With Scottie Pippen now among basketball’s greats in Springfield, it’s time to look back on the story from SLAM 5 about his early troubles in Chicago.– Ed.
by Scoop Jackson
Most athletes have one defining moment in their careers that either glorifies them or they are never able to live down. Mike Tyson will never be able to explain (among other things) his loss to Buster Douglas. Roberto Duran will never shake his “no mas” experience. Bill Buckner has his Mets moment, and we all know about Craig Ehlo’s repeated attempts to check Air.
Scottie Pippen, unfortunately, has several such moments. It took him years to live down his migraine headache against the Pistons in the 1988 playoffs, and just when people forget about that, Bam!, Scottie decides to take the most expensive, publicized, well-deserved chill in sports history (More on that later). And that was just the beginning.
Being “The One” is never easy. All superheroes and superstars have to go through carrying the world, or some franchise, on their shoulders, taking all loses in stride, and having to smile at every child who walks up and demands an autograph or a role model lesson ’cause Pops ain’t acting right.
Over the past 10 years Chicago has had the honor of hosting the AirGod Show. After three championships, Michael Jordan canceled his show and ended the most impressive display of superheroism witnessed since Forrest Gump showed Elvis how to dance. America was in need of a new superhero. The NBA was in need of a new superman. Charles Barkley? Too outspoken. David Robinson? Too clean-cut. Shaquille O’Neal? Too big. The only person to “replace” Jordan was the man who shared a fraction of the spotlight with him, his partner, his sidekick, his Kato. In October of 1993, Scottie Pippen became the man. Never asking for the honor, he stood in the corner of Jordan’s retirement press conference with dark glasses on looking into an even darker future. He became, at the moment, the replacement, the new superhero. The One.
Enter Afroman-Superbrotha of the ’90’s, Superfly like the ’70’s. Even before he grew the puffed dome, Scottie Pippen asserted himself as the ball player who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than the Bulls front office, and able to leap tall Ewings in a single bound. He was on that tip. Beyond even what he thought was possible, Pip helped the Bulls finish the regular season with one fewer win than they’d finished the year before with MJ on the team, and brought them to within one foul from championship #4 (because honestly, neither Indiana or Houston coulda hung if…). He won the NBA All-Star Game MVP and damn-near snagged the award for the entire season. He was asked to replace “God” on the spot, with no immediate warning – and he did it! Nuff respect? No respect.
But every superhero has obstacles. In Pippen’s case they can be called roadblocks. Stopped by Chicago’s finest for carrying a legally registered gun in his car: obstacle one. Openly calling Chicago fans “racist” for booing him and other black players: obstacle two. Not being allowed to renegotiate his contract and then having to deal with talks of putting a new contract on the table for an unproven rookie from Europe named Toni Kukoc: roadblock.
Pippen had to go through last season looking in the mirror every day, knowing that someone named Jon Koncak (along with forty other NBA players) was making more money than him.
“I look at the game as a whole,” Pippen said one evening, discussing his stock in the NBA. “I see a lot of players that are great players – Olajuwon, David Robinson, Larry Johnson – those are the type of guys that stick out in my mind as some of the top players in the league. I feel complimented when people tell me [I’m one of the best], but it’s hard to think that way when they’re not paying you that way.”
As a man, how do you deal with this? As a superhero, how do you justify swallowing your pride and honor for a lucky No. 7? Would Larry Bird have sat and watched the Celtics do the same thing to him with M.L. Carr? Hell, no. But in the eyes of sports fans, Pippen was trippin’.
Then came Game 3 against the Knicks in last year’s Eastern semi-finals.
When Pippen decided to “relax,” and now play in that final 1.8 seconds, he disobeyed every rule applied to practical obedience and protocol. Finally, he’d gone crazy. He chilled in that chair listening to Bill Cartwright bitch and watched “that lucky No. 7” deliver a victory through nylon. Devoid of kryptonite, Scottie Pippen had done the unheard-of for any superhero: He looked out for Scottie Pippen.
And the brotha was judged harshly. The entire basketball community went into an uproar. Scottie was over. Twelve angry men (including Coach Jackson) became twelve million angry hoops fans and the man was lynched without a trial. Maybe that’s why he won’t talk about it anymore. Know this, though: he sat because the team did not, at the end of a crucial playoff game, offer him the opportunity to be what they’d already told him he was – The Man. Kukoc is nice, sure, but Pippen had taken them closer to the promised land than the team deserved to be, and now the coach was asking him to be a decoy. Decoy! (Tell Jordan to decoy next time, Coach.)
Pound for pound, Scottie Pippen is the best player in the NBA. The problem is, most of you don’t know it. His career is probably the most compelling of any athlete playing professional sports. He has endured more scrutiny than Ted Kennedy and put up with more “fables” than Aesop. Mad-humble Southern beginnings and largely untapped hoop skills brought him into the NBA as an unknown. During the early days he grew and he learned. He went through those years beings teased and questioned about his heart. Haunted by a headache in Detroit and a McDaniels in New York, his life would change when Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson decided to “let” him guard Magic Johnson in Game 2 of the 1990 NBA Finals. Shazzam! The team never lost another game in that series, and Pip was finally the man playin’ next to the man.
When he made Dream Team I, his stock went ballistic. “It was a dream come true,” he says. The league – well, the coaches in the league – acknowledged his worth along with his talent. His play even propelled Julius Erving (the original superhero) to call Scottie, “the best 2-man in the history of the game.” Sorry Joe D; Pip’s the shit.
