He remembers that he felt the same way after both of the bad
games. They both seemed to end in a surreal blur. It seemed almost as
if he were a character in a bad movie he also was watching. Stop.
Wait a minute. This can't be happening. Let's start over again.
Everyone go to his mark. Ready? Let's take it from the top. Let's get
it right this time.
There was the external Scottie Pippen whom everyone could see,
including himself, the Scottie Pippen who had left the basketball
floor at the worst possible time, the Scottie Pippen whose absence
meant the downfall of his team in the biggest games it had ever
played. Wasn't this guy a true sad sack? A flat-out, high-profile
loser? There was also the internal Scottie Pippen, whom nobody could
see except himself. The internal Scottie Pippen was furious.
''At the end of both games I wanted to say, Can we play this game
all over again?'' he says now. ''I wanted to say, Can we stop
everything and start again? Right now?''
The first year was 1989. The Bulls were on the rise. Pippen was in
his second season, a young guy from the tiny University of Central
Arkansas who had arrived to play Tonto to Michael Jordan's
death-defying Lone Ranger, complete with the William Tell Overture in
the background. The hurdle was the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern
Conference finals. The Bulls were trailing, three games to two in the
best-of-seven series, and in the first minute of the ( sixth -- and
ultimately deciding -- game, Pippen was knocked out by an elbow from
Piston elbow specialist Bill Laimbeer. He never returned.
Never returned? In the biggest game of his life? The Bulls lost.
The next year, 1990, was a repeat. Pistons again. Eastern finals.
Seventh game this time. Pippen came down with a migraine headache.
The pictures that appeared the next morning showed him sitting on the
bench with a comic-strip ice bag perched on his head, a long towel
and a long face completing the image. The captions indicated that he
had scored two points on one-for-10 shooting and had four rebounds.
The Bulls lost again.
Two points? In the biggest game of his life? A migraine headache?
''How do you explain the things that happen?'' Pippen asks. ''The
time against Laimbeer, I wanted to go back. I asked and asked to go
back. The doctors and ((Bull general manager)) Jerry Krause wouldn't
let me. I'd never had a migraine before. It's very hard to tell
people what you feel like in that situation. If I were on the other
side, it would be very hard to tell me. And once you get people on
your back, it's hard to get them off.''
Two games. Two nights. A reputation was born. The whisper -- heck,
the headline -- was that Pippen was soft. He had a heart the
consistency of oleomargarine, not even real butter. Push him, and he
would go down and not come back. Turn on the gas-station air pump,
get the bells ringing, and the increased pressure would make him fall
apart. Soft. Soft. Soft. Pippen? Very good on a January night in,
say, Dallas, against the Mavericks. Put him in a postseason sweatbox,
though, winner takes all, championships and money at stake, and where
will he be? Sitting on the bench under an ice pack.
It did not matter that Krause, for one, backed Pippen's story of
the Laimbeer night. The doctor had unequivocally stated to Krause
that Pippen should not return to the game. What was Krause going to
do? Go against the doctor? And it did not matter that various
migraine specialists publicly detailed the pain and effects of a
withering headache. The casual observer only had to look farther
along the Bulls' bench to see how a champion should perform. Look at
Jordan. When the going gets tough and all of that. Jordan had no
migraines. Jordan had no knockout blows delivered to his head.
A pleasant basketball story suddenly had turned sour. Soft. That
was the only word Pippen could hear. How could he rewind the reels?
How could he start * the movie again? Just the picture of him, often
wearing wire-rim glasses that gave him the appearance of a successful
young scholar or account executive, seemed to be an indictment. Soft.
The way he played, graceful and controlled, soaring over and around
other people, never muscling through them, was a second indictment.
Indictments were everywhere. No matter where he went or what he did,
he was trailed by the memories of those two nights. How do you change
public opinion? How do you change what so many people have decided is
That was Pippen's challenge. Luckily, he had experience.
''We used to play at the Pine Street courts,'' Ron Martin, a
friend of Pippen's, says. ''We must have been 13, 14, 15 years old.
