No one tougher than Scottie Pippen
It’s going to be a great day Friday for Pippen, and let’s get this straight: He’s a bona fide Hall of Famer and not because of Michael Jordan. Pippen may have been the greatest individual defender in the history of the NBA.
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There are players who have won more in basketball’s Hall of Fame, though not many more than Scottie Pippen with his six championships playing for the Bulls. There certainly are players who have scored more, shot better, jumped higher, run faster and been more popular.
But there may be no one tougher than Scottie Pippen, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday in Springfield, Mass.
Not physically tougher, for fellow inductee Karl Malone certainly was sturdier. And perhaps not mentally tougher in the way we generally define it in sports, as most everyone would point to Pippen’s former teammate and Hall of Famer Michael Jordan as the portrait of sporting tenacity.
Ironically, it was Pippen who was long cursed with the ugly label of being soft for his famous migraine headache in the 1990 conference finals, being openly taunted by Xavier McDaniel in the 1992 playoffs and the verbal and physical abuse he endured in the Bulls/Pistons wars of the late 1980s.
But that, really, was part of his great strength, sort of Scottie Pippen as Buddha.
Likely no one in the history of the NBA has endured as much, from hardscrabble upbringing, which is not uncommon among pro athletes, to raging controversies that rank among the highlights in the history of the game. Just mention the number 1.8 and everyone knows the reference. Mention migraine. Mention the gun arrest before they were fashionable and the wonderful tradition of feuds with management, though Pippen took it to the greatest lengths by once announcing his retirement during a championship season while he was on the injured list.
It all made him one of the most polarizing athletes Chicago ever has known, if also once of its most successful and acclaimed.
"Sometimes I wonder why people get so upset," Pippen once told me. "It's just basketball. People come to watch us play. But it's like our job has to always be performed right, perfect, always analyzed, that there can't be a letdown. You want to ask them sometimes, 'Did you ever have a bad day?'”
It’s going to be a great day Friday for Pippen, and let’s get this straight: He’s a bona fide Hall of Famer and not because of Michael Jordan.
Pippen may have been the greatest individual defender in the history of the NBA.
No, he never was named Defensive Player of the Year, though he was all-defensive first team eight straight seasons and second team two others. Generally, centers have won the award. Michael Jordan did once, and among perimeter players, Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, Gary Payton and Ron Artest were named. None matches Pippen for his ability to influence a game defensively.
When the Bulls won their first championship in 1991, it was Pippen’s defense on Magic Johnson that was the difference in slowing the Lakers. Pippen bookended it with a spectacular job in shutting down the Pacers Mark Jackson in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals on the way to the Bulls’ last title. The season before in the Finals, it was Pippen deflecting the potential game winning assist pass from Bryon Russell to clinch the championship over the Jazz.
It was like the kind of stuff you’d see Jason Kidd do in his prime.
“Scottie would score four points and dominate the game,” said Steve Kerr, who always listed Pippen as his favorite teammate. “That’s what made him one of the best to ever play the game.”
I remember Phil Jackson once telling me Pippen was one of the brightest players he’s ever coached and Jackson several times talked with Pippen about joining his coaching staff.
“You can put him at any position you want and he knows the overall nature of what has to happen on the floor,” said Jackson.
And, yet, Pippen would, seemingly, do or say the dumbest things, sitting out that 1.8 seconds in the 1994 playoffs because Jackson selected Toni Kukoc for the game winning shot attempt, accusing Chicago fans of racism for not booing Kukoc when he played poorly—and Pippen personally liked Kukoc. There was a seemingly unending series of trade demands and public debates with management that left by the end even Jordan and Jackson condemning Pippen, with Jordan congratulating Dennis Rodman for being more mature.
That was in the beginning of the 1997-98 season, the dynasty’s dying moments, when Pippen announced on a November road trip during which he wasn’t playing because he delayed surgery that he was never going to play for the Bulls again, this being after both Jordan and Jackson, on one-year contracts, decided to return for one more season, so as not to leave Pippen alone.
But then Pippen would return in January, and the team took off, immediately winning 10 of 12, the languid Pippen the picture of grace and athletic poetry of motion. Really, he was simply beautiful to watch with those long, gliding strides and a sort of playing arrogance forged in the refusal to be cowed by events and his own missteps.
I remember talking many times about that with Pippen’s former agent, Jimmy Sexton. We’d marvel at all the controversies swirling around Pippen and his almost insouciant indifference. I remember one time the team was in Boston and Pippen had went off about his favorite foil, then Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Pippen had called Krause a bunch of unkindly names—Jordan would as well, but not to reporters—over some contract dispute.
The next day when the team was arriving for practice back home, Pippen saw the huge crowd of reporters waiting and was curious. He went over to Jackson and asked if something had happened, why they were all there. Jackson smiled. “They’re here for you,” he said. Pippen was mystified. He didn’t know why.
I thought Sexton, with whom Pippen is now estranged, had summed him up best.
