With Michael Jordan, you truly were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t.
B.J. Armstrong celebrated a little too fervently after sealing a Game 2 win for the Hornets in the 1998 Eastern Conference semifinals. Jordan swallowed him, and the Bulls won in five games. George Karl didn’t acknowledge Jordan when they both happened upon the same dinner spot just before the 1996 Finals. Jordan took it personally. LaBradford Smith… Well, LaBradford Smith didn’t do much of anything (except ball out). He got 47 points directly on top of his head.
All of the above anecdotes were featured in Episodes 7 and 8 of “The Last Dance.” Armstrong’s transgression was justifiable as an outburst of emotion in a moment of triumph. Jordan admitted to inventing the Smith slight out of thin air.
But Karl, in an appearance on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt on ESPN, conceded that his snubbing of Jordan was premeditated — and in fact, a strategic move made on advice from assistant coach Brendan Malone.
“It is true,” Karl told Van Pelt of the story, which Jordan told in Episode 8. “I had Brendan Malone on my staff from the 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 ever in the game of basketball.’”
So, Karl stiffed him at the restaurant. And lo and behold, Jordan internalized it as a sign of disrespect, regardless. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
In a later tweet, Karl was quick to reiterate his rationale, and also heap praise on the Bulls' team effort in '96 beyond even Jordan's individual exploits:
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
After facing and observing him enough times, Karl was well aware of the way Jordan motivated himself.
“That was his MO most of his career. At the end of his career, he was making up stuff,” Karl told Van Pelt. “He was saying I was saying that I said he was old or he has a lousy golf swing or he always loses money around the golf course. I mean, I never said any of that stuff, but he made things up to motivate himself to reach the level of intensity that very few people ever got to.”
At the end of the day, there’s nothing Karl could have done — or could have abstained from doing — that would have stopped Jordan from finding something to stoke his fire. That’s just the competitor he was.