We'd play as late as we could, until the old man would run us off for
making noise. We'd play everything. Scottie was the Giants. I was the
A's. We played a million games. Basketball. We'd play one-on-one
forever. We were convinced that one of us was going to make it to the
NBA. We just didn't know which one. I was a little bit bigger than he
was, heavier, stronger, so I used to lean on him. Then . . . somehow
. . . he got big on me.''
The town was Hamburg, Ark., population 3,394, a quiet and peaceful
stretch of Nowhere. The NBA? One local kid, Myron Jackson, had gone
off and played at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in '82 and
had a tryout with the Mavericks in '86, but that was it for bright
lights. Pippen was not exceptional. He was another good, quiet kid,
moving through high school. He was 6 ft. 1 1/2 in. as a senior,
starting at point guard. Martin, his friend, was a junior shooting
guard. Donald Wayne, the coach, remembers that Pippen was ''nothing
tremendous, but good. Not flashy, but consistent.'' No Myron Jackson,
High school ended for Pippen without a single college offer. What
to do? He asked Wayne for help. The coach says he tries to help any
good kid who wants to go to college, and that was what he did for
Pippen. He called Don Dyer, his old coach at Henderson State in
Arkadelphia, who had moved along to the University of Central Arkanas
in Conway. Wayne's promises were minimal. He said he had a point
guard, 6 ft. 1 1/2 in., who would be a good manager under a
work-study program and, well, the kid came from a big family,
youngest of 12, and the parents and the brothers and sisters did seem
to run sort of large. Maybe the kid also would grow. Maybe he even
could be a player. Dyer took a chance. The kid grew.
He was 6 ft. 3 in. by the time he arrived on the Central Arkansas
He was 6 ft. 5 in., 165 pounds, skinny as a minute, as a sophomore.
He was 6 ft. 6 in., 185, as a junior.
He was 6 ft. 7 in. by the end of his senior year.
The student-manager role disappeared early in Pippen's freshman
year. He was scrimmaging with the team and playing well. The bigger
he grew, the better he became.
''The surprising thing to me is that he never lost any of his
coordination in all this growing,'' says Arch Jones, an assistant at
Central Arkansas during Pippen's years there. ''He was able to take
the skills he had learned when he was smaller and use them when he
was bigger. His arms are so long, his hands so big that he really
plays like someone 6 ft. 10 in., 6 ft. 11 in..''
Central Arkansas is an NAIA school, a small college, and it had
never sent a basketball player to the pros. In 1979, Monte Coleman
had moved along to play football for the Washington Redskins and five
years later Wes Gardner had started pitching a baseball for the New
York Mets, but no one from the school had advanced to the NBA. The
idea that Pippen could make that jump came only in brief flashes of
revelation. Hey! Hasn't this kid played every position on the court
at one time or another? Hey! Isn't he dominating games? Couldn't you
project that to another level? No one knew for sure, and the team did
not help, falling a basket or two short every year in the last local
tournament, and failing to qualify for the NAIA finals and national
exposure in Kansas City.
''I remember thinking at the end of his sophomore season that
Scottie had a chance,'' Dyer says. ''I'd seen Sidney Moncrief and
Darrell Walker play at the University of Arkansas, and they both made
it to the NBA, and I thought Scottie was bigger and better. I called
San Antonio and I called Dallas, but no one seemed interested. I knew
Bob Bass, then the general manager at San Antonio. I told him about
Scottie. Wasn't interested. I see him now, and every time he says,
'You tried to tell me. . . .' ''
''I always thought he had a chance,'' Jones says, ''but I realized
how good he was when I saw him with all of those players at the NBA
tryout camp in Chicago. Scottie made a move; he came in from the
right and banked the ball off the backboard with his left hand.
That's a pretty difficult move, and he did it easy. And when he'd go
up the middle? Dunk City.''
