The enduring lesson of “The Last Dance” has been simple: Do not anger Michael Jordan. Do not give him any reason to seek vengeance against you, because once he has found even a sliver of extra motivation, it’s all over. This is a player that invented a feud with Washington Bullets guard LaBradford Smith out of thin air just for the sake of fueling himself. He doesn’t need bulletin board material.
But George Karl gave him some during the 1996 NBA Finals. In episode 8 of The Last Dance, Jordan revealed that he saw Karl in a restaurant in Seattle. Rather than greeting his opponent, Karl snubbed him, providing Jordan an extra edge as he attempted to take the Supersonics down. Karl appeared on SportsCenter Sunday night and confirmed the story. He claims that it was a strategy. He did not want to fall victim to Jordan’s mind games.
“It is true,” Karl said. “I had Brendan Malone on my staff from the Detroit Pistons, and he said ‘Michael plays head games with you all the time,’ and 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.'”
This almost makes sense until you remember that Jordan and Karl had a preexisting relationship. Both played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, and when the Sonics were considering trading Shawn Kemp for Scottie Pippen during Jordan’s first retirement, Karl reached out to ask for his opinion.
Not only was this the sort of slight that Jordan would notice, but Karl should have known better. Having spent any time around Jordan, he should have realized what he was doing would further motivate Jordan to beat him. He ultimately did. The Bulls won the series in six, and while Karl’s greater faux pas was his decision not to let Gary Payton defend Jordan from the start of the series, he didn’t exactly help matters by slighting the one person no NBA player or coach should ever slight.