DENVER – On the eve of firing the NBA's coach of the year, Denver Nuggets president Josh Kroenke never did fall asleep. All those memories of George Karl walking into Kroenke's AAU practices, hours training with Karl's son Coby, a basketball education absorbed on charter flights and bus rides.
"It was the hardest conversation that I knew I'd ever have," Kroenke says.
He had been so fond of Karl, indebted for teaching him so much about coaching and players, about the courage to stay the course conquering cancer. Personally, the choice to fire Karl pained Kroenke. Professionally, it promised to make him an object of public scorn.
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If nothing else since Stan Kroenke elevated his son to run the Nuggets three years ago, Josh, 33, has shown a willingness to make the hard, sometimes unpopular choices. As much as anything, Josh Kroenke didn't believe the franchise could function with a disgruntled Karl in the final year of his contract, obsessed over an extension the organization wasn't prepared to grant him.
"I didn't read the newspaper for a long time this summer, because I just didn't want to come across a story slamming me," Josh Kroenke says with a smile. "People didn't understand exactly what I was trying to do. I saw a direction that I believed in and I had to go for it."
Across a series of hirings and firings, trades and draft picks, he has withstood the scrutiny. He let go of an NBA Executive of the Year, Mark Warkentien, and hired Masai Ujiri, an anonymous, young executive. Together, Ujiri and Kroenke delivered the NBA a blueprint on bringing back value in a trade for a superstar player. They dictated terms on the Carmelo Anthony market, earning the respect of the league, and ultimately an Executive of the Year award for Ujiri – right before he accepted a $3 million a year job to run the Toronto Raptors.
"We weren't going to get taken advantage of unless we chose to get taken advantage of," Kroenke says. "With 'Melo, we had the asset everyone wanted."
As an heir to one of the world's richest and most influential families – a sports empire on his father's side, the Walton-owned Walmart on his mother's – Josh Kroenke has long impressed people with his determination to make his own way. He earned a basketball scholarship to Missouri, where they nicknamed him "Aikman" over his penchant of absorbing concussions in sacrifices of his body. Against Syracuse, he once got switched onto Anthony for a play.
"Yeah, he scored on me," Kroenke says.
He sits in his small office in the Nuggets practice facility, his two English Bulldogs rumbling in and out. Outside his office on this training-camp morning, the faces have changed in the corridors. He's hired Tim Connelly as his GM, Brian Shaw as coach, and he's banked on a belief that he's replenished the franchise with the proper personnel again. Connelly is a relentless, connected evaluator and Shaw comes with shiny credentials and pedigree.
The NBA has changed, the dynamic between front offices and coaches forever more tuned together. If Karl's generation represented an old-school division of power, Kroenke has nudged the Nuggets toward a more modern league reality.
"We never want to tell the coach what he has to do: He has to decide the best combinations on the floor, who to play, what to run," he says. "But the best organizations in the NBA have that camaraderie, that cohesion, between the front offices and the coaching staffs. There's so much information available now, and this makes the most sense. It's a good dynamic to have, and you can feel everybody is on the same page here."
From the loss of Andre Iguodala in free agency, to Danilo Gallinari's ACL injury, the Nuggets are suddenly overlooked in the Western Conference again. Connelly and Kroenke subtly retooled the roster over the summer and hold a $9 million trade exception to absorb talent within the year.
Most of all, Josh Kroenke has made these Nuggets his own now – front office to coaching staff to roster. In a life where people have constantly underestimated him, doubting the resolve, the desire, of a child who will be king, Kroenke has slowly, surely constructed a resume of significance in three-plus years overseeing the Nuggets.
Everything gets harder now; everything more complicated. "I've been around pro sports since an early age, with the NFL, the NBA, soccer," he says, "and I've picked up things. But I've also found my own path. There's always a fear of failure in this family. I don't want to feel out of place in it. I want to go prove things to myself.
"I think that I can figure out people pretty quickly, that I've developed a good sense of reading them," he says. "From a young age, I've had people coming to me asking me for stuff; people always want something."
Between the Nuggets and Avalanche, mostly they want winning now. The NBA's executive and coach of the year are gone, and Josh Kroenke tries to remake and reshape these Nuggets again. Yes, everything gets harder now. The heir to an empire has never minded crashing to the floor, never minded taking a hit. For this job, this burden, it's life's best training.