WILMINGTON. — Coby Karl spent the height of the pandemic in Boise, Idaho, without a craft to actively pursue but with plenty of time to self-reflect.
The South Bay Lakers, the G League team he had coached since 2016, opted not to participate in the league’s bubble for the 2020-21 season. Instead, Karl connected with his family through daily at-home workouts with his wife, Kristen, and cuddle sessions with young daughters Kennedy and Payton. The self-identified introvert started an interview podcast called The Curious Leader and read up on high-performance execution and self-actualization.
A theme arose from the downtime: Staying present.
Karl needed to put that into practice last summer, when South Bay informed him that the team would be moving in a different direction. He considered leaving coaching altogether to take a job in Boise State University’s College of Innovation and Design that would provide benefits “and maybe a small salary, but I would have had to figure it out.”
Then, Karl received a call from the 76ers and, eventually, an offer to coach the G League-affiliate Delaware Blue Coats, who begin their 2021-22 season Saturday night by hosting the Long Island Nets at the Chase Fieldhouse.
“This was really the last opportunity [to coach this season], the last fish in the pond,” Karl said. “… This was literally the last call, and I was pretty transparent in the interview and told Doc [Rivers] even before, ‘Listen, I just want to coach.’ ”
It was an example that relationships matter, including the one hatched over breakfast with Rivers during the NBA lockout a decade ago. Karl trusts that his vast experience as a basketball lifer — he is the son of renowned coach George Karl and a former player in the NBA and G League (which was known as the D League from 2005 to 2017) and overseas — has prepared him for this move.
And he is ready to apply a newfound balance and perspective to this job, which requires a blend of developing each player’s skills, teaching the Sixers’ systems, and guiding young and fringe players in how to be professionals and still working toward a collective goal.
“I just told my players to find out who they are,” Karl said. “Be who they are more authentically and more courageously, more open, more self-compassionately. … My job with Doc and Daryl [Morey] and this organization and with my staff, it’s like, ‘How can I figure out this puzzle so everyone is living their 100 percent authentic self?’
“Because that’s where the power comes from: Can we all do that together?”
Karl, 38, is full of basketball stories that are rich in detail and personality — and that can be ignited by seemingly any factoid.
Asking this Inquirer reporter where they are from prompted a memory about receiving the game ball from the Phoenix Suns’ Charles Barkley after he racked up 44 points and 24 rebounds against George Karl’s Seattle SuperSonics in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference finals. Upon realizing that a hoodie was a reference to the Harry Potter series, Karl shared that he once observed Kobe Bryant reading an early-access copy of one of the books in the Lakers locker room as he started dabbling in post-basketball storytelling that eventually earned him an Oscar.
Karl’s basketball journey has taken him from Sonics ball boy, to Boise State walk-on, to undrafted player who spent time on NBA rosters with the Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
Along the way, he soaked up the influence of some of the game’s coaching giants.
That began with his father, who in a career spanning more than three decades is one of nine coaches in NBA history to win 1,000 games. It was not out of the ordinary for young Karl to shoot at the Sonics practice facility and have rebounders from his father’s NBA coaching tree, including Tim Grgurich, known as the godfather of player development and purposeful pregame warm-ups because his “superpower is he can connect with anyone,” Karl said.
Future NBA head coaches Nate McMillan, Dwayne Casey, Terry Stotts, and Jamahl Mosley were among those who worked with George Karl and, thus, spent time with Coby.
“People put a lot of time into my life that didn’t have to,” Karl said. " … I wouldn’t have the life I’ve had without these coaches.”
Karl also refers to the legendary Phil Jackson as a second father.
Karl first met Jackson as the 15th man on the Lakers roster in 2007-08, “mesmerized” by his championship “secrets” and intrigued by his principles of meditation and Zen Buddhism. Karl broke down in tears when Jackson and then-general manager Mitch Kupchak cut him, but Karl and Jackson stayed in touch via email while he played in Italy.
Karl joined the G League’s Westchester Knicks in 2014 as an assistant coach during Jackson’s tenure with the organization, and he popped by Jackson’s office about once a month to pick the coach-turned-executive’s brain. He dove deeper into spirituality while visiting Jackson at his home in Montana, then delighted in bringing his father along for a trip two years later. Recently, Karl has talked with Jackson about how to teach the Sixers offense to the Blue Coats players.
