Armstrong: Tough to match up with Pippen’s versatility
There was a player everyone called “Buck” who B.J. Armstrong and just about everyone else from Michigan watched during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Buck grew up in Lansing, won the NCAA tournament with Michigan State, and claimed five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Buck, of course, was Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. Years later, Armstrong, in his second season as a pro, was a reserve player for the Bulls, who were playing Magic’s Lakers for their first championship in the 1991 NBA Finals.
Los Angeles stole Game 1 in Chicago and Game 2 looked like more of the same in the first half. There was talk that perhaps the Bulls weren’t quite yet ready to win it all. Then, Head Coach Phil Jackson made a switch and tasked Scottie Pippen with defending Magic for the rest of the series. The move paid off.
“Scottie was so versatile as a player, as was Magic, who was a point guard at 6-9, and he for the first time matched his presence on the floor,” Armstrong said of the match up. “I thought that was a turning point for us in that series because with Scottie on Magic, we could match them size for size, speed for speed, and everything else about the physicality of that match up.”
The Bulls went on to take four consecutive games for their first of six NBA titles. By the time of the team’s third one in 1993, Armstrong had solidified a spot in the starting lineup. Looking back on Pippen’s career in a recent interview, it’s the versatility that keeps coming to mind for Armstrong.
“I don’t know what position Scottie was; he was just a basketball player,” said Armstrong of Pippen, who will be enshrined in basketball’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 13. “He could dribble, shoot, pass and rebound. Defensively, he was excellent. He had quick hands and quick feet with a great understanding of the game. He could do it all.”
Armstrong came to the Bulls in 1989, just two seasons after Pippen and Horace Grant’s arrival. It didn’t take long for the youth to mesh with Michael Jordan, making them the dominant force in the NBA of the 1990s.
“I was very fortunate to be playing alongside some great players for wonderful coaches in a terrific organization,” said Armstrong. “We were all young. But when you put a group of young people together and give them an opportunity to grow and experience their trials and tribulations, good things can happen.”
Coming from the Midwest and playing in the Big 10 at Iowa, Armstrong didn’t have a lot in common at first with Pippen, who grew up in Arkansas and attended Central Arkansas.
“I didn’t know much about Scottie,” admitted Armstrong. “He came from a small school, but it became very apparent that he was a special talent—so long and athletic. The thing that made him very unique as a player is that he would rebound the basketball and then push it up and initiate the break. That’s very tough to defend going against that kind of player, and he excelled at it.”
Where Pippen really made his mark was practice, Armstrong said, where he and Jordan set a standard in which teammates had no choice but to follow.
“As good as he was in games—and he was terrific—he was that much better in practice,” recalled Armstrong. “He and Michael were the best practice players I’ve ever seen. I have no idea why they loved it so much or what their reasoning was, but they enjoyed practice. Scottie never complained about practice; he always showed up with that smile on his face. He was a great practice player and the ultimate professional in that regard.”
To Armstrong, talent and toughness are two qualities a team needs to win in the NBA. Jordan's and Pippen’s talents were obvious to everyone, but the way that they carried the responsibility of being the hardest workers on the team made them the best of the best.
“If your best players are taking a shortcut, they’re going to have problems holding everyone else accountable and responsible. Both Michael and Scottie were very accountable and responsible young men to their team, the franchise and themselves. They took their jobs very seriously and that made everyone else hold themselves accountable.”
Pippen’s leadership was tested in the fall of 1993, when Jordan announced his first retirement. The Bulls faced life without their leader following three straight championships and uncertainty was in the air. But Pippen was ready to respond and Chicago went 55-27 that season.
“Scottie had one of his greatest years and he was an MVP-type performer,” said Armstrong of the 1993-94 campaign. “He was incredible and he had an opportunity to explore every aspect of his game. We had a great year and certainly exceeded anyone’s expectations of what we were going to do minus Michael and that was an achievement in itself.
“The ultimate prize is to play in the final game of the season and we didn’t do that,” Armstrong continued. “But we all proved to ourselves that we could do it. When Michael did come back, his confidence, plus the year or so we had without him, gave us even greater confidence as a team.”
Though Pippen, Armstrong and the Bulls did fall short of the Finals, they put to rest the constant ‘what if Michael were here?’ mentality which was ingrained in the team’s minds. And while Pippen excelled, so did Armstrong, who averaged a career-best 14.8 points per game that year and was voted a starter in the 1994 NBA All-Star Game.
Statistically speaking, Pippen was at his best without Jordan, notching career bests in scoring (22.0 ppg), rebounding (8.7 rpg), and steals (2.93 spg). But Armstrong insisted that his intangibles made him such a valuable teammate.
“He always had a smile on his face. That was Scottie,” said Armstrong. “Everyone talks about a great teammate, but he really was a great guy to play with. He may have been having a 25 or 30-point game, but if he knew you were struggling, he’d find a way to get you going as well.”
As the book on Pippen’s playing career is essentially closed with the highest honor of the game next week in Springfield, Mass., Armstrong echoed the comments made by so many who played with No. 33.
“Tremendous teammate, that’s what comes to mind when I think of Scottie Pippen,” said Armstrong. “He was a very caring teammate who was always concerned about the team. The way he played and expressed himself on the floor exemplified who he was as a player. He was so versatile—he could defend, rebound and pass. He had a great understanding of the game and he was a wonderful athlete. He is so deserving of being in the Hall of Fame.”