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:
George Karl didn't say hello to Michael Jordan at dinner and the rest is history pic.twitter.com/i723e90nOR— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) May 11, 2020
“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.
I told my team to avoid Michael during the 96 Finals. We reasoned he would find a way to exploit communication as motivation. I ignored Michael at dinner to honor the directive. #TheLastDance makes it seem like Michael used that to fuel him- that’s false. The Bulls D killed us!— George Karl (@CoachKarl22) May 12, 2020
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.
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.”
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