Bulls Great Scottie Pippen Earns the Ultimate Honor
Scottie Pippen was always a different kind of NBA superstar. From his roots as a late bloomer to the mistaken perception that he merely was a beneficiary of Michael Jordan’s transcendent greatness, Pippen was one of the most versatile pros ever—and one of the most genial teammates the world had ever seen.
Every athlete plays to earn the respect of his peers, and few ever accomplished such a goal with the success Scottie Pippen did. And as much for his selflessness as his individual greatness, he was granted immortality in 2010 (his first year of eligibility) with enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Not to downgrade anyone I played with over my career, but Scottie Pippen was simply the best teammate I ever had,” insists Chicago Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson. “There is so much ‘me-first’ thinking in sports and society today that people lose a sense of how important and valuable a team player truly is. For all of Scottie’s professional accomplishments that are listed on his Hall of Fame plaque, his value as a teammate and friend is far greater.”
Pippen’s most famous teammate, Michael Jordan, was asked by Pippen to present him at his Hall of Fame ceremony. It was a somewhat ironic “assist” from Jordan, who achieved legendary status often at the expense of Pippen and the rest of his Chicago teammates.
“Michael was always driven to be the best, and he pulled his teammates closer to his level in order to win,” says Doug Collins, the first coach to lead the Jordan-Pippen Bulls of the late 1980s to a playoff series win. “And if anyone didn’t respond, Michael would simply forge ahead and take on more responsibility. But Scottie was someone who refused to leave any teammate behind; perhaps to his detriment, he was a team guy to the core.”
The man who succeeded Collins on Chicago’s bench and led the Bulls to each of their six NBA World Championships, Phil Jackson, adds, “Scottie Pippen was always the best-liked player on our team. He was a terrific communicator, an encouraging teammate, a true leader. Michael could be pretty harsh at times—he was more apt to get loud and challenge someone to a fight. Scottie on the other hand, would look to build a teammate’s confidence with encouragement and support.”
Now Pippen never wore the white hat of a hero, and he came to terms with that early in his career. He understood he wasn’t ever going to be Jordan—and, frankly, he didn’t want to be.
“The guys in the locker room, they always have to come first.” – Scottie Pippen
“People may forget that Michael was around for seven seasons before the Bulls finally took off,” says former Bulls center and current team broadcaster Bill Wennington. “Michael needed a partner, a teammate who would work just as hard as he did—and, most importantly, who would accept being No. 2. Some say Scottie was lucky to have Michael by his side, but the truth is they both were lucky to have each other.”
In spite of their partnership, or perhaps because of it, Pippen was routinely overlooked, even in moments of greatest triumph. Shutting down none other than Magic Johnson and paving the way for Chicago’s “delayed sweep” to a first NBA title in 1991? Images of Jordan’s soaring layup in Game 2 and tearful trophy embrace endure to this day, but it was Pippen’s stifling defense against the greatest point guard to ever play that turned the tide in Chicago’s favor. Then there was Pippen’s MVP-caliber season of 1993-94 sans Jordan, when he became the first player since Dave Cowens to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks for an entire season. His 1994 All-Star Game MVP? More attention was paid to Pippen’s close-cropped haircut and sneakers than his stellar play on the hardwood.
Scottie Pippen popularized the idea of always being a good teammate. After all, no player can win a title on his own. Jordan himself was 1-9 in the postseason before Pippen arrived (interestingly, Pippen went 19-21 without Jordan). At the very time that the NBA was falling over itself to promote everything “Air,” Scottie Pippen was there, on Jordan’s team, as if to remind us all about the importance of a great supporting cast.
In fact, independent of one another, it may be Pippen who had the greatest season of all time, not Jordan. In 1993-94, when Jordan opted to retire from basketball at the dawn of the season, leaving the Bulls in a lurch, Pippen shifted on the fly from the ultimate complementary player to, well, the ultimate player. He not only led Chicago in all five major stat categories, but was just one phantom foul call by NBA referee Hue Hollins away from possibly leading the Bulls back to the Eastern Conference Finals and ultimately a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
If it’s possible to separate being a good teammate and winning, it would be fair to say that Scottie Pippen always put his teammates before even the ultimate goal, wins.
