NBA Finals 1996 Game Three: Bulls at Sonics (Pt. 2)

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In the pregame courtside chat, Hannah Storm basically says “Seattle wants to keep Shawn Kemp away from Dennis Rodman.” This is just before a boxing ring announcer walks out in a white jacket, asking the crowd “Are you ready… are you ready to rumbllllle…”  Well, yes. They are.

Mike Jordan guards Gary “The Glove” Payton early in the game. Sports fan amnesia has put him on the underrated list. But in 1996 Payton is an elite NBA player, one of the best one-on-one defenders out there. A precursor to Chris Paul, who can score thirty but would rather collect ten assists.

Like everyone who tries to psych out Jordan, Payton is finally demoralized by the results.

MJ v the Glove

Think of all the contenders who, at one time, were thrown up to MJ. Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins and Penny Hardaway, for instance. Even second-tier players like John Starks were briefly put in the conversation, especially if they were having a career year or had played well against Jordan himself .

‘Oh, he’s just as good as Air Jordan. Wait, he’s BETTER than Jordan! You know what? MJ ain’t even that good!’

Then, if the question was still alive the next time that contention came to a head-to-head, Jordan would put the guy away. Particularly when things really counted. Jordan’s will and determination was always in the red… we’ve never seen that kind of mindset from an athlete, not in my lifetime.

That didn’t always happen, of course. He didn’t always come through. But it did happen plenty of times. Many of those in the playoffs, in the most pressure-packed moments. When it didn’t, when

Hey, look who’s at the game: It’s musician Kenny G.

MJ came up short, we were almost surprised. “What?? He MISSED?”

Sure, there is a myth to Jordan’s career already. A sense of making him larger than what he was, perhaps. But that’s true of every public figure, ever. Today, it’s worse. Today, your legacy is being written a week before you live it. Just ask LeBron James.

Payton drains an early jumper over Jordan, but Seattle is ice-cold. Bulls to an 11-2 advantage. Then it’s 19-4. And then 34-16 as the first quarter ends. “The Bulls are just eating up the Sonics,” said NBC’s Marv Albert. Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley are showing off, executing in a relaxed way, as if they are playing a scrimmage.

On the other end, the Sonics are throwing the basketball five feet over teammates’ outstretched hands, dribbling sloppily, etc. Hershey Hawkins and Detlef Schrempf are usually a joy to watch, but not today, not so far. Kemp is constantly agitating his tongue which is code for, “I don’t know what’s happening, and I’m not very happy about it.”

We might believe that George Karl likes the idea of Chicago bench players outdueling his entire team. Maybe if Coach weren’t involved with this game, he would be. On Pardon the Interruption‘s April 19, 2013 edition, Karl made a case for the “no big stars” team… the sort of team he happened to be coaching into the playoffs in the form of the streaky Denver Nuggets.

Tony Kornheiser (13:00 mark): “It’s a really nice team, but because it doesn’t have a great star that it can depend on, it may be doomed in the playoffs… What is your answer to that charge?”

George Karl: “Basketball is a team sport. Those stars are important to their teams but sometimes those teams are built upon that star having too much responsibility… It’s a new philosophy in the NBA. And I think more people should try it. How many great players are there in the league?… You’re saying, you need a star to make a great team; I say, get a good team and you’ll make a star.”

Nice try, Coach Karl. But I will take a 9-10 level player and four 6s and 7s… over five 7s and 8s.

We get it: The coach’s job is normally to take his team’s side against the world. If Karl walked out there with five guys who looked like Sherman Hemsley, he would say that ball players under five-foot-six are the best. No doubt about it.

You think he would take the ’96 Kemp or Payton (major stars) on the ’13 Nuggets? Believe that, though he’d never admit it. He would trade any one of the current Nuggs. Every knowledgable fan would, save the instigator types…

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Part 3

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