Skip to main content

Gary Payton explains what was his approach when guarding Michael Jordan in the 1996 NBA finals


Without a doubt, Michael Jordan is one of the greatest if not the greatest offensive players in NBA history. There was a particular factor of fear involved among players who had to guard him, but one of the rare ones that we’re able to slow him down was Gary Payton. That was especially evident during the 1996 NBA finals when the Seattle Supersonics played the Chicago Bulls. Despite the fact, Bulls won that series, Payton’s defense on Jordan was a topic for discussion.

In an interview for Sonicsgate, Payton talks about the preparation and the mindset he had when going up against Jordan during that series. Unfortunately for the Sonics and all the NBA fans, Sonics head-coach George Karl didn’t let Payton guard Jordan until game four because of a calf injury. Karl didn’t want to risk it even though he knew Payton is his best defender, and it was Payton who had enough courage to confront his coach and said he would gladly take that assignment upon himself. The Sonics were down 0-3 in the series, and they had nothing to lose.

“I went to his office, and I said, look, we don’t have anything else to lose. Whether you gonna let me guard him or not, I will switch every play that you do anyways that go off him. He said, do what you gotta do.”

Gary Payton, via Sonicsgate

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Payton tried to do everything in his power to slow down Jordan, who was averaging over 30 points per game in the first three wins for the Bulls, and he was relatively successful. In the next three games, Jordan averaged only 21 points shooting exceptionally poorly from the field, but fortunately for the Bulls, they had several other players who stepped up at the right time.

“I tried to frustrate him as much as possible. It’s not easy because I knew I couldn’t frustrate him; he is the greatest basketball player that ever played to me. I think what I did was tire him out. I made him work for it a little bit more. He wasn’t really used to working so hard to get the basketball, and after you get the ball with about 8 or 9 seconds, you still got somebody right into you, and the referees weren’t calling the calls. They were letting us play.”

Gary Payton, via Sonicsgate

Jordan averaged only 27.3 points per game for the entire series, his lowest scoring output in all of the six finals he played in his whole career. Despite the fact Payton was relatively successful in guarding Jordan, the Sonics couldn’t secure game seven, and even if they did, chances of them winning that series weren’t great. Payton said defending Jordan was an incredibly hard task but a great challenge, which he appreciated. Even though he was known as a great two-way player after those finals against the Bulls, people started to recognize Payton as a great defender.

"It was a great challenge for me, and I loved it, and that is when everybody really started recognizing that I was a great defensive player. It also happened I won the defensive player of the year award that year."

Gary Payton, via Sonicsgate

Mark Cuban & Kemba Walker

Mark Cuban explains the Dallas Mavericks' decision to sign Kemba Walker - “We wanted to add some flexibility to our offense”

Cuban said that he hopes that Walker will help provide more offensive versatility to a Mavericks offense that is struggling to get much production from anyone other than star guard Luka Doncic

Los Angeles Lakers forward A.C. Green

“You only missed 3 games in 15 years?!” — Byron Scott sits down with ironman A.C. Green

It's been two decades but Byron Scott still can't fathom former teammate A.C. Green's iron man streak.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach George Karl and Anthony Mason

“The huddles were the worst” — Ray Allen on chaotic Milwaukee Bucks with George Karl and Anthony Mason

It didn't take long for Ray Allen to realize bringing in Anthony Mason was a terrible idea

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan

“I can tell you the truth and it won't sound like false modesty” — Michael Jordan on what made him a special basketball player

Tony Robbins asked MJ what made him the greatest player of all time, and he loved Jordan's answer.

Philadelphia 76ers forward P.J. Tucker

“As long as we’re winning, it doesn’t matter” — P.J. Tucker on his lack of shots on the Philadelphia 76ers

Tucker acknowledged the absence of James Harden is impacting his offensive output.