Denver Nuggets’ general manager Arturas Karnisovas’ worldwide career built on quiet production
As the Nuggets enter a key offseason, Karnisovas also nears the year anniversary of his promotion to general manager.
By GINA MIZELL, DENVER POST
For three days in 1989, Arturas Karnisovas waited in a Moscow apartment while the KGB decided his fate.
The 18-year-old Lithuanian had dreams of becoming the first player from the Soviet Union to play college basketball in the United States. But at the height of the Cold War, anybody who left his communist homeland required an escort to ensure that person would not defect.
“I’m like, ‘What are we waiting for?’” Karnisovas recalled in a conversation with The Denver Post. “They were trying to decide whether to let me go or not.”
Had the KGB not eventually relented and allowed him to travel freely overseas, Karnisovas would not occupy a top-floor Pepsi Center office today. But the way the Denver Nuggets’ general manager matter-of-factly reveals the life-changing moment that launched his worldwide journey in basketball illustrates how he conducts business.
As a player, he was known as the silent assassin because his “facial expression doesn’t tell you anything.” Now 47, the stoic, soft-spoken Karnisovas still prefers to stay behind the scenes, allowing president of basketball operations Tim Connelly to utilize his gregarious personality as Denver’s front-facing executive. Karnisovas, meanwhile, thrives on scouting and building relationships with a vast array of contacts world-wide.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose team held the best record in the NBA during the regular season, once regarded Karnisovas as a “trusted confidant.” Kim Bohuny, an NBA league office executive who has dedicated the bulk of her career to the international game, has been Karnisovas’ mentor, friend and boss. And Connelly recognized the way Karnisovas was seemingly “respected in every gym in the world” long before they became partners tasked with rebuilding a Nuggets team that fell one game shy of the playoffs this year.
As Karnisovas nears his one-year anniversary as Denver’s GM, he will likely continue to stay largely hidden from public view. But he will remain at the center of the Nuggets’ rebuilding effort.
“The collective approach (of the organization), a lot of it is his thinking, his doing,” Connelly said. “So much of the processes we have in place and how we approach what’s important to us is kind of a brainchild of his.”
On opening night of the 2017-18 season, the NBA’s rosters featured 108 international players from 42 countries and at least one foreign player on all 30 teams.
But back in the early 1990s, Karnisovas was a pioneer.
As a boy, he tagged along to gyms with his father, Mykolas, who played professionally in Lithuania. Though “basketball is like a religion” in his home country, Karnisovas would satisfy his taste for the NBA game by borrowing a VCR to watch tapes of the heated 1980s Finals series between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. He got a glimpse of the Atlanta Hawks at age 16, when they played the Soviet Union in Lithuania in 1987.
As a teenager, he traveled to the U.S. with the Soviet junior national team to play against high-school all-stars; his high socks and skill caught the attention of Sarunas Marciulionis, a fellow Lithuanian and international standout. Marciulionis passed along Karnisovas’ name to Bohuny, who has spent nearly 30 years working with international players with the NBA and Goodwill Games, an alternative to the Olympics during the political turmoil in the 1980s. Bohuny alerted then-Seton Hall coach PJ Carlesimo, who had a history of bringing overseas players into his program.
Carlesimo offered a scholarship to Karnisovas sight unseen.
“I trusted Kim and Sarunas enough that we didn’t have to do any more evaluating,” Carlesimo said. “It wasn’t something I had to think about for more than, like, two seconds.”
Karnisovas, who did not speak any English when he arrived in the U.S., initially did not see his family for about 18 months, primarily communicating via handwritten letters in an era without cellphones and email. When his father visited, he practically broke into happy tears while absorbing the vast choices in the supermarket. During a 1991 phone conversation with his mother, Irena, she began “counting tanks through the window” that rolled past their home during the failed August Coup that preceded the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Lithuania gaining independence.
“I just didn’t know any better,” Karnisovas said of the political turmoil.
Despite the unrest back home, Karnisovas began to thrive, on and off the court. He became one of two players in school history to start on four consecutive NCAA Tournament teams. He met his wife, Gina, on campus. And the culture rubbed off on Karnisovas. Teammates at the 1992 Olympics — where Lithuania won bronze while competing for the first time as an independent country and matched up against the United States’ historic Dream Team — playfully dubbed Karnisovas “American Boy” because he’d wear giant headphones to listen to music on the bus.
After his professional playing career in Europe, Karnisovas’ background made him a “natural fit” to reunite with Bohuny, now the NBA’s Senior Vice President for International Basketball Operations.
At the league office, Karnisovas worked with programs like Basketball Without Borders, a global development and community outreach endeavor through the NBA and FIBA. He visited individual teams, naturally picking up which organizational structures worked and did not work. He’d share his story with overseas players transitioning to life in the NBA and America.
“When he walked into a room and was having a conversation with a player, he immediately commanded their respect,” Bohuny said. “You could see they listened to him, because he lived what they are going through at that moment.”
