DENVER — George Karl has always been brutally honest, and he was never more honest than when he found out he had prostate cancer.
The news hit him after the Denver Nuggets head coach led his team to a 93-87 win over San Antonio in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals April 24. He was ecstatic as a coach but devastated as a man.
“It was a tough day,” Karl said at a news conference at the Pepsi Center on Monday. “The day you get told is a tough day. I can’t deny it, it was a tough night. But coaching playoff basketball is what I live for. I’ve had a lot of fun building good teams. I don’t think it was a distraction. Winning Game 1 came at the wrong time. We should have won Game 2.”
Karl had prostate surgery July 28 in Salt Lake City and since then things have been positive. Now he can lend his support to one of his assistants, and fellow University of North Carolina alum, Doug Moe.
Karl let it slip that Moe has also been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will have surgery Sept. 12.
“The prognosis is good, and I expect to be in training camp on Oct. 3,” Moe said in a statement released by the Nuggets on Monday.
Moe, who is the winningest coach in Nuggets history with a 432-357 record from 1980-90, moved to the bench after the All-Star break in February as an assistant under Karl. Moe, who had heart bypass surgery last summer, got clearance from his doctor to sit courtside next to Karl.
Moe said the return to the bench helped revitalize him and was actually good for his heart because he had some control over what happened on the court. In his previous role as a consultant with the team, Moe watched games from the stands or the media lounge.
While Karl has called Moe one of his mentors, he can serve as Moe’s mentor in this situation.
One thing he can tell him is prostate cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer, but it’s still tough to come to terms with.
“It wakes you up and slaps you around,” Karl said. “There was a period of time where you wake up and think about death a lot. Right now everything is great. All the tests and biopsies have come back perfect. It’s still a process. They’re going to test you for five or six years before they’re really convinced.
“You get scared, you get emotional and you think crazy stuff. There are moments you cry, you worry and you don’t know. Fortunately now we know a lot more.”
Karl said when he found out about the cancer, he told his family and some of his close friends but he didn’t say anything to his players.
Since they found out, the players have been supportive of their coach.
“My personality is never to distract a team,” Karl said. “The players were great. Every player talked to me or wrote me or sent me flowers. They were great, their spirits were good. To do it in the period when I found out about it, I don’t think it would have been the right coaching move.”
Karl said he found solace in his job.
“Basketball is a great place to go anytime,” he said. “Going to the gym is a great release. It’s always been my cave or my place I’ve enjoyed going when I’m happy or I’m sad. It was great going to the gym because you didn’t have to think about it. You didn’t have to think about the phone calls you had to make or who you had to talk to. Once you get the news, it’s living with it and getting stronger. In those days it got better every day, but it took some time.”
Now a month after his surgery, Karl can look forward with optimism and not worry as much about his mortality.
“There are moments you cry yourself to sleep,” he said. “The thing I didn’t like about it is I woke up scared, and I’ve never done that before in my life. I’ve always been a wake-up guy, ready to kick (butt) and let’s go. I did wake up a few times worried, emotional or scared.
“There are times you’re looking at your child and hope you’re going to be around. I still think I’m going to make it to 90. My dad made it to 95. I don’t need 95, I’ll take 90.”