George Karl sat on the scorer's table, a puffy coat buffering his noticeably smaller frame from the chill of an empty arena. He explained how glad he would be when all this talk of milestones went away. "I think the older I get, the more I would like not to be in the spotlight."
The throat cancer that had forced his premature departure from last year's NBA season had made him leaner, his voice a little raspy. But, said the 59-year-old Denver Nuggets head coach, if he won his 1,000th regular season NBA game later that night at the Air Canada Centre, at least it would give him the chance to use that husky voice a little more. "It gives me more opportunity to say the right things and be an ambassador for the right stuff, both cancer and basketball."
On Friday, Karl became only the seventh NBA coach in history to join the 1,000-win club as the Nuggets defeated the Toronto Raptors 116-123. The milestone finally out of the way, ending a two-game losing streak for Denver, Karl rose from his seat after the buzzer and accepted a bunch of hugs, and laughed as some of his players pretended to pour water on his balding head.
"I just felt together with them," he said afterward. "A lot of times during an NBA season, a coach and the players aren't really connected. They're fighting a lot. This was a moment I think, maybe not on the court, but in the locker room afterwards, there was a great connection."
After 23 NBA seasons, Karl joined an esteemed fraternity that includes Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson and Larry Brown.
Toronto made it easier than it needed to be. Although the Nuggets were missing Carmelo Anthony, their top scorer and rebounder who was out with a bum right knee, practically non-existent defense from the Raptors allowed the Nuggets to put on a virtual shooting clinic in the fist half. Guard Chauncey Billups put in 18, Al Harrington had 19, and Arron Afflalo contributed 17. Toronto was saved by a hot Linus Kleiza, who wracked up 19 points in the first half, including 3-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc.
(Must've felt good for Kleiza, who had a limited role during his four years with the Nuggets and finished the game with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Likewise for Sonny Weems, a Nugget benchwarmer who now starts for Toronto. He finished with 21 points).
Still, things didn't get much better for Toronto, who never really looked alive until the final six minutes. Unfortunately, the Nuggets, who sunk over 55 per cent of their shots from the arc, were equally effective.
"Defensively, we had a lot of mis-matches tonight, I thought when Chauncey got fouls on Bayless and we had to play him with a guy who's not a natural point guard, that hurt us," said Raptors coach Jay Triano.
Quote of the night
"He's lower than a rook. He's a D-league rook." - a smiling George Karl on rookie Gary Forbes, the 25-year-old who was called up from the NBA's Development League this season. He's averaged 6.1 points and 2 rebounds in his first three NBA games, and started for the Nuggets on Friday. He finished with 15 points.
De Ja Vu for Ujiri
Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony have been twin sources of joy and anxiety for Masai Ujiri, who left the Toronto Raptors to became the Nuggets' new general manager this season.
As Toronto's assistant general manager, Ujiri felt the burn when the Raptors took a gamble and held onto Bosh then watched him defect to Miami.
Now Denver's best player, Anthony, has hinted that he wants to skip town when he becomes a free agent this summer. But the Nuggets (14-8) have had such a hot start this season, management faces a dilemma similar to Toronto's: trade your best player mid-season and take big bucks (while sacrificing your best chance to make the playoffs), or risk losing compensation and hold out until the summer, hoping the big guy chooses to stick around. It'll be interesting to see how Ujiri steers them.
In other historic news...
They're 13 simple rules typed on two sheets of paper. On Friday, the original rules of basketball, written 119 years ago by Canadian James Naismith, sold for $4.4-million at a New York auction house. The buyer, David G. Booth, plans to bring the document back to his alma mater, the University of Kansas, where Naismith founded the now-legendary basketball program. Naismith's grandson, Ian Naismith, said the proceeds would go to the family's basketball charity.
The Raptors hit the road to play the Detroit Pistons on Saturday and Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday, before hosting the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.