By November 26, 1995, everybody already knew the 10-1 Chicago Bulls were very good; nobody knew they were the best team in NBA history just yet. Michael Jordan was in his first full season back from retirement, the Bulls had gone down meekly in the playoffs to the young Orlando Magic the season before, and newly acquired Dennis Rodman was out with a leg injury that claimed most of his November. We know now, though, and knowledge of what they would become makes video of their loss that night to the SuperSonics a fun artifact.
The telecast is both refreshing and hilarious. One of the early joys is when the Bulls’ broadcast duo, play-by-play guy Wayne Larrivee and color man Johnny Kerr, spend some early minutes dismissing—with chuckles, as though it’s obviously silly—the notion that the Bulls might be as big in Chicago as the Bears. Even if they were right, this had to have been one of the last times in the entire 20th century that anybody in sports would say, out loud, that pretty much anything on Earth was bigger than Michael.
At the time, this was just a sleepy, fairly innocuous early-season game between two good teams with no particular feelings toward each other. The Bulls, playing the fourth game of a seven-game, 12-night road trip that had already brought them up against David Robinson’s Spurs and the Stockton-Malone Jazz, were not at their sharpest. In the third quarter Dickie Simpkins, Jason Caffey, and Luc Longley committed about 74 fouls between them; all the Sonics free-throws meant the Bulls were walking the ball into a set and waiting defense on every trip up the floor; the scoring broke pretty much how you’d guess it would. The Sonics won the quarter 26-11, erasing a 13-point halftime deficit.
Again, what’s most entertaining, in hindsight, is the gap between what you and I know, now, and what the game’s participants and observers knew then. Everybody’s so calm about it! If the same thing happened in April of that same season, or the following November, once these Bulls were firmly established as the terrifying superhuman basketball death squad of historical reckoning, both the broadcast crew and the Seattle home crowd would react as if the Sonics were levitating before their very eyes. For that matter, by the time these two teams met at the end of this same season, in the Finals, the thought of anybody beating these Bulls, even for a quarter, seemed outrageous.
Hey, speaking of which, let’s talk about those Finals. Which is to say, let’s talk about how much George Karl—who in the present day just got himself run out of Sacramento—sucks.
The Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp Sonics were one of the most entertaining and audacious teams of my lifetime, an oddball collection of personalities and styles—Detlef Schrempf! Sam Perkins! Frank Brickowski!—that cohered around Payton’s jaw and Kemp’s unreal athletic ability. They had the dual misfortune of peaking during the same season in which the Chicago Bulls went full Golden Skeletor on the NBA, and of being coached by a preening dipshit who torpedoed them in the Finals and robbed the world of what could have been one of the most ferociously contested NBA championships ever.
The Sonics went a franchise-best 64-18 that season; Payton became the first (and still only) point guard ever to win the Defensive Player of the Year award; Kemp, still years away from the lockout-induced eating binge that turned him into a doughy cautionary tale in Cleveland, spent half his time above the rim ...
... but was also flashing bits and pieces of a blossoming low-post game. They had depth, shooting, size, versatility; in Payton they had one of the legitimately transcendent stars of the decade. The ‘96 Finals was Seattle’s first appearance there in 17 years. Their reward was a matchup against the friggin’ Bulls, and a calf injury for Gary Payton.
Don’t get me wrong: the Bulls likely would have won the series no matter what. They really were the best team ever, to that point. But George Karl’s decision not to let Gary Payton check Jordan (over Payton’s objections) in the first three games of the series—opting to preserve the Defensive Player of the Year’s exertion for the wrong end of the floor—by all rights ought to have earned him a lifetime ban from the sport.
First of all, it was precisely backward basketball strategy. It wasted his best player’s biggest strength, the single best tool the Sonics had at their disposal, on bottling up the eminently manageable Ron Harper, and left the monumental task of containing the greatest scorer who ever lived to role-players—Hersey Hawkins, Nate McMillan, David Wingate—who should have been saving their energy for finding open shots against the best defense in the NBA. It’d be like Steve Kerr making a moderately hobbled Steph Curry hand over ball-handling duties to Harrison Barnes, to save his energy for rebounding. That’s dumb!
More importantly, though, it gutted George Karl’s team of what brought them to the Finals in the first place. Gary Payton’s defense—that nagging, relentless, fuck-you aggression, and the stubborn refusal to back down that it represented—was the Sonics. Their entire identity was this face:
And George Karl took it from them. Sliding over to check the lesser guy instead of Michael fucking Jordan, for the sake of nursing a boo-boo, was the very most un-Gary Payton thing Karl could force him to do; the thing Gary Payton made a career out of getting his opponents to do; the thing Gary Payton seemed to despise the most. It was conservative, actuarial bullshit. It was surrender.
And it didn’t even work! Of course it didn’t work. The Bulls won the first three games by 43 total points. Karl relented, then, when it was too late, the goddamn coward. As if to prove a point, Payton went ahead and turned Jordan into a poor man’s Rudy Gay for the next three games anyway, forcing the Bulls to clinch in Chicago in an ugly Game 6 that Rodman won for them on the offensive glass. The Sonics didn’t get past the conference semifinals for another 15 years, by which time Payton and Kemp were out of the NBA, Karl was in Denver, and the Sonics were the Oklahoma City Thunder.
George Karl has never been back to the Finals. Good.
Anyway, back to Nov. 26. The Sonics needed no particular heroics in the fourth; they just made basketball plays, and won, 97-92. Payton had a good game, 26 points and 11 assists; Michael had a lousy one, 22 points on gruesome 6-for-19 shooting. It was just a meaningless, unremarkable November basketball game. And then later on, it wasn’t.
This is the second blog in our series Nearly Perfect, chronicling all 10 regular season losses of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. You can read the introduction here, and about their first loss of the season—to the Orlando Magic—here.