"Mostly, I'd say Scottie is an easygoing and relaxed kind of guy," Sexton told me then. "But the chairs (he’d thrown one onto the court that season in anger), the other things he does, it's a frustration with things that develop at certain times. He can be stubborn, but that helps him. Most players you see, if they have the kind of scrutiny Scottie has had, their play drops off. Not Scottie. He never lets these things affect him, so really that stubbornness helps him. Sometimes you'd like to see him not do certain things, but he continues to respond through all the adversity. It's always been that way with Scottie."
I remember the famous 1.8 second strike in the series with the Knicks. Jordan was playing baseball then and couldn’t believe it. He called Jackson the next morning.
“He apologized,” Jackson told Jordan, “but he’s not contrite.”
Yes, Pippen never wavered in his belief that he was right and Jackson was at fault.
"Phil (Jackson) was wrong," Pippen told me many times over the years as we once worked on a book together which never came to fruition. "Those times in games are the moments you live for. I thought it was an injustice the way Phil treated me, and I had to say something, right or wrong. It wasn't what people wanted to hear.
"I'll say what's on my mind—I'm not going to be a phony—and sometimes people don't like that. I don't like making a front. I don't really have any celebrity friends. In basketball, I'm friends with Karl Malone, but I'll never say we're such great friends (like some other stars around the league who pretend to be close friends). The Bulls wanted someone to go out and be quiet. They say, 'You're a player and you do your job.' That’s not me. I know some things I've said or things I've done haven't always been understood, but if it comes down to speaking your feelings or doing what you have to do, you're cheating yourself if you don't voice your opinion. You're allowing people to run over you. And I'll never do that."
I never could quite figure where all of that came from, but I also could never envision what it was like to grow up like Scottie Pippen.
He was the youngest of 12 kids growing up in a two-room rural house in Arkansas. How does anyone make it out of that? His father, Preston, was a mill worker who had a debilitating stroke and was out of work before Scottie was in high school. A brother, Ronnie, was injured in an accident in high school and was in a wheel chair. Scottie often dreamed of himself that way.
"I've always thought that one injury could wipe all of this away," Pippen once told me. "I'm able to run and jump and do all the things I can do. I'm blessed. We're all blessed in the NBA. But I always would look at (the late) Darryl Stingley (who used to sit behind the Bulls' bench in the Chicago Stadium). I'd kind of watch him sometimes and see my brother, a healthy, strong young man, and all of a sudden he's confined to a wheelchair, to where he can't get around. I think about that a lot."
Yet, rarely did I hear Pippen mention anything but sweet memories about his childhood. "As I look back, I have to say growing up was fun, not a problem at all,” he said, mentioning dominoes and checkers games as the most fun. “I knew if I didn't make it in the NBA, I'd probably be doing something like I do now, maybe in an athletic department somewhere. I'd just have a smaller TV."
Pippen's story has been well chronicled, if also still seemingly beyond fiction.
It’s told famously by his high school and college coaches, but truly defies explanation. The supermodel skinny kid who didn’t play much in high school and wasn’t even sure he wanted to play in college, even if he could. But his high school coach called in some favors just to get him a look at NAIA Central Arkansas. Pippen, maybe 135 pounds then and 6-1, couldn’t get a scholarship and wasn’t recruited by even a junior college. He became team manager and went to school on a Pell grant before a scholarship came open late in his freshman year and he got it in more a charitable move. He cleaned the locker room and handed out the towels. He said he enjoyed that because he could just hang out with the guys.
And now he’s going into the Basketball Hall of Fame. C’mon, you cannot even make that up.
There is no member of the Hall of Fame who was farther from the Hall of Fame as a college freshman than Scottie Pippen.
And then even as he began to grow and star at Central Arkansas, the level of competition was so poor the first Bulls scout to see him, Billy McKinney, now Bucks personnel director, couldn’t figure out how good he was because everyone playing in the games was so far from NBA talent.
But Krause quickly realized he had a gem, and as things went then in the bizarre world of Krause machinations, he tried to get Pippen to take a two-week vacation (at the team’s expense) in Hawaii, so Pippen would skip the predraft camps and no one else would see him. But Pippen was having too much fun finally being noticed and declined.
Krause did pull off a stunner of a deal to move up in the draft and get Pippen, and had some luck as well as Seattle agreed to trade its pick to get Pippen, though only if Reggie Williams wasn’t available. When the Clippers took Williams at No. 4, the Bulls pulled off the trade with Seattle to get Pippen just ahead of Sacramento at No. 6, which wanted Pippen and took Kenny Smith. Smith was whom Jordan wanted with the North Carolina connection.
The Bulls also selected Horace Grant with their other first round pick, though Jordan didn’t particularly see him ahead of his buddy Charles Oakley.
But the coaching staff could see what they had, as Jordan and Pippen would square off in practice and Oakley and Grant. It was some of the best battles they’d ever see, and eventually Oakley would be moved for Bill Cartwright to finish off the blueprint for the dynasty.