“The wins were always important, and all of my teammates and coaches knew how much I wanted to win,” Pippen says. “But the guys in the locker room, they always have to come first.”
Pippen would grow into a player who would revolutionize the game on both sides of the ball. He began far from that place, however, as a 6’1”, 135-pound guard who didn’t play much in high school and had no scholarship to play at Central Arkansas. In fact, he didn’t even have a spot on the team, first serving as the squad’s manager, cleaning the locker room and washing towels. But he was a member of the team, which was always most important thing to him.
“Scottie came to the Bulls so green, you could read him like a book,” says former Chicago assistant coach Jim Cleamons. “But when he began to blossom, boy, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”
“We could see his potential right away,” adds Jackson. “Scottie could play big or small, on offense or defense. He could slash and shoot. Everything we threw at him, he absorbed and asked for more.”
Pippen was dubbed the leader of the “Dobermans,” named after Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach’s attacking defense, and Pippen’s All-Defensive honors and terrific steals-blocks numbers are solid indications of the multifaceted impact he had as a defender. In addition to regular season assignments that found him most nights matched up against an opponent’s top scorer, Pippen gained even more notice for his postseason work defending the likes of forwards Dennis Rodman and John Salley, and even All-Star point guard Mark Jackson.
Pippen’s defensive versatility—an ability to lock down any player under seven feet tall, no matter how short and quick or tall and bulky—is well documented. As late as his final full season in 2002-03 with the Portland Trail Blazers, he was still drawing atypical defensive assignments, from guarding power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim (two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier) to shutting down point guard Tony Parker (five inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter).
Offensively, Pippen’s game is a bit harder to quantify. But, to put succinctly, he revolutionized the small forward position. By nature, he consistently stuffed the stat sheet.
“The big key to our success in Chicago was moving Scottie from the wing to point guard,” Jackson recalls. “His skill set was even better suited for decision making than Michael’s. Scottie was the perfect fit for what we wanted to accomplish.”
Pippen wasn’t the first “point-forward,” nor is he the last—but he’s clearly the best ever. He directed Chicago’s intricate Triangle offense, a scheme that a lot of players are never able to master, much less orchestrate. As the center of the offense, Pippen was a many-sided weapon—ball-handling, passing, rebounding, driving and dishing, and spacing the floor were all roles that he relished over scoring.
“People forget how graceful a player Scottie was,” Paxson insists. “You see this big guy who could dunk at will and guard anyone, sure. But he had a lot of memorable, physical moments on the floor. As much fun as Michael was to play with and watch, especially when he had the ball, Scottie was just as much a treat for any true student of the game. Pip did it all.”
While Pippen’s versatility and intuition as a teammate were significant factors in his selection to the Hall of Fame, it’s not to say the numbers on the back of his basketball card are shabby. In 17 seasons, he played in 1,178 NBA games and averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.96 steals. At the age of 31, he was honored as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all-time. He was voted 10 times as an All-Defensive Team member—eight straight on the First Team—and was seven times an All-NBA honoree.
“I went through a lot of ups and downs as a young player, dealing with criticisms and things of that nature,” Pippen remembers. “But I always tried to learn from whatever happened to me. I don’t believe there’s anything I ever need to look back on and regret. I believe all anyone can do is learn and move forward.”
For Pippen, basketball was never really about individual accolades. Thus, it’s somewhat ironic he achieved enshrinement twice in the Class of 2010—once for his selfless overall play in the NBA, and a second for his heady contributions to the 1992 USA Olympic “Dream Team.” On the latter, a club that boasted basketball legends Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan, the late Chuck Daly who was the head coach of the Dream Team often dubbed Pippen the squad’s best all-around player.
And it was always important for Scottie to be the best—the best teammate, that is.
“The most important thing to me is that my teammates remember me as a guy who cared about them,” Pippen says. “I was willing to do anything possible to win. I always gave my best to them and to Bulls fans, and I hope they understand that what I wanted most was for all of us to win. When I look back on my career and on my life, I want to be remembered for that.”