George Karl Explains Why He Ignored Michael Jordan at Dinner; Talks Gary Payton

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2020

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls (L) looks to make a basket as Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton (R) defends in the fourth quarter of the 18 March game at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Supersonics 89-87 in overtime. AFP Photo by Vincent LAFORET (Photo by VINCENT LAFORET / AFP)        (Photo credit should read VINCENT LAFORET/AFP via Getty Images)

During the 1996 NBA Finals, then-Seattle SuperSonics head coach George Karl happened upon the same restaurant as Michael Jordan. Karl declined to make his way over to Jordan to say hello.

MJ remembered, saying in Sunday's episodes of The Last Dance that Karl's snub helped motivate him in the Bulls' six-game Finals triumph. Karl went into why he decided to not acknowledge His Airness in an interview with Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter:

"I had Brendan Malone on my staff from the Detroit Pistons, and he said Michael plays head games with you all the time. He said you don't want to mess with him in the series. Say hello at the beginning of the series, shake his hand at the end of the series, but during the series, don't let him use anything to motivate himself to be a better player than the greatest player in the game of basketball."

Of course, little did Karl know he wound up finding a way to motivate Jordan anyway.

Karl said MJ found a way to make up forms of motivation in the latter half of his career, silencing nonexistent doubters as a way to keep his competitive edge sharp. 

"At the end of his career, he was making up stuff," Karl said. "He was saying that I said he was old or he has a lousy golf swing or he always loses money on the golf course. I mean, I never said any of that stuff, but he made things up to motivate himself to reach a level of intensity that very few players ever got to."

Jordan's Bulls defeated Karl's Sonics in six games for his first title after returning from retirement. Seattle guard Gary Payton said in Sunday's episode of The Last Dance that he wished Karl would have put him on Jordan earlier in the series—a remark that elicited a laugh from MJ, who said he "never had a problem with the Glove."

Karl, one of nine NBA coaches to win over 1,000 games, said:

"It's what Gary wanted. We were trying to protect Gary because he had a little bit of a calf muscle [injury] and we had other good defenders. Our hope was to control Michael. We didn't think we were ever going to stop Michael. We just wanted him to have an average game, an above-average game, not one of those explosive games. He had one in Game 3 [with 36 points]."

Payton, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year that season, did his job over the final three games of the series, holding MJ to 23.7 points on 36.7 percent shooting, but it wasn't enough for Seattle to recover from a 3-0 deficit. Jordan, then 32 years old, averaged 27.3 points in the series en route to winning the fourth of his six NBA titles.