George Karl: Michael Jordan endorsed Scottie Pippen-to-Sonics trade

Scottie Pippen Michelle Jordan
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You might know Seattle drafted Scottie Pippen before sending him to the Bulls in a draft-night trade.

But did you know the SuperSonics nearly traded Shawn Kemp and Ricky Pierce for Pippen – with Michael Jordan’s blessing – in 1994?

Jordan was retired (for the first of three times), and Pippen had just led Chicago to 55 wins and a playoff-series victory. Seattle won 63 games behind Kemp and Gary Payton, but lost to the Nuggets in the NBA’s first 1-8 upset. Sonics owner Barry Ackerley had just installed Wally Walker to run the front office.

Then-Seattle coach George Karl in “Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection:”

The Bulls saw an opportunity. Four days before the draft, Jerry Krause called. The Chicago GM, who’d visited me in Spain, had a proposal: Kemp, Pierce, and our number one for Scottie Pippen. Pippen was the best small forward, or 3, in the league. Nothing he wasn’t good at. During one of Michael’s retirements, Scottie led his team in all five of the main categories—rebounds, scoring, blocks, steals, and assists—so rare that it had only happened once before in NBA history (Dave Cowens, for the Celtics, in 1977-78). But with his running buddy MJ now a baseball player, maybe Pippen was a little disconnected. When I tried to imagine the Sonics without Shawn I knew I’d miss him, but I got pretty excited picturing Gary and Scottie teaming up on a trap; they’d smother opposing guards. But every trade prompts a debate. I was in favor of this one but I wasn’t sure.

So I called Michael. We talked about minor-league baseball, North Carolina basketball, and golf. Then we talked about the big deal on the table. Should we do this?

“Do it,” he said. “Scottie can make your other players better. Kemp can’t.”

So, the day before the draft, we said yes. News of the trade immediately leaked out and onto the KJR airwaves. More anger from the callers, a lot more; our fans loved Shawn. Again, Ackerley listened. That afternoon, he called our draft headquarters in the Sonics locker room. It doesn’t feel right, he told Wally. Better wait. I had the unpleasant job of calling Krause, who was not happy.

While we dragged our feet on draft day, Krause got desperate. He called to tell me the Bulls would drop the demand for our number one pick. He offered a big chunk of money in the next call. Then he called back to double it. Literally minutes before the draft started, Ackerley backed us out of the deal. When I delivered the bad news, Krause dropped f-bombs and called me names. We’d keep Kemp, they’d keep Pippen.

I don’t see any reason Jordan – who shared an alma mater, North Carolina, with Karl – would’ve misled his fellow Tar Heel. Jordan was retired and not particularly a Bulls loyalist at that time.

Of course, Jordan came back and Pippen helped him win three more championships, including one over Karl’s Sonics. Kemp declined sharply after that, struggling with weight and attitude issues and wouldn’t have been nearly the sidekick Pippen was.

This is one heck of a “what if?” in basketball history. That trade could’ve drastically altered Jordan’s legacy, maybe even costing him his last three rings. The kicker: It seems Jordan understood the value of the players who would’ve been dealt. He just didn’t understand how it would’ve affected him.

Disclosure: I received a promotional copy of “Furious George.”