Paxson: Pippen was very encouraging as a teammate
"The subtle things that he did so well-defensively helping his teammates, recovering out to guys offensively, making plays, being unselfish-those are things that teammates always recognize and noticed," John Paxson said of Scottie Pippen. "You always felt like Scottie had your back."
Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson was a teammate of Scottie Pippen's for seven seasons, including the organization's first three championships in 1991, 1992 and 1993. Following Paxson's retirement, he joined Phil Jackson's coaching staff for one season, the 1995-96 campaign in which Michael Jordan and Pippen's Bulls finished with an NBA-best record of 72-10. He connected again with Pippen in the fall of 2003, when he signed the veteran to a two-year deal, giving the legend the opportunity to end his pro career where it began. Now, as Pippen returns for his third stint with the Bulls at team ambassador and enters basketball's Hall of Fame, Paxson recalls his illustrious career, the qualities that made him such a popular teammate and leading Chicago to 55 wins without Jordan in 1993-94.
What comes to mind when you think of Scottie, given you've seen him from the perspective of a teammate, coach and general manager over the years?
"I know a lot of guys have talked about the kind of teammate that he was, and it is dead on. Scottie was very encouraging as a teammate. He was the type of guy that if you weren't playing well, or you missed a few shots in a row or had your head hanging down, he was going to encourage you to look for your shot. That was really important for a lot of us because we respected him as a player, and as a person, for the way he approached the game and worked at his craft. The fact that he would encourage the majority of his time was a big thing for us."
When you talk about Scottie encouraging, is there a moment that comes to mind in the locker room or behind closed doors that the general public might not see or understand?
"I remember often in games, with me, if I was struggling with my shot, he would keep looking for me. He would keep saying, 'One's going to go down.' It's just how he was and that was pretty important for us. We all understood the pecking order, believe me. But to have one of your best players out there encouraging and wanting you to do well was always important. I've seen him in a lot of different lights. When I first got the job as general manager, I really wanted to try and bring Scottie back. Unfortunately, his knee wasn't in good shape as any of us would have liked to have him play. I was hopeful more than anything that he would be able to put a stamp on our young players at that time. We were kind of a disjointed group; guys that didn't necessarily care about the right things playing. This was 2003 and we had a lot of different young guys. Scottie came in and did and said all the right things. Unfortunately, that group wasn't ready to hear a lot of what he had to say. It's not a coincidence that most of the guys from that team weren't with us very long. Scottie said the right things and I was glad we were able to bring him back and he ended his career in a Bulls uniform."
Those qualities that you just mentioned, might they make Scottie a great coach someday if he chooses to go that route?
"I think so. I think that in coaching today, you have to be smart. There's no question about that. You have to have a balance between challenging and letting guys know that they're doing the right things out there on the floor. One of the underrated things about Scottie, always, is how smart he is as a basketball player and a basketball person. He can see things. In terms of decision maker on the floor, he was very, very good. Here's a guy that is 6-8 and for all intense purposes was our point guard. He handled the ball, made decisions, got us into offense, and had to make plays to set us up. Scottie and I have talked about this over the years. A lot of guys who get out of the game need to see what life is like without the game for a while, especially the great ones. They got to see what it's like without the game. It's funny how they do tend to come back to it, because they know it so well and it draws them in. I'm personally thrilled that he's back with us in this capacity. It allows him to be around more and see where the organization is at. We welcome him in and I'm personally thrilled that he's doing something for us."
Touching on his basketball IQ, one place that really helped him out was on the defensive end of the floor. Did you ever play with a better defender in your time and how does he rank among the best of the best defenders?
"It's hard. Michael was a great defender as well. Scottie could probably defend more positions. Guys have an ability to defend on the ball which he can do, and he could defend point guards to some power forwards because of his length. But he's also a tremendous help defender. One of the things that made us good during that time, defensively-a lot of credit is given to the athleticism of Michael, Scottie, and Horace, which is true-was the fact that you have to be tied in as a defensive unit. Scottie was really, really good at providing help. He knew with his length where to play guys. He knew how much to give ground on the perimeter so he could be in position to help on post passes or penetration. Those are just things again that made him such a smart player. They didn't go unnoticed by his teammates. That's probably the biggest thing. The subtle things that he did so well-defensively helping his teammates, recovering out to guys offensively, making plays, being unselfish-those are things that teammates always recognize and noticed. You always felt like Scottie had your back. If you made a mistake somewhere on the floor, he was going to try and cover up for you. Like I said, those are things that all of us respected and appreciated about him."
In your final season, you have called it Scottie's defining year, which was also his favorite season. What did you see from him that maybe you hadn't before in the 1993-94 campaign?
"It was the first time he was in a position of leadership more on his own than any other time. Nothing really changed. What people don't remember about that year was that we got off to a real slow start. Scottie was hurt at the beginning of the year and we were 4-7 coming back at the end of an early trip. At that point, we were kind of disjointed because we were trying to incorporate [Toni] Kukoc into the lineup. I had a good view because I was hurt for most of the year. It was at that point that I think Scottie got in his mind, 'You know what? This is my team. I've got to lead.' And he did. It's really remarkable when you think about it. 55 wins is terrific. It became a 70-game season because we started off 4-7. That was really when mentally it kicked in for him. We always knew he could do it. I think the one thing I found interesting that year was that statistically, things didn't change much for him. He didn't look at it like he had to take on everything, and that's where teammates loved him. He had his best statistical year, but he found a way to make his teammates feel a part of it, reward them when they were open, and do all those things that he had done before, but not just in a little different role. So many people had written us off that year because we didn't have Michael. Everyone said that we were going to win 25-30 games. Scottie kind of said, 'Nope, it's not going to happen.' He led us to 55."
What was your experience like as an assistant coach as the Bulls went 72-10, seeing Pippen and the rest of the players from that role on the bench?
"Well, I knew who they were, what they represented, and how hard they worked. Nothing really changed. By that point, Michael and Scottie had to incorporate Dennis [Rodman] into the mix. That wasn't necessarily a real easy thing to do at the very beginning. I think that year that I was looking at the game a little differently, I had a greater appreciation for how good and how smart a player Scottie was. As a player, you can get caught up on your own and what you're doing out there. But when you're on the staff, you look at everything. I had a great appreciation going in that year, but it definitely grew watching them from a different seat."
Is it possible for you to think of Scottie without thinking of Michael, and vice versa?
"They are always going be linked, there's no question about that. Scottie went out on his own obviously to Houston and Portland, and had great years there. To have won six championships together in an eight-year span, they'll always be linked, no question."
You talk about the six championships in eight seasons; do you think there will be another team that can match a run like moving forward?
"It's possible. You never know in this business, but I wouldn't discount it, that's for sure."
In closing, what are your thoughts in general on Scottie as he's ready to enter the Hall of Fame this weekend?
"I'm thinking about when he first came here, and he was raw as a player. He wasn't as confident in front of cameras and the media. One of the great things I guess I can take with me as being so lucky to have played with him and Michael, I was able to see him develop as a player and a person. When he came into the league, he had these great tools like length and athleticism. One of the things I remember about his first year was that he had this gift of getting the ball off the board and taking it lengths of the court, but he had a real high dribble. He often times would come out of there like a colt, a defender would be there, and they'd take it away from him. As time went on, he obviously learned that he had to come out a little lower with the ball and make his plays that way. It was part of a learning process for him. I felt like I was able to see him grow so much as a player and as a person. I really am happy for him and proud that he gets to stand up in front of the greats of the game and accept being included. There's no question that he absolutely deserves it."