“His willingness to be accessible to me has been incredible,” Karl said of Jackson. “I’ll just call him.and he’s very easy to talk to.”
During the NBA lockout in 2011, Karl had nowhere to play and utilized the time by reaching out to professionals he admired. He chatted with Chris Petersen, who at the time had turned Boise State’s football program into a powerhouse. He called Ray Allen to learn more about his time playing for Karl’s father.
And he asked Rivers if they could go to breakfast near Southern California’s Manhattan Beach. During the meal, Rivers shared more about his path from player to coach. They swapped ideas about tactics and putting the team before all else.
“I try to listen,” Karl said. “But I get excited when I talk to people like that, because I feel like I can sense a similarity with the way I see things. That excites me when I see someone as successful as Doc. I’m like, ‘OK, I can see the threads that are similar in myself … and I can learn.’ ”
During his time as South Bay’s head coach, Karl celebrated the individual successes of players such as Alex Caruso, Thomas Bryant, and Talen Horton-Tucker, working to ensure that players make and thrive in the NBA, while also winning a division title and advancing to the playoffs’ conference semifinals.
And then the pandemic unexpectedly gave Karl the opportunity to look inward and branch out.
He read Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy, which explores how over-inflating one’s self-importance can hinder growth. He scratched his competitive itch by playing golf, tennis, and pickleball. He recorded and released deep conversations with his father, Jackson, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss on his podcast.
He melted when he got a specific look from one of his daughters that conveyed that she felt safe in his arms, knowing what the other side feels like when a parent’s job frequently takes them away from the family.
“I was so attached to my job and my identity was so caught up in that,” Karl said. “It is part of who I am, but I think it was too big of a part. … I really had to take a step back and kind of acknowledge I have an imbalance in my life. And it’s OK, because I think greatness comes from being all in on what you’re doing. But [I’m] making sure I take care of my family first, my health first.”
Karl believes that, by trying to replicate his father or Jackson’s identity as a coach, he found himself within his profession during that time. Now, he is encouraging his players to do the same inside a G League ecosystem, which he views as the most fun and most challenging for a coach.
On the floor, he must help create synergy between the Blue Coats and Sixers by running similar systems despite a fluctuating roster. His style is to put players in situations where they are allowed to be free and to fail in an environment that fosters the “courage to come back the next day and fail again.”
That approach was on display when Sixers first-round draft pick Jaden Springer had to find his way during the Blue Coats’ scrimmage last week, and when Karl called NBA journeyman Shaq Harrison after he committed four turnovers in the Sixers’ preseason game against Toronto last month.
“I was kind of down on myself,” said Harrison, who has played for four NBA teams during his four-year career and is looking for his next shot at a call-up. “He was like, ‘Hey, Shaq, that wasn’t your best game, but I need you to always keep a smile on your face … There’s gonna be games like that. You’re gonna get past it. I’m not judging you off one game, and just keep it moving.’
“That helped me a lot. The next day, I ended up playing pretty well [nine points, seven rebounds, three assists, and five steals in a preseason win against Brooklyn]. I just took that as really good coaching.”
Karl understands his impact goes beyond on-the-court tactics and strategy. Many players live on the “volatile” line of achieving their dreams and financial instability — a reality he knows first-hand as a former G League and international player. Because of this, Karl says, the vast majority of players are focused and eager to learn about how to take care of their bodies and achieve the personal responsibility it takes to be a consummate professional.
“We’re not going to have an assistant coach chasing you down,” Karl said. “You either show up, or you’ll get fined. Or, you’ll show up, or you’ll get cut. … It’s a very unique place where no one really wants to be here, because financially it’s not there. But it also creates this really cool vacuum of, ‘Hey, we’re all here. Now how do we all succeed together?’ You can create some pretty special bonds through that.”
Another habit Karl picked up during the pandemic: Keeping a journal.
He can easily refer to snippets of the past 18 months, when he engaged in that self-reflection in Boise. By next year, it will be filled with new entries from his return to coaching, a culmination of those past experiences, mentor lessons, and applications of that quest to stay balanced and present.
And Karl’s new boss has already noticed his desire to keep seeking knowledge as The Curious Leader.
“I love that he wants to educate himself in coaching every second,” Rivers said. “He asks a lot of questions. He wants to really learn the craft.”