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Like Father, Like Son
Chris Mannix
December 11, 2006
George and Coby Karl have shared a lot on and off the court, including having won a battle with cancer
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December 11, 2006

Like Father, Like Son

George and Coby Karl have shared a lot on and off the court, including having won a battle with cancer

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Whether it's a pair of bushy eyebrows, a love of classical music or a knack for hitting jump shots, fathers and sons usually have certain similarities. Denver Nuggets coach George Karl and his son, Coby, a 6'4" senior guard at Boise State, are no exception. At 23, Coby has his father's tenacious attitude and the same mop-top hairdo that George sported some 30 years ago. They also share something else: Both are cancer survivors.

In October 2005, Coby awoke one morning with a sore throat. After a few days the soreness dissipated, but Coby noticed a lump forming beneath his Adam's apple. "It couldn't have been bigger than a few centimeters," he says. It wasn't until January that he had the lump checked out, and then only at the urging of his father, who had undergone surgery for prostate cancer just months earlier, in July. Though Coby's physician referred him to an oncologist, who performed a needle biopsy, neither doctor expressed much concern. "They didn't think I was old enough for this to be serious," says Coby.

But, on Feb. 5, the day after the Broncos defeated Fresno State, Coby received the chilling news: a diagnosis of papillary carcinoma, which is a form of thyroid cancer. "Cancer is a major word," says Coby. "I didn't know what to think. I was just scared." For the next few days Coby kept the news to himself, driving around Boise and wandering through the local Barnes & Noble, as if trying to hide from the truth in the fiction aisle. It was nearly a week before he could bring himself to tell his parents, and even then he had to have his doctor break the news. "I didn't know what to say," says Coby.

For George it was a familiar feeling. "When he didn't tell me right away, I thought he was mirroring how I handled my cancer," says George, who continues to be cancer-free. "I didn't want to bother anyone with it. I wanted to regroup and get strong before telling anybody." That doesn't mean George wasn't terrified for his only son. "When he told me, it wasn't long after Justice [William] Rehnquist had died from throat cancer," George says. "I wanted to know what Coby had and how serious it was."

The cancer turned out to be one of the most treatable kinds, a type that is diagnosed in about 30,000 Americans each year. "For most, the survival rate is 95 percent," says Dr. Robert McDougall, a professor of radiology and medicine at Stanford, "but for someone his age, that number is actually higher."

Not wanting to disrupt the Broncos' season, Coby decided not to tell his teammates and played out the last month before having surgery. He finished the year as Boise State's leading scorer, averaging 17.2 points, and was a second-team all-conference selection in the WAC. Following Boise State's season finale, the team gathered for a breakup dinner at the Peppermill Hotel in Reno, where Coby broke the news to his teammates. "They were in shock," says Coby. "I don't think anyone knew what to say."

On March 20, just 11 days after the season ended, Coby had surgery at the Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, where doctors removed his thyroid gland and two lymph nodes. Two days later Coby checked out of the hospital and flew to Denver to be with his father. Because the thyroid regulates metabolism, Coby gained 15 pounds in the next two weeks--and at the same time lost a lot of confidence. "It was the first time I can remember that I hadn't picked up a basketball for two weeks," says Coby. "I felt like I had lost my ability, lost my feel for the game."

After spending hours at the gym each week, however, Coby had rounded back into shape by June (he takes a daily thyroid replacement pill to regulate his metabolism) and was well into preparations for his final season in Boise. Now fully recovered, he was averaging 13.6 points a game at week's end. There's even some thought that he'll be playing in the NBA next year; he's projected as a second-round draft pick. "He'll make it," says George. "He's a competitive s.o.b."

Another thing father and son have in common.