Don Dyer: From socks and jocks to the Hall of Fame for Scottie Pippen
It was a spring afternoon in 1983 when Central Arkansas Head Coach Don Dyer had set aside some time to meet with a high school basketball player based on the recommendation of a friend who coached nearby.
That local coach was Donald Wayne, who was at Hamburg High School at the time and played four years under Dyer at Henderson State. Wayne said he had someone he wanted Dyer to take a look at—he wasn’t all that sure if he could play collegiately or not—and he obliged.
When Billy Pippen walked in with his brother Scottie, then 17 years of age and the youngest of 12 children, Dyer wasn’t exactly blown away, nor did he immediately offer up a scholarship.
Pippen was at best average size for a guard, but he did a few things that afternoon that caught Dyer’s attention.
“When Billy brought him to Conway on that first day and he came in the gym, he was such a low key guy. He didn’t say much at all,” recalled Dyer in a recent phone interview. “The three of us went into my office and talked, and then later on he worked out. Scottie impressed me that day as someone who would work, listen and learn. He did all those things much quicker than I ever would have imagined.”
The qualities that Dyer saw in a young Pippen that afternoon were the same ones that would essentially carry him to being among the elite NBA players of all-time, one that will be enshrined in basketball’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 13.
But it wasn’t easy for Pippen, who didn’t receive any scholarship offers and if not for Wayne’s support and persistence, may not have even played collegiately. Since Dyer and UCA did not have a scholarship available to offer him, Pippen walked on with the assistance of a Pell Grant and work study job.
It’s hard to believe, but the future six-time world champion started out his freshman year as the team’s manager.
“He was only 17 and I had planned on redshirting him that first year anyway,” said Dyer.
But Pippen didn’t redshirt and in October, one of Dyer’s players dropped out, thus he was able to offer a scholarship to his not-so-highly-touted freshman. In limited action, Pippen averaged 4.3 points per game that first season. Throughout that year, however, he continued to grow, mature and develop physically. By the time he entered his sophomore season, he was up to 6-4 or 6-5, but still playing with a point guard’s ability. His numbers skyrocketed to 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
“Scottie didn’t have the size early on, but he always had long arms,” said Dyer. “He kept growing and growing. Plus, he worked with the weights in the offseason and played ball all summer in a league in Little Rock.”
By the time Pippen entered his junior and senior seasons, he had reached a height of 6-7 or 6-8, six inches taller than when he arrived in Conway. Dyer knew Pippen and his Bears were poised to dominate their NAIA competition.
That they did, as Pippen put together a remarkable all-around season as a junior, averaging 19.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. As a senior, Pippen did it all again, averaging 23.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 59.2 percent from the field.
“He improved every year,” said Dyer. “Even though we played him inside, we made sure he kept up with his ball handling drills. We felt it was important for him to keep working on his shooting and passing skills. While he got better, he also got stronger. I tell people, ‘Well, it was that Conway water that helped him develop.’
“We saw his confidence grow,” continued Dyer. “He took the ball to the basket more often and starting dunking over people. He became a highlight player.”
Pippen finished his college career as a two-time NAIA All-American and a dominant player in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. He had gone from a completely unknown player, seemingly without any chance of playing professionally, to being a name that several NBA teams were suddenly scrambling to learn about with the 1987 NBA Draft approaching.
It’s perhaps Dyer who put Pippen’s rise from just another average player in tiny Hamburg, Ark. to one of the NBA’s top 50 players of all-time.
“Here’s a guy who started out washing socks and jocks, and now he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame,” said Dyer, who won 654 games over his career at UCA and Henderson State. “There were a lot of people who overlooked him, but he was 6-1 or 6-2 and only 130 or 140 pounds when he came in as a freshman. He just wasn’t going to attract too much attention.”
In spite of Pippen’s rapid development and improvement, Dyer stressed that academic success was his first priority for his players and Pippen was no exception.
“First of all, I wanted to help Scottie get his degree,” said Dyer. “Given that his high school coach played for me and meant a lot to me, I wanted to do whatever I could to help Scottie move on. If he didn’t play ball, at least he would have that degree to fall back on.
“Once I saw he had some ability, we began working more on drills and instilling the fundamentals,” Dyer continued. “We played Scottie at every position—the one, two, three, four and five. I would have played him at point guard only, but we didn’t have a center. So Scottie, with his height, had to play down low for us. Everything worked out pretty well, but it would have been better had I had a good center in there.”
While he’s remained close to Dyer since college and still has a great deal of family in Arkansas, a trip home earlier this year in January was one for Pippen that he’ll always remember. Central Arkansas retired his No. 33 in a ceremony which was long overdue. It meant a great deal to Pippen, who wrote about it a column for Bulls.com.
"For me, getting your number retired is the greatest accomplishment," said Pippen. "Whether it was my four years at Central Arkansas or all my seasons with the Bulls in Chicago, it’s a sign of respect for what I have done. Defensive awards and accolades aside, to have your jersey retired puts you in a position where you’ll be known forever.”
Coach Dyer echoed those thoughts as he recalled that evening in Conway.
“It was a great moment for Scottie and Central Arkansas,” said Dyer, who also attended Pippen’s Bulls jersey retirement in 2005. “He’s mellowed out quite a bit over the years and he’s never been more down to earth. He is always so gracious and grateful towards everyone who has helped him over his career. He really enjoyed being back at UCA. I remember the night of the ceremony, after the game was finished a lot of the people had left, but Scottie was still there. It was a situation where the fans showed their appreciation for Scottie and he showed his appreciation for them.”
When asked about his time at Central Arkansas, it’s clear how much it means to Pippen, who acknowledged that is where it all began for him.
“When I grew up, I was just another kid who wasn’t going to college,” said Pippen. “I didn’t have any scholarship offers and there were times I wasn’t even thinking about basketball. I just wanted to be in a positive environment and have a situation where I could lead a good life. Basketball ultimately gave me that.”
While it was the support and guidance from Wayne and Dyer who helped make it happen for Pippen, the story comes full circle back to the three qualities Dyer noticed the afternoon he first met a young man who would become great: he worked, he listened and he learned.
Dyer likes to tell a story about an exercise he carried out every season with his players at the beginning of the year. He’d distribute 3 x 5 index cards to each of them with directions to write down their academic and athletic goals. Early in his UCA career, Pippen noted that he wanted to be an NBA player.
“At that time, it was a pretty far-fetched idea,” said Dyer. “But sure enough, it came to realization.”
When Pippen got official word from the Hall of Fame he would be a member of its 2010 class this past spring, Dyer was one of the first people he called.
“As anyone would be, he was happy as ever,” said Dyer. “He was gracious enough to invite me up for the ceremony and said he wanted me to be there, so I should set those dates aside. I know how much it means to Scottie and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”