The NBA tryout camps were Pippen's coming-out party. No one really
knew who he was. Because of his size and stats he was projected as a
fourth-round draft choice. No one really had seen him. The camps were
held in Portsmouth, Va., Honolulu and Chicago. By the time they were
finished, the projections on Pippen had changed dramatically. Krause
was maneuvering feverishly to secure the fifth pick in the entire
draft to get Pippen.
''I'd never seen him until Portsmouth,'' Krause says. ''They come
out for warm-ups. They haven't even shot the ball. Here's this guy,
he's got the longest arms I've ever seen. I've always been very big
on long arms and big hands. I say, 'Holy ---- , there's something
special.' I look around. Everybody's murmuring.''
Krause says he was on the phone with the Seattle SuperSonics for
two days working a deal. The Bulls had the eighth pick. The Sonics
had the fifth. Krause was terrified that the Sacramento Kings,
selecting sixth, would take Pippen. The deal was clinched at four
o'clock in the morning on the day of the draft. The Sonics would
switch choices with the Bulls in the first round for assorted
considerations if -- and only if -- someone they wanted was not
available in the fifth spot. They would not say who it was they
wanted. Krause would not say whom he wanted.
During the draft the lines were open between Chicago and Seattle.
The deal was not completed until the Los Angeles Clippers chose
Reggie Williams fourth. Williams was the player the Sonics wanted. So
Seattle selected Pippen fifth, then dealt him later in the day to
Chicago for Olden Polynice, the player the Sonics had ordered the
Bulls to take eighth.
The freshman manager of a small-college team became, at the end of
four years, the player picked to take the pressure off the
beleaguered Jordan. Remember the talk of Jordan and the backup
Jordanaires? Pippen had been picked to be second soloist in the
''It's amazing how far he has come,'' his agent, Jimmy Sexton,
says. ''You think about where he started, this quiet kid from
Arkansas who nobody had ever heard of. I was down at Oklahoma State,
and one of the assistant coaches there, a guy named Russ Pennell,
came up to me and said that he went to college with Scottie. He was
a senior when Scottie was a freshman. Russ said he was watching a
game on television and Scottie was just doing everything and all Russ
could think was, Scottie Pippen -- I remember when he was handing me
my gym shorts and socks.''
''People always ask what would have happened if he had gone to
another team, a team that didn't have Michael,'' Krause says. ''They
say, 'Well, Scottie would have been a star right away instead of
having to wait.' I don't think so. I think coming here made it easier
for him. If he had gone to another team -- a kid from Arkansas,
picked from an NAIA school, picked fifth in the draft -- the pressure
would have been unbelievable. He would have been asked to produce
right away. Here there was no pressure in the beginning. Michael took
all the pressure. Scottie had time to grow. He had problems for a
while, didn't know how hard practices would be, didn't know a lot of
things. He learned from Michael. It was like going to Cincinnati and
learning from Oscar Robertson. What could be better?
''I think coming here gave him a chance to be a star. And he took
The ''soft'' business is finished now. Isn't it? The supposed
oleomargarine heart has calcified. Hasn't it? The wish to replay the
big game, the biggest game in his life, has been granted to Pippen
again and again and yet again, and he has responded on every
occasion. Three championship rings are his evidence. Not to mention
an Olympic gold medal.
The final testimony in his defense was given this spring on the
floor of Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks and the New York
press had brought back all of the old stories. Pippen was the
underbelly of the Bulls' operation, the soft spot that could be
attacked. The Knicks were the barroom bullies who would make Pippen
run for cover. Get the ice bags ready. The Knicks would take care of
this girlie-man and move on.
Oh, yes? Who was bringing the ball up the floor against the
Knicks' karate defense? Who was sticking the tough jumpers with time
running down, while Jordan was double-covered or struggling with his
shooting? Who was there at the end of Game 5, the turnaround game at
the Garden, swatting away the final two of Charles Smith's four shots
from under the basket, any of which would have changed the outcome?
This was the place Pippen wasn't supposed to be, in the middle of the
elbows and the heat. These were the things he wasn't supposed to do.
These were the things he did.
