blew up his basketball season.

So much for Coach Smith's Carolina Way.

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