In a swanky Chicago hotel over two days in September, two old friends connected once again.
They met up in the most exclusive club in the league. Only 30 men got the invitation. Amid the discussions on rules and instant replay changes, George Karl used this NBA head coaches’ meeting as an opportunity to seek out Terry Stotts.
It wasn’t the type of reunion that Karl has envisioned. The way he always saw it, there would be two frosty ones in front of them and their rough past behind them.
They had once been as close as brothers. Karl, the head coach, and Stotts, his top assistant, had commiserated over postgame meals together. They had once traveled to Scotland together just to play golf.
And before the Los Angeles Lakers bounced the SuperSonics out of the 1998 Western Conference semifinals, four games to one, Stotts and his wife had listed their Seattle home for sale at the same time as the Karl family.
They would move on to the next NBA adventure together.
The friendship skidded on a patch so icy that when Stotts became a head coach for the first time in 2002, the two men did not even speak, according to reports. Time has passed; they talk now but things still haven’t gone back to the way they were. Still, Karl, currently the coach of the Denver Nuggets, asked for a favor.
His son, Coby Karl, needed an NBA home and it was not a leap of faith for Karl to trust that the man he once called his best friend could help.
” ‘What’s funny,’ ” Karl recently told Stotts. ” ‘There are two guys who I have loved very much in my life and I don’t think they’ve had a fair opportunity, a real good opportunity to make an NBA team.’ It was Terry Stotts when I coached him and also Coby now.”
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The lives of the two men that George Karl loves have always intersected.
Stotts was a player for the Montana Golden Nuggets of the Continental Basketball Association when his head coach’s wife delivered a boy, Coby Joseph Karl.
When Stotts traded in his short shorts for a coach’s necktie, he immediately took a seat next to Karl as a member of his Albany Patroons staff.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, wherever Karl landed, so followed his No. 1 assistant.
“They literally were hand in hand together,” Coby says of his father and Stotts. “Doing everything.”
And through every step of their friendship, there was the freckled-faced boy.
“He’s like an old friend, or I’m his uncle,” Stotts says. “It’s a very special relationship.”
Much has changed since the days when the Karls and Stotts passed pasta bowls around the table for their postgame family-style dinners at Buca di Beppo. Once skinny and pale, Coby — who was a ball boy in Seattle — grew to be 6-foot-5 with a wet jump shot but a world of challenges on his spotted shoulders.
During his senior season at Boise State, doctors discovered a lump on Coby’s throat. Then after Coby beat cancer — he hasn’t dealt with the sickness since — he has had to fight for his NBA career. Undrafted out of college, Coby got on with the Lakers but the team cut him one day before the start of the 2008-09 season.
He has since stayed long enough for Cleveland and Golden State equipment managers to issue him a jersey, but that was about the highlight of his 24-game NBA career.
“I made a decision last year at the end of my season in Europe that I wanted to give it one more go,” says Coby, now a 29-year-old newlywed. “It’s been a great experience (in Italy) but being an American basketball player, you always dream of playing in the NBA. I got a small taste of it but I feel like I never got enough. And that’s what I’m looking for — to prove myself and earn something here.”
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The love waxed cold in Milwaukee.
Near the end of the 2002 season, the Bucks stumbled their way out of a playoff spot and the head coach decided to make changes. In the July 2002 statement that Stotts released, he did not offer clues that he and Karl had what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would later describe as a “hard meeting.”
Only, in part, that: “we will each be better served in parting ways.”
Karl can be a reporter’s best friend with the kind of to-hell-with-it attitude that makes for colorful quotes that fill a notebook, but even he has never publicly opened up about the breakup.
“Circumstances,” Karl said, explaining rather cryptically to the Journal Sentinel in an interview in January 2003. “Women in our lives, family, getting tired and not going out as much. It’s a process.”
Ten years later, the reason behind the split remains between the two men. Did the relationship change after Milwaukee?
“Yup,” Stotts says succinctly, then closes his lips tight and flashes a facial expression that says much more: Move on.
Through his post-Milwaukee years, Stotts has publicly praised Karl, his mentor.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” Stotts says.
So his response that September day inside the Renaissance Blackstone hotel should be no surprise.
Just days before the start of training camp, the Blazers extended an invitation to Coby Karl.
The NBA dream lives another day with a little help from his dad’s old friend.
“I like to think that Neil (Olshey) and Terry have been fans of the way I play for a while, so it’s just a good fit,” Coby says. “Since my dad and (Stotts) stopped coaching together, we actually haven’t seen each other too much, but obviously in summer league, we’ll say hi to each other.”
“I was always around him and the other coaches. Once you’re around them that long, you’ll always be friends. For me, it’s fun to see him as a head coach because I want to be a coach one day.”
On Wednesday inside the Rose Garden, George Karl will see those two men whom he loves very much. One will be dressed in Portland home whites, wearing the No. 7. The other, just across the scorer’s table in the Blazers’ head seat.
Although times have changed, Stotts and Karl’s friendship has found a way to endure.
“Terry and I were best friends. And we were best friends for a lot of years, probably 15, 20 years. And when I started to change my staff in Milwaukee, Terry and I, we have not been the closest of friends since then,” Karl said, “but we always had a respectful friendship. I’ve loved what he’s done with his career. He’s always been extremely supportive and been there when I had my troubles but he’s also been a big cheerleader of my career and the way I bounced back a couple times. I think we love each other and respect each other.
“You know,” said Karl, just as a sigh escaped through his gravelly voice. “Someday we’ll drink a few beers and talk about the good times and the bad times and how very fortunate that we’ve been able to be in the NBA for as long as we’ve been in it.”
When his old friend’s quote was recited, Stotts stared across the floor of the Blazers’ practice facility and a smile curled across his lips.
“Yup,” Stotts says. “Sounds like George.”