“I’m a big fan of Scottie’s and I’ve known him for awhile,” says Bulls guard/forward Pete Myers. “But what [he’s] doing now is unbelievable to me, and he’s not getting the credit he deserves. Look at ESPN or CNN every night; they’re not paying much attention to him. I don’t think there is a question who’s the best forward and one of the best two or three players in the league. It’s Scottie Pippen.”
Michael Jordan once said the only thing that he couldn’t do that Scottie was always able to do was drive to the hole and dunk on people, at will, with his left hand. Michael’s not alone. There are about 200 other players in the league who feel the same way and who have been the victim of the same pain. Scottie Pippen’s left hand., and his ability to bring embarrassment to others, is what truly separates him from NBA mortals. He uses it to lead the league in triple-doubles and steals. He uses it to nullify weak shit that comes down the lane and collect the hundreds of bricks that attack backboards and rims in stadiums across the country. He uses it to pound on his chest when his other hand is at work slammin’, shootin’, dribblin’, theivin’ and boardin’ against all NBA bad guys who try to dethrone his city. Night in and night out, he uses his left to play the type of basketball that reminds us of Dr. J and The Iceman back in ABA days – smooth, unique and, at times, unstoppable.The superhero uses his weapon well because his city left him no other choice.
Left alone to fly solo, Pip is doin’ his thang. Rightfully ripping management apart, calling a spade a spade and a liar a liar when he feels the need, yet playing at a level only Hakeem can match. He wears his uniform as a badge of honor. Through all the madness, he prevails and proves that he is, and deserves to be, respected, thought of and revered as a franchise player. Maybe the league’s best. The only one keeping the arena filled.
“He’s the best small forward in the game,” said new-jack big boy Glenn Robinson, after his first encounter with the superhero. “I learned that he is a great defensive player and a veteran who knows everything that’s going on. He’s been where I’m trying to go.”
As the forces around him close in, he screams for an exit, looking to go to a place where his talents will be at least appreciated if not revered. “At this stage of my career, I’ve done a lot for the team and the organization. If I’m deserving of the treatment I’m getting, someone tell me why. If not, get me out of here.” He’s down to number four on the payroll; BJ Armstrong, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc can afford to buy him lunch. Pippen wants more. More appreciation for the work he’s done.
“[For $8M a year] I still don’t think I’d be happy here,” he says. “This is because of the bridges that have been burned.” He inhales, releases, then continues. “Them trying to trade me and things like that. My hard work and work ethic isn’t enough [for management]. That shows right there that I’m not appreciated.” Other players around the league ask for it. Some even receive it. Not here; the situation is too far gone and there’s no way back.
“I have to side with Scottie,” says a never-to-be-named Bulls player in a Chicago Sun-Times interview, “but I don’t want my name used because I’ve had my own problems with [management]. The only question is: How long can a player who knows better chooses to put up with a certain mess? Some guys can’t holler as loud as others, so we have to put up with some lying or whatever else, or we’ll have to go to Europe or the CBA.”
In the words of All-Star forward Horace Grant: “I’ve spent seven years [there] with an organization I didn’t care much for.” Nuff said.
Scottie Pippen was the soul of the team last year, and he’s the entire organization this year. Still the trade rumors surface again and again. Over the summer while they were “upgrading” Kukoc’s contract ($26 million over six years), they tried to send Pip elsewhere.
“If I had to pick a team in the league I’d like to play for, it would be the Lakers. That’s like a second dream thing for me.” Then Pip breaks down the essentials: “Look at the Lakers. Look at their organization. How many players do you see from that championship squad that just [wanted out]? Other than Byron Scott – and he was really in a good position to control his own destiny – everybody else basically retired or something. [The Lakers] take care of their own.”
The under appreciate of a superhero. The $9.6 million Scottie has to “live” with over the next four years is minimum wage in this league. A slap in the face to a superhero. A hint.
It was Christmas night 1994, and Afroman had to throw his cape back on. The Bulls annual meeting with the Knicks needed to be saved. With his coach complaining that he does “too much,” Pip played all 53 minutes of the game – and had to score all the team’s points in overtime to secure a victory. The numbers were average: 36 points, 16 rebounds, two blocked shots in the last three seconds, you know the inside stuff. “Thanks Afroman, you saved us once again,” the fans say. But can anyone says, “We love you Afroman?”
And understanding has to be reached that the NBA has always served as a breeding ground for superheroes and will continue doing so. Yeah, Deion is going to get his, but shorties from block to block spend hours on the asphalt bassin’ defenders let and right, imitating what they feel is the real and calling out the superstars names as they go along. You hear “Kemp” and “Penny” and “Timmy” and “Starks.” You almost never hear “Pippen.”
With the fist-sculptured pic in his hair, Afroman moves on. Who knows where he’ll wind up. For now though it’s good, not all good but good enough to live with. So he tosses a few chairs; they’re lucky he doesn’t have Colin Ferguson’s morals (or Bobby Knight’s aim).
“I have to put my words in and let them know how I feel,” he diplomatically told NBC. (On the DL: “Do I want to get anything off of my chest?” he echoes my whispered question, with a smirk.)
We both laugh, realizing that His Afroness may never get his. He has to keep reminding himself that this is America, a place where superheroes, not superstars, always work for free.