And as Pippen always liked to joke to those who constantly labeled him just a beneficiary of Jordan’s greatness, “Michael never won any championships without me, either.”
In fact, Jordan was 1-9 in playoff games, though pretty amazing in some of those losses, before then coach Doug Collins decided to start Pippen for the first time over Brad Sellers in the deciding game of the 1988 playoffs against Cleveland and it was Pippen’s play in that Game 5 clincher that enabled Jordan to win his first playoff series.
“He'd be going down court late in a game and looking to find someone," says former coach Collins now coaching the 76ers.
"Scottie is not the kind of player to make winning shots, game-winning plays, but he was always more unselfish than Michael. If I were on the floor, I'd want to play with a guy like Pippen more than Jordan, but the perception always runs ahead of the reality, and Michael was the guy always perceived as hitting that winning shot and Scottie not doing it."
Steve Kerr used to recount times on the floor he’d go several minutes and not get a shot and become a bit wary. He said Pippen would run by him and say, “I know you haven’t gotten a shot. Don’t worry. Next time, I’ll get you one.” Kerr said it was uncanny Pippen seemed to know what everyone on the court needed.
Longtime coach Don Nelson once remarked to Jackson that the Bulls were the dream team. Nelson said there couldn’t be anything better than your two best offensive players being your two best defensive players.
I remember talking to the late Chuck Daly after that 1992 Dream Team and Daly raving about Pippen. Daly said he knew Pippen was a potential MVP candidate type player, but said Pippen was the best player on the 1992 team. “I know Michael’s the best player, but Pippen was the best player on that team,” admired Daly.
Yet, Pippen truly is a contradiction.
He always had such fears about money and losing everything he wanted security early in his career, yet he made so many risky investments and purchases he lost tens of millions of dollars late in his career. He was a devoted family man who bought homes for his parents and several siblings and delighted in summers back in Arkansas, yet he was involved in numerous paternity suits, some at the same time.
He was irreplaceable, yet the Bulls almost traded him for Shawn Kemp to Seattle in 1994 and to the Celtics and Clippers in 1997. He lashed out bitterly after each such occasion, and when he was MVP of the All-Star game in 1994 with arguably the best All-Star game ever, 29 points, 11 rebounds and four steals, he spent the post game talking about being traded and trying on different uniforms of other teams.
"I know people think I'm arrogant, cocky, which is probably due to some of the things that have happened over the years. But people don't know you," Pippen has told me. "They pretty much look at what is your image. I don't try to hold up an image for anyone. I'm Scottie. I'm human. I'm happy with who I am. If you're one of my friends, you're not even going to know I'm an NBA player. They'll say you can't tell the difference. I don't ever try to be more than them. Because I'm not.”
But you couldn’t tell when he and Grant came to the NBA as the ultimate kids in the candy store.
“We were star-struck," acknowledged Grant. "We were just happy to be in the league. We were two young punks with a lot of money, having fun, the world at your feet. We didn't appreciate what it meant.”
Their friendship was legendary at the time as they were inseparable. They’d call each other a dozen times a day and agree on clothes to wear to the game. They purchased the identical cars, dogs and lived on the same street. They were each other’s best men at their weddings, a few months apart. They had the same agent and vacationed together. In the Bulls’ yearbook in answer to the question, “Who would you take if you were going to the moon?” Pippen responded, “Horace Grant.” One of my favorite stories was when Pippen’s cat died and Grant called in saying he’d be late for practice because he had to mourn with Scottie.
Pippen and Grant became the pieces Jordan needed to make the Bulls successful, and maybe it was symbolic when the Bulls finally broke through in 1991 to beat the Lakers. After Pippen had thwarted Magic Johnson, it was Pippen with the ball in his huge hands as the game ended. And later in that famous layup missed by Charles Smith in the 1993 conference finals, it was Pippen with two blocks on the play.
That 1991 title would be just the true beginning, as the Bulls went on to those first three championships, and then in what could have been the most remarkable season in NBA history if not for a questionable foul call in the playoffs, without Jordan the game’s best player and led by Pippen the Bulls won 55 games and were on the verge of heading to still another Finals. Pippen had his best season, becoming the third player ever to lead his team in every significant statistical category as he averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
You lose the best player ever and barely miss a beat, winning two fewer games than the season before without any significant addition. It basically ended any serious discussion of the value and talent and leadership of Scottie Pippen.
People try to compare Pippen, and he often has been doubted because of Jordan’s influence and greatness.
But Pippen is akin to LeBron James today.
And going to Miami, James basically acknowledged he knows he’s Pippen, a transcendent talent who needs a closer.
People ask who Pippen would have been without Jordan, and he would have been James, a superstar facilitator who learned to shoot, though it was hardly his strong point, and who would finish the game but needed someone better to bring out the best of his talents.
James has routinely been compared with Jordan, and Pippen should be as well—not as a scorer, but as an all-around basketball player.
He’s one of the best the game has ever seen and Friday he gets his recognition. It's well earned.