''I love the challenge,'' he says. ''I loved it when the Knicks
said they were coming after me. I hoped Phoenix would do the same
thing. During the Knick series I felt really healthy for the first
time all season. ((He had been slowed for much of the year by a
sprained left ankle; a cortisone shot he received a month before the
playoffs had helped.)) When I'm healthy there isn't a challenge in
the world I can't meet.''
Pippen's statistics went on a straight progression upward,
increasing with almost each playoff series, from 15.3 points and 4.0
rebounds in the opening series against the Atlanta Hawks, to 18.3
points and 6.3 rebounds against the Cleveland Cavs, to 22.5 points
and 6.7 rebounds against the Knicks, to 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds
against the Suns. His importance in the Chicago operation was never
greater. With Jordan nagged by gambling controversies off the court
and hounded into some bad shooting nights on it, Pippen was a
reliable antidote. Still the second banana to Jordan, he nevertheless
moved closer to equal billing. With just about any other team in the
NBA, he would be the marquee player.
''The thing about Scottie is that he's still just scratching the
surface of what he can be,'' Krause says. ''I think he'll be a better
defensive player, although he's not bad now. I think he'll be a
better shooter, although his shooting certainly has improved. You
look at him . . . his tools just stun you. He is just now coming into
that age range, the late 20's, early 30's, when players are at the
top of their games.''
''His role here has grown and grown,'' says Bull coach Phil
Jackson. ''Starting out, you could see his possibilities. He could
rebound yet still dribble. He could post up, but he also had those
slashing moves. You knew he could be a very good player, but you
didn't know how good. He played a few times at guard in his first
couple of seasons, bringing the ball up against teams with pressing
guards, but mostly we used him at small forward.
''As more and more teams pressed, however, we decided we had to
become more creative. More and more we had to go to Michael to bring
the ball up. We didn't want to do that. We came up with the thought
of Scottie as a third ball advancer, of an offense that attacked at
multiple points. From that position he started to take control, to
make decisions. He became a bit of everything.''
A bit of everything. The comparisons with Jordan are inevitable --
the player who has combined the largest bits of everything to become
the best player in NBA history -- but even they don't seem to matter
anymore. The Pippen of these playoffs seemed to be a man at ease with
himself. He didn't $ want to be like Mike or like anyone else. He was
happy to be himself. There have been times when he has fought against
his situation, felt it was strangling him. No more.
''I wouldn't ever want to be Michael,'' he says. ''To have to stay
in the room all day long because so many people are waiting outside?
To always have the feeling that someone is standing behind you,
listening, just recording everything you say and do? I don't know how
he does it. I can go out, I can walk around. People come up to me for
autographs and talk, but it's natural. They see Michael and they
jump. People act as if they've seen a ghost. I wouldn't want to live
''I honestly don't know whether I could function as a player away
from Michael now. What Michael has brought us is the spotlight and
the pressure. All of us -- Horace Grant, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong
-- had to respond to it or else we would have died as a team.
Eventually we did respond, and it made us stronger. . . .
''I've come to terms with my role on this team, and that is to do
the things I can do. I'll never be the scorer Michael is. I couldn't
put up those numbers if I tried. And you know what? I hope he leads
the league in scoring for the rest of his career. And when it's over,
I'll be able to say, 'I helped him do it. And I played with the
greatest player ever.' ''
The final laugh again this spring belongs to this tall,
27-year-old man with the elongated face that looks as if it has been
taken from a cubist's sketch pad. Soft? He can wink from behind those
glasses that he started wearing off the court to ward off eye strain
and migraines. He can greet his detractors with civility, knowing
they have to erase all the old words they have written about him. He
has moved into the movie he once had to watch and has set everything
straight. Any questions? All he has to do is show his hands in
''Scottie, do you think this was the series when you really proved
yourself?'' one breathless questioner asked after the playoffs with
''I have two championship rings,'' Pippen replied. ''I don't think
I have anything to prove.''
Adjust the total. Now he has three.