That experience caught the attention of Morey, who hired Karnisovas in 2008 as the Rockets’ Director of Global Scouting. They’d blast Freddie Mercury’s music while traveling abroad. Morey marveled at Karnisovas’ “unparalleled” relationships with coaches and executives, and his knack to identify big men whose talent would translate to the NBA.
“I knew pretty early on when he came here (to Houston) that he was going to run his own team someday,” Morey said. “He already thought like a GM.”
Connelly, who joined the Nuggets in 2013, also frequently crossed paths with Karnisovas during international scouting trips and quickly elevated him to the top of the “list of guys you’re trying to get.” Connelly hired Karnisovas as assistant general manager in the summer of 2013. Karnisovas was then promoted to general manager last summer, an aggressive move after he was pursued by other teams for the same role.
With the Nuggets, Karnisovas has helped construct a roster of players who combine a specific physical profile, versatile skill set and intangibles such as drive and selflessness. He continues to relish the bonds he’s built in a job he estimates is 80 percent human interaction.
And, naturally, Denver’s current group is filled with international flavor. Point guard Jamal Murray and reserve forward Trey Lyles were born in Canada. Two-way wing Torrey Craig was discovered playing professionally in Australia. And the Serbian Nikola Jokic has blossomed from a relatively unknown second-round pick into one of the most versatile big men in the game.
“Arturas was the one who was wanting it more for me to come here, so it’s kind of cool,” Jokic said. “He’s European, and he knows how European basketball (works). He played with some Serbian players. He knows our mentality. Of course he can help me a lot, just adapting to the basketball (in the NBA).”
Attention to detail
Karnisovas felt embarrassed as he scanned the room in his first American history course at Seton Hall. His classmates were swiftly scribbling notes, and he was struggling to keep up. But he vowed that day, “I’ll never feel this way again.”
So he took extra classes in basic reading and writing while stocking up on math courses, until advisers told him he could not take any more unless he intended to major in the subject. He chose economics instead. He’s still the only Seton Hall men’s basketball player to win Big East Scholar Athlete of the Year twice.
“I’m sure it wasn’t always easy, but he made it look easy,” Carlesimo said. “He was as low-maintenance as you can possibly be.”
Karnisovas initially thought he’d put his schooling to use with a career in finance, aiming to help his basketball friends and colleagues manage their money following their playing careers. Instead, Bohuny hired Karnisovas away after about a year in that field, shifting his focus to the business side of the sport.
Eventually, Karnisovas found he preferred working in a team environment, “where it’s a very clear objective and you do it collectively.” He entertained opportunities to take front-office jobs with European clubs. He picked the brains of NBA executives, who encouraged him to prove himself with an organization in the States and work his way up.
In Houston, Karnisovas appreciated the inclusivity of a Rockets front office that, at the time, also boasted former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie and former Dallas Mavericks general manager Gersson Rosas. Karnisovas observed every key managerial facet, from trade conversations to pre-draft workouts to setting a summer league roster. He was in the room when the Rockets pulled off the 2012 trade to acquire current MVP front-runner James Harden, a franchise-altering move.
“You’re not a decision-maker,” Karnisovas said of his time in Houston, “but you see how you get to those decisions and you see what the process is.”
These days, Connelly jokes that Karnisovas should wear a white lab coat to work because of his affinity for structure, organization and preparation. A visit to his office confirms that mentality. The wall behind his desk is filled with a color-coded grid featuring every player on every roster in the NBA, including those on two-way contracts.
“We have a lot of similar friends and experiences, but I can be all over the place,” Connelly said. “I think, collectively, we do a good job of helping each other and kind of keeping each other in check and challenging each other.”
The silent assassin
Carlisemo described Karnisovas’ game as solid over flashy because of his versatility to shoot, rebound and defend. But by the end of his Seton Hall career, Karnisovas was a 1,500-point scorer and on his way to being inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. As a professional, he was the FIBA European Player of the Year in 1996. He won three league championships in Spain and one in Italy.
Nowadays, Karnisovas will sneak into Denver’s practice gym to watch drills, the steady bounce of a basketball calming his mood. He gets the game day rush while mingling with the Nuggets during warm-ups, offering tips on “small things” like Jokic’s form on his high-arching jumper.
Then, he’ll often escape the home crowd by retreating to a conference room on the fourth floor of the Pepsi Center, where he can freely let out his emotions while watching the game unfold on television. In April, he stood inside the Target Center tunnel as the waning seconds ticked down on Denver’s heartbreaking overtime loss at Minnesota, which knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs on the regular season’s final night.
After a playing career filled with victories, Karnisovas acknowledges practicing patience has been his biggest challenge in his current role. But discipline is required to avoid the temptation to “skip steps” as the front office works to rebuild a franchise that boasts a young core but is searching for its first postseason appearance since 2013.
Next, the Nuggets enter an important offseason with goals of signing their budding star, Jokic, to a lucrative contract and sharpening their supporting cast without overspending through the draft and free agency.
As Denver tinkers with its roster, Karnisovas will likely stay out of public view.
That’s what he prefers.