George Karl says Sonics' plan to not motivate Michael Jordan backfired

Jack Baer
·3-min read

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” reached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ trip to the 1996 NBA Finals on Sunday, where they faced the rising Seattle Supersonics featuring Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

While it was Jordan’s reaction to Payton describing his defense in the series that got the most attention from the segment, it was a non-meeting before the series even started that might have been the most revealing about the Bulls legend’s personality.

Michael Jordan found his motivation from George Karl

Ahead of the Finals, Jordan and NBC Sports’ Ahmad Rashad were having dinner when they ran into Sonics head coach George Karl. The way Rashad recounted it on “The Last Dance,” Karl seemed to purposefully avoid acknowledging Jordan.

The result was predictable: Jordan getting angry.

Warning, the following video contains profanity:

Jordan’s reaction:

“He walked right past me. And I looked at Ahmad and said ‘Really? Oh, so that's how you're going to play it?’ ... I said that's a crock of s---. We went to Carolina. We know [UNC head coach] Dean Smith, I've seen him in the summer, we played golf. You're going to do this? OK, fine. That's all I needed. That's all I needed for him to do that and it became personal for me.”

Seems like a bad move from Karl, right? After all, Jordan then averaged 31 points over the first three games of the series while putting the Bulls up 3-0. Maybe all Karl had to do to avoid giving a man legendary for using even the smallest slights as motivation was a simple “Hi.”

Well, as it turns out, Karl kept his mouth shut specifically to avoid exactly what happened. The coach tweeted on Tuesday that the Sonics believed any communication with Jordan would have been used as motivation.

Unfortunately, Jordan made very clear in the documentary that he could use a lack of communication as motivation as well. And that’s kind of the point of Jordan’s entire outlook.

Just an episode earlier, Jordan had remembered a young Washington Bullets player by the name of LaBradford Smith, who dropped a career-high 37 points on the Bulls then supposedly taunted Jordan with the words “Nice game, Mike.” The very next game, Jordan retaliated with 36 points in the first half.

Fun story, except there are very strong indications that Smith didn’t say a word to Jordan. The man just wanted a reason to torch Smith and created his own.

There was probably nothing Karl could do or say in that situation to avoid Jordan’s wrath. A friendly greeting. Reminiscing about Chapel Hill. Paying his bill. Cartwheeling out of the restaurant. As Karl tweeted, Jordan “found motivation through almost anything.”

Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (23) takes a shot in front Seattle SuperSonics' Shawn Kemp (40) during the first quarter Wednesday, Jan. 10, 1996, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)
There was no winning with Michael Jordan when it came to perceived slights. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)

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