Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) ruled the Capital Region sports landscape. The Pats won CBA championships in 1984 and 1988 and helped launch the National Basketball Association (NBA) careers of numerous players. But it was through the head coaching profession that the legacy of the Patroons is best remembered. Two heavyweights stand out in the crowd: Phil Jackson, who went on to win a staggering 11 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers; and George Karl, who joined an elite group of NBA coaches in 2010, when he won his 1000th game.
I never saw a Patroons game that Jackson coached, but I vividly remember attending games coached by Karl, first inside the historic Washington Avenue Armory and then at the Knickerbocker Arena (now, the Times Union Center). Karl, who coached the Pats during their 1988-89 and 1990-91 seasons, finished his first season in Albany 36-18, and his second, a historic 50-6, with an undefeated 28-0 home record. And Karl’s Patroons squads were stacked with talent: They featured future NBA players such as Vincent Askew and Mario Elie.
Last September, a documentary entitled The Minor League Mecca, which follows the history of the Patroons and features numerous interviews with its former players and coaches, premiered at the Palace Theatre. Not surprisingly, Karl was in attendance. “It really captured the flavor of that time period and what it was like to be around Minor League Basketball,” Karl told me of the film. “I loved coaching in Albany.” Now based in the Denver area, Karl is currently out of coaching—at least for the moment. I caught up with him about the documentary, his time in the Capital Region and his incredible coaching career.
1. You’d coached in the NBA before coming to Albany. Was it difficult to coach in the Minors after being in the Majors?
I didn’t look at it as a step back. Returning to the CBA and coaching in Albany was a great thing for my career. We had a lot of success and it opened some doors for the future. I tried to instill that in the players we had. Everyone wants to be in the NBA, but the path isn’t easy for everyone. The Minor Leagues are tough. The pay is terrible, you have long bus rides, you aren’t exactly staying in top hotels on the road. It’s about opportunity, and what you do with it. We had a lot of hungry guys who recognized it as opportunity and made the most of it.
2. The 1990-91 Patroons team went 50-6 and undefeated at home. Did you guys feel unbeatable that season?
We were very confident. There was plenty of talent. The biggest reason we had success was there weren’t any ego problems. We played as a unit. Basketball allows for individuals to stand out, but all the best teams work within a framework. That team had that, and that’s why we were so successful.
3. You’ve been NBA Coach of the Year (2013), have 1175 career wins in the league and my guess is you’ll be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. What would being inducted into the Hall of Fame mean to you?
If it happens, it happens. I’d be tremendously proud. It’s not something I ever aspired to, but I would be truly appreciative if it ever comes to be.
4. You caught a good amount of backlash for your thoughts on some players, executives and the NBA in your 2017 book, Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, And Poor Shot Selection. Were you surprised with the criticism you received, or was your intention to stir things up?
I was somewhat surprised. A lot of the stories I told were about experiences that had happened years and sometimes decades before. People change. Perspectives change. I wanted it to be fun, like a relaxed conversation a couple of hoops fans would have while having a few beers at the bar. A lot of people told me they enjoyed it. But not everyone did.
5. Your son, Coby, is now a coach in the NBA G League. Having Minor League coaching experience yourself, have you given him much advice about coaching at that level?
Coby really knows the game and how to relate to people. He’s got so much working for him in those areas. I’m really proud of him, obviously, but I don’t try to offer up much in the way of advice unless he asks me for it.
6. Would you consider another NBA job if you were offered one?
You never want to say “never.”
7. What are your thoughts on the legacy of the Albany Patroons, especially the coaches who came before you?
I’ve always said that there is a lot to be learned in the Minors. A lot of the people who came through there used it as an experience to build on. It’s remarkable, though, that so many successful guys came through Albany at one time or another. Quite remarkable, really.