Reinsdorf: ‘It took Scottie to put us over the top’
For many Bulls fans, it’s impossible to think about Michael Jordan without also thinking of Scottie Pippen. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf shares that sentiment and he takes the thought one step further.
“Six championships that wouldn’t have been won without Scottie,” Reinsdorf said when asked what comes to mind when he recalls Pippen’s career. “Michael couldn’t have done it by himself. The rest of the players and Michael would not have been enough. It took Scottie to put us over the top those six times.”
It’s often been said that Pippen never won a title without Jordan, but Jordan never won it all without Pippen, either. At the end of the day, the two players were the perfect complement to each other. That’s why when Pippen enters basketball’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 13, it’s only fitting that he’ll join Jordan among the game’s greