Furious flames: Inside the George Karl and Kenyon Martin feud
Martin elaborates on the bad blood between Karl and so many other NBA players
Former Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin woke up in a good mood on Thursday morning as the father of five kids was taking his 2-year-old daughter to Disneyland to celebrate her second birthday. But after getting a text from an old Nuggets teammate about some stinging words from their former coach George Karl, Martin headed to the amusement park in a foul mood.
“We were going to Disney and Al Harrington texted me a little snippet,” Martin, 38, told me. “I hadn’t seen anything until then. I was putting some gas in the truck. I didn’t get a chance to read it all, but just that part alone, I don’t need to read the rest of it. Who are you to talk about that? …
“Who are you to talk about how I was raised? You know nothing about me. Nothing. I was irate. It took a while for me to calm down. Luckily, I had that drive. It’s a great thing that I had that drive. I calmed down and gathered my thoughts.”
According to the New York Post, Karl shot verbal cannonballs at three former Nuggets players he coached, including the now-retired Martin, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith in his new book, Furious George, which is slated to be released on Jan. 17.
I covered the Nuggets as a traveling beat writer from 1999-2007 for The Denver Post. Throughout that time, several changes took place on the team, including Anthony’s arrival as the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft, Karl replacing coach Jeff Bzdelik in 2004 and the Nuggets signing Martin to a six-year, $82.3 million contract in the summer of 2004.
Karl was a media darling who could fill a notebook. The 2013 NBA Coach of the Year was one of nine coaches to win more than 1,000 NBA games. He coached Denver from 2005-13, fell shy of a victory in the 2008 Western Conference Finals and beat cancer along the way.
The dark side about Karl was that he had an attention-thirsty ego. He was always at odds with several star players such as Anthony, Martin, Ray Allen and DeMarcus Cousins, just to name a few. It’s not to say that all these star players were saints, but there was coincidentally always some issue between Karl and the superstar.
“Does George know basketball? Yeah. Is he a good coach? No,” Martin said. “In order to be a good coach you have to cover all aspects of the game. You need to communicate with your players the right way and get the best out of them.”
Karl took a number of strong jabs at Anthony in the book, saying he was “a user of people, addicted to the spotlight and very unhappy when he had to share it.” Karl also questioned Anthony’s offensive mentality, defensive intensity and leadership skills and added that he grew tired of answering countless media questions about the current Knicks star. Karl compared Smith, Martin and Anthony to “the spoiled brats you see in junior golf and junior tennis.” Moreover, he wrote that “Kenyon and Carmelo carried two big burdens: all that money and no father to show them how to act like a man.”
Anthony, who was 2 years old when his father died of cancer, took Karl’s words in stride by calling them “irrelevant” and saying he was going to have a book called Stay Melo. Not Furious.
Smith made one mention of Karl on Twitter, stating, “Still trying to stay relevant. Sad just sad.”
When I told Martin about Anthony’s book idea, he said: “He can wait. I’m not.”
Martin has always been a “what you see is what you get” kind of person. And with Karl’s words burning in his mind on his drive to introduce his daughter to Mickey Mouse, that mentality wasn’t going to change. While his 2-year-old was on the amusement park rides without him, he launched nine tweets to express his distaste for Karl. Martin called him an “AWFUL AND COWARD A– COACH,” a “terrible person,” “selfish, unhappy and miserable” and the “worst coach” he ever played for. He also challenged Karl to forfeit his Denver wins, since he didn’t respect his players.
So why didn’t Martin just turn the other cheek?
The 13-year NBA veteran believed Karl crossed the line. In the book, Karl reportedly mentioned that Martin was nicknamed “yellow boy” as a child and was “teased unmercifully” for his stuttering and skin color while being raised by a single mother working two jobs. Those words struck the biggest nerve with Martin. Martin has never had a relationship with his father Paul Roby, a former New Mexico basketball player.
In reality, Martin’s father figures were his mother, Lydia, and his sister, Tamara, who both raised him.
“I am not ashamed to say it. My mother and my sister raised me. My mother was my mother and my father. I didn’t have no uncles, no dads, nobody there, me nor none of my friends growing up,” Martin said. “I’m not the only one. I just happened to make it to be on this level of sports.”
Karl coached the likes of Anthony, Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Marcus Camby, Smith, Andre Miller, Earl Boykins and Nene in Denver. But even as big as Anthony and Iverson were, the most contentious of Karl’s coach-player relationships was always with Martin.
Karl and Martin butted heads from the start when Martin arrived in Denver to be the team’s starting power forward. They battled over whether Martin, who overcame two micro-fracture surgeries, should practice. They battled over playing time. About the only thing they had in common was their strong personalities.
Off the court, they had no relationship. Martin said that was actually par for the course for the entire Nuggets team, which included tight-knit players.
“I had nothing in common with George Karl other than we were getting paid by the same employer,” Martin, who played with the Nuggets from 2004-11, said. “George used to walk through the locker room and not speak to nobody. Who does that? Egotistical, man.”
Martin also said Karl didn’t attempt to get to know him or his teammates as people.
“Not one of his players. None of his players. People on my team, people before me, people after me, ask him. I’m not the only one.”
The Martin-Karl battle reached a boiling point during a first round playoff series in which the third-seed Nuggets played against the sixth-seed Los Angeles Clippers in 2006. After returning from a knee injury, Martin lost his starting spot to usual reserve forward-center Francisco Elson and was playing low minutes in the series. Martin pleaded with Karl to give him his starting job back after a Game 1 loss but Karl declined. A frustrated Martin let loose on Karl during halftime of a Game 2 loss. Martin didn’t play in the second half and was suspended for the rest of that postseason for conduct detrimental to the team.
Although Martin could have handled his emotions better, suspending a player during the typically emotional playoffs is practically unheard of. The underdog Clippers won the series 4-1. There was a perception that Karl actually used Martin as a scapegoat to get the heat off of him for the eventual playoff upset.
“Of course, I’m hot. We’re losing. It’s playoff time and it’s time to rock,” Martin said. “He played me seven minutes in the first half [of Game 2] and we were losing so I boiled over. After that, I spoke my mind and they suspended me for the rest of the playoffs. I wanted out. I cleaned out my locker, took my name tag out, everything.
“I didn’t want to go back. But I didn’t have a choice. I’m going to show up and do my job.”
While I was working in Denver, Karl and I have actually been on good terms for years. He loved to ask me for some basketball gossip and I always tried to have something new for him. He was usually accessible when I needed him. I wished him well as he bravely fought and beat cancer twice. We weren’t best friends, but the respect was there.
We did have one verbal spat after Denver Post sports columnist Mark Kiszla roasted him in a stretch of articles and he took it out on me. With each fiery Kiszla column, Karl would take digs or show attitude with me in media interviews until I eventually shot back.
“My name is Marc Spears, not Mark Kiszla. Marc with a ‘c,’ not a ‘k.’ If you have any problems with his writing, take it up with him,” I said.
We were fine after that.
Kmart and Karl, different story.
Nuggets team general manager Kiki Vandeweghe didn’t get his contract renewed in 2006 after the team lost to the Clippers. Vandeweghe was a big Martin ally and was very close and communicative with the players. His caring mentality helped keep the peace between Karl and the Nuggets players, too. Martin believes Karl had something to do with Vandeweghe’s departure.
“Everything Kiki had done to keep us successful on the floor and off the floor changed. Kiki is good people. You could come to his office and have a conversation,” Martin said.
Martin played in two NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets before coming to Denver. The Nuggets advanced to the 2009 Western Conference Finals against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers won the competitive best-of-seven series 4-2.
Martin blames Karl for the Nuggets not advancing to their first NBA Finals appearance in 2009.
“He never worked on end-of-game situations,” Martin said. “Time. Score. Up three, down three. Those kind of situations. Out-of-bounds plays. Side out. We lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers.
“We threw the ball away twice. A.C. [Anthony Carter] threw it away and I threw it away. You know why? We didn’t have any out-of-bounds plays. We beat the Lakers if we have out-of-bounds.”
Martin’s days with the Nuggets ended in 2011. He next played in China, and with the Clippers, Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks before his NBA career ended in 2015. Now his basketball focus is on his son Kenyon Martin Jr., a sophomore forward star at Chaminade College Preparatory School in Los Angeles.
Martin fears that his children will read Karl’s words.
“My kids can read,” Martin said. “I don’t need someone showing them something negative that was said about their father.”
Karl has had the type of coaching credentials that should land him in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Furious George, however, could keep him outside the doors in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The book hasn’t been completely opened to the public yet. The New York Post just ran a few excerpts on three of Karl’s former players. Just imagine what else is next. Expect critical stories on Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Allen, Glenn Robinson, Billups, Iverson, Sam Cassell, World B. Free, Chris Mullin, Chris Washburn and many more.
Karl will get the attention he craves, money and more, but his furious words will ultimately cause a lot of pain from his former NBA players and others associated with him in the league.
Books last forever. And what should have been a possible Hall of Fame coaching legacy will now be forever stained by Furious George. Somewhere Martin will be shaking his head in laughter watching it all unfold.
“I might go buy them and burn them like they burn people’s jerseys. But then maybe he will get some residuals off of that. No, I won’t do that. Not at all.”
A request for comment was made to George Karl and his representatives but has not been returned.