All those cliches you hear thrown around about leadership, about will to win, about heart and soul … in basketball, they're all true. That stuff really matters. Every great team needs a great coach to fall back on, to lead them through the highs and lows of a long season.
That's what makes it all the more impressive what the Nuggets have accomplished this season.
As tough as the road has been for Denver this season, battling through injuries and competing in a tough Western Conference, it's been tougher for head coach George Karl.
Karl is a cancer survivor. He's been cancer-free throughout his five-year stint manning the sidelines in Denver — he underwent surgery to treat prostate cancer in July 2005 and and continued to lead the Nuggets without skipping a beat.
But an added wrinkle has turned up this season, as Karl found a lump on his neck earlier this winter and confirmed, at a press conference after the All-Star Game in February, that it was cancer again — a treatable form of the disease that had spread to his neck and throat.
In February, Karl said he could miss up to six weeks. Now, the latest we're hearing is he could miss the rest of the regular season.
It's never easy to deal with the crippling illness of a trusted leader. But for the Nuggets, the challenge is twofold — they've got to support Karl in his fight with cancer and fight for playoff position in the West all the while.
The Nuggets were 42-21 on March 10, third place in the West playoff race, when Karl officially handed over the reins to Adrian Dantley as Nuggets head coach. They've gone 5-3 since then, and they've moved into a second-place tie with the Mavericks in the conference.
And now things really get tough.
Karl isn't coming back anytime soon, and the Nuggets will be without their head coach during a crucial stretch of their season as they take on Boston, Orlando, Dallas and Portland over the next eight days. Each one of these games is a real test of the Nuggets' will to win a championship. It's time for them to hang with the big boys.
Dantley comes to the Nuggets without much coaching experience. He's a Hall of Famer as a player, remembered for his 15 seasons with seven different NBA teams and two league scoring titles. He's one of the greats. But you're expecting an awful lot when you ask the 54-year-old to jump right into his new role as a head coach, finding success right away with a team that's in the thick of a playoff race.
This is going to be a difficult stretch for the Nuggets. From here to the Finals is a steep mountain to climb.
Basketball is a players' game. When you've got a dominating scorer like Carmelo Anthony and a veteran leader like Chauncey Billups, it's hard to go wrong. However, the constant off-the-court distraction of Karl's fight with cancer will always be there.
Is he OK? Is he getting better? Is he coming back?
When? How? Why?
The questions won't go away. And for the Nuggets, the challenge is to shake it all off and just play. Above all else, just take the floor and play basketball.
When they step on the floor against the Celtics at the TD Garden Wednesday night, that challenge will only get tougher.