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George Karl remembers Jordan persuading the SuperSonics to trade for Scottie Pippen


When discussing the NBA’s most celebrated duos, the pairing of Jordan and Pippen always gets brought up. What the two have accomplished together will always be the benchmark for other great NBA duos. But did you know that back in '94, the SuperSonics nearly traded Shawn Kemp and Ricky Pierce for Scottie Pippen - with the blessing of Michael Jordan?

It happened during Jordan’s first retirement while he was playing baseball for Chicago White Sox AA minor league team. Pippen was still a Bull and had just led his team to 55 wins and a second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs after sweeping the Cavaliers in the first round.

On the opposite coast, the SuperSonics made history, becoming the first top seed to lose to an eighth-seed in playoffs history after being eliminated by the Denver Nuggets in a five-game thriller. George Karl was coaching the SuperSonics, and the team had just got its new general manager in Wally Walker after their former GM Bob Whitsitt had resigned following their embarrassing postseason exit.

According to George Karl, Jerry Krause reached out about the trade centered around Shawn Kemp and Ricky Pierce of the SuperSonics and Pippen of the Bulls, along with some draft picks. As much as it was hard to imagine not seeing Kemp in the green jersey, Karl got excited about the defensive potential Payton and Pippen would’ve had.

“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.”

George Karl, “Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection”

The trade was very intriguing to Karl. Ever since he became the head coach in Seattle, the Supersonics were close to playing on the NBA’s most prominent stage but could not make a final push. After the first 1-8 upset in the league’s history, Karl felt like the roster had hit its ceiling and that it was time to make a change. He even sought advice from Jordan to be sure that they were getting the best of the deal.

“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’.

George Karl, “Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection”

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That was enough for Karl to give his blessing on the trade. However, the news about Shawn Kemp getting traded leaked out to the media. The announcement infuriated the fans, and they started calling the local radio stations, saying they would burn down the stadium if Kemp was traded. Ackerley decided to wait on it, which led to Krause being desperate, dropping the demand for Seattle’s first-round pick.

After not getting a positive response, he offered a big chunk of money in the next call. Then he doubled it. But Ackerley backed out of the deal, keeping Kemp as a Supersonic. According to Walker, the trade idea originated from Karl. However, you had the team’s coach and its owner in different corners. One of them wanted to make the trade, and one of them decided not to because of its magnitude for the organization, especially its fans.

“There was no general manager in place when the discussions were going on. You had a coach who wanted to make the trade, but the owner needed to make the final call because it was a potential landmark moment for the organization. There was active discussion. I wouldn’t say there was ever sign off internally to make the deal.”

Wally Walker, Complex

Pippen and Kemp met in the NBA finals two years later. The Bulls defeated the Supersonics and started their second three-peat. Kemp played one more season in Seattle, after which he was traded to the Cavs. The most promising SuperSonic roster, after the one that won the title in 1979, ended its run with one Western Conference title in 1996. The team relocated in 2008 to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, which officially ended the SuperSonics franchise.

This is one of the greatest “what-ifs?” in both franchises’ history. However, it’s also a testimony to Jordan’s appreciation and respect towards Pippen’s basketball abilities. At the time, Michael wasn’t sure about ever playing for the Bulls again. But he was confident that the big part of their successes was Scottie. That’s why he gave his blessing on the trade. He knew that Karl would’ve acquired a player who would’ve made the difference in Seattle. He was aware of Pippen’s all-around ability to make his teammates better and knew he would’ve been a difference-maker for Seattle.

Fortunately for Jordan, the trade didn’t come through, and Pippen was there when MJ made his comeback. The two three-peated again, with Pippen being a perfect sidekick next to No. 23 -- something that Kemp hardly could’ve been, given that he declined quickly, struggling with weight and attitude issues.

If the trade happened, the legacies of everyone involved could’ve been drastically different. Fortunately for Jordan, his understanding of Pippen’s value for the basketball team didn’t cost him a perfect teammate -- one who was waiting for him after MJ decided to put a Bulls jersey back on.

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