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Steve Aschburner

Though best known as Michael Jordan's running mate, Scottie Pippen was a superstar in his own right.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Versatile Pippen becomes synonymous with greatness

Posted Aug 13 2010 8:04PM

As much as anything, Scottie Pippen is a basketball Hall of Famer as an archetype.

Or more precisely, as a proprietary eponym. Y'know, shorthand. As in a very specific brand name that, by its reliability, ubiquity and yet overall specialness, starts to represent others that are similar but a little different. Like Kleenex, Band Aid, Coke and Scotch tape. And what are Velcro, Plexiglass, FedEx, iPod and Google in not first-ballot Hall of Famers?

Same thing with Pippen, who becomes that as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2010, to be inducted Aug. 13 in Springfield, Mass.

Nine times out of 10, when Pippen gets mentioned these days by a writer or a broadcaster, the context has little or nothing to do with him. It might not have anything to do with the NBA. He is cited as a synonym, a metaphor, a verbal stand-in.

Look at the many ways Pippen's name has been invoked recently. LeBron James left Cleveland in part because Cavaliers management never got him his "Scottie Pippen" to properly chase an NBA championship. But in signing with the Miami Heat, he risks becoming more "Scottie Pippen" than "Michael Jordan," since that franchise already is known to be Dwyane Wade's team. In putting together the U.S. men's national team this summer, coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff not only are looking for size and outside shooting but are hoping to find a "Scottie Pippen" who can serve a variety of needs the way a Swiss army knife bails out campers.

The point is, when someone says "Scottie Pippen," most basketball fans and even a lot of barely interested observers know exactly what that means.

Even if they often don't.

Sure, Pippen has become known as a quintessential sidekick, on equal footing in popular culture with noble wingmen such Robin, Mr. Spock, Sancho Panza, Ed McMahon, Dr. Watson, Little John, Tinkerbell (the ultimate wingwoman) and Art Garfunkel. Think of him or any others on that list and you automatically think of his or her corresponding alpha dog. But "sidekick" can be a pejorative, too, thanks to the comic-relief role played by famous second-bananas such as Barney Fife, Ed Norton, George Costanza or 83 percent of all U.S. Vice Presidents.

That doesn't do Pippen justice.

Fortunately, "Scottie Pippen" conjures other instant images, in a word-association way. Such as:

• Underrated. Considering how many NBA coaches and, frankly, alleged NBA superstars crave having a Pippen on their teams, it's hard to see the longtime Chicago Bulls forward as somehow not getting his due. But that is the case. We're not talking fame here as much as credit. When a player can rack up 10 All-Defensive team nods, seven all-NBA team spots, seven All-Star Games and five Top 10 finishes in MVP balloting without ever breaking into most discussions of the 10 or 15 or 20 best players in NBA history, that player most definitely remains underrated.

• Complementary. There's nothing very sexy about caulk, until you don't have it where you need it. Caulk fights drafts, stops leaks, preserves and binds together the important stuff. And Pippen was caulk. Or, sticking with this Bob Vila vein, he was duct tape, valuable in a hundred ways for his coaches. Pippen was a forward who ran the point, a wing player who crashed the boards, a lanky 6-foot-7 with pterodactyle reach who could hitch up his shorts like a little man and bring opposing ball handlers to tears in the backcourt (I saw this happen to Darrick Martin). It was Pippen who switched onto Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals, taking over for Jordan defensively in the series that more or less inauguarted the whole Bulls' championship era.

• Not "The Man." Uh oh. This connotation of "Scottie Pippen" is accurate in its own right and, of all these quickie responses, has the most negative undertones. In this sense, he was rightly overshadowed and underappreciated because, when it came time for Pippen to do his team's heavy lifting, he sometimes herniated himself. Remember the Toni Kukoc moment in the 1994 playoffs? That's when Pippen, with Jordan off chasing curveballs, sat out the last play against New York after coach Phil Jackson drew up the game-winning shot for Kukoc rather than Pippen. It created a whole 'nother shorthand term spinning off from Pippen -- "1.8 seconds" -- and, to many critics, fit into the guy's image as jealous, moody, petty and chronically unhappy with his contracts.

It is true that, without Jordan -- that is, for not quite two full seasons in Chicago, one in Houston and four in Portland -- Pippen did not win a title or lead his team to The Finals.

Then again, there are other ways to phrase that criticism: Jordan never won a ring without Pippen. And of all of Jordan's teammates before, during or after their run together from 1987-98, none of them were his Pippen.

Truly a Great Sidekick
Scottie Pippen is best known as the "other" half of the Bulls' star duo of the 1990s. While Michael Jordan -- Pippen's more-heralded teammate -- is the Bulls' all-time leader in several stats, Pippen is right by his side.
Jordan's Total with Bulls Pippen's Total with Bulls
Games Played 930 856 *
Minutes Played 35,877 30,269 *
Field Goals 10,962 5,991 *
Field Goal Attempts 21,686 12,444 *
Free Throw Attempts 8,115 3,576 *
Defensive Rebounds 4,289 4,039 *
Assists 5,012 4,494 *
Steals 2,306 1,792 *
Turnovers 2,589 2,401 *
Points 29,277 15,123 *
* = Pippen trails only Jordan in this category

Overachiever. This one's near the bottom, because in the dictionary entry under "Scottie Pippen," it is one of the less-common usages. But that doesn't make it less valid. What other term might you suggest for someone born into near-poverty in rural Arkansas, one of 12 children, whose father's health crippled the family's finances and pushed Pippen to a work-study deal at the University of Central Arkansas? His growth spurt came late and so did any basketball respect -- Pippen worked more in the summer as a welder to pay toward college than he did on his game, and his freshman year at the NAIA school included team-manager duties.

By his senior year, Pippen was averaging 23.6 points and 10.0 rebounds for Central Arkansas, but it still took a breakthrough showing at the Portsmouth pre-Draft camp to make him the No. 5 pick in 1987. Bulls GM Jerry Krause, given most of the credit for "discovering" Pippen, got him from Seattle in a Draft-night deal for Chicago's pick, center Olden Polynice.

One of those guys scored 18,940 points, retired as the NBA's leader among forwards in assists (6,135) and steals (2,307), played in 208 postseason games, was named MVP of the 1994 All-Star Game and -- just 10 years into his 17-year NBA career -- was honored as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest players. One of them was not.

Now he's in the Hall of Fame. But just as impressive, Pippen is part of the vernacular and, better yet, is in the conversations that matter.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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