Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On the NBA: Real life gets in the way

By John McMullen
Just when you start taking sports a little too seriously, real life almost always gets in the way.

I saw George Karl just over two months ago when he brought his excellent Denver team into Philadelphia in the midst of a four-game road trip.

After the Nuggets dispensed of the Sixers, I patiently waited for Karl's post- game comments outside the locker room and remember remarking to a colleague how tired he looked after he was done breaking down the game.

I didn't think much of it. Karl has always been an understated guy and he had been in San Antonio two days earlier and still had trips to Charlotte and Detroit on the docket before he and his team was set to return to the Rockies.

It was just another part of the non-stop grind that is the NBA season, and Karl has been doing this virtually non-stop since 1984. He had also yet to receive his contract extension, and his team has some of the highest expectations in the entire league. Anything less than a rematch with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals would be an abject failure. Heck, even a second straight series loss to LA without pushing Kobe Bryant and Company could be construed as a wasted season by many.

That kind of pressure could take a toll on anyone.

If only that was the problem.

Anything basketball-related took a back seat on Tuesday when Karl, with tears in his eyes and his team by his side, announced he had been diagnosed with cancer at a very emotional press conference on Tuesday night.

The veteran mentor was informed he had squamous cell carcinoma in his right tonsil in late December and that has metastasized to a lymph node in his neck, according to his physician, Dr. Jacques Saari.

Always a fighter, Karl, who already beat prostate cancer nearly five years ago and watched his son, Coby, beat thyroid cancer, talked about it as "a curable and treatable disease."

"My hope is that it is a curable and treatable disease," Karl said. "My family has battled cancer, but it is something that has to be treated immediately. I think I'm very blessed to have great family and an organization that has supported me throughout this.

"I will need them in different ways, but I don't think I'm a guy that needs sympathy, but I do need support. The major desire for me is to kick this cancer's butt and to stay with a team that I think can win a championship."

Clearly, Karl is gearing up for the fight of his life and has already begun chemotherapy and radiation therapy to combat the insidious disease.

"The treatment began (Tuesday), and in general it's about a six-week treatment," Karl said.

Saari, meanwhile, explained just how tough it will be, noting that the current treatments will likely be much harder in the final two weeks than it is in the initial four weeks.

"We found a large lump about two inches in diameter (on his neck)," Dr. Saari said. "The most important thing is to have this therapy in a continuous fashion. You cannot skip a day or two or you lose the gains (from the treatment)."

Always a coach, Karl, who mentored the West's All-Stars last Sunday in front of over 108,000 fans and received a one-year contract extension last week, still found time to sprinkle some basketball conversation in his remarks.

"There could be a possibility throughout the six weeks that I could miss games and practices, depending on my pain and fatigue levels," Karl said. "I hope to be as close to 100 percent as I can come playoff time in April."

The entire NBA family is hoping for the same but one thing is certain...Kobe and the Lakers don't seem all that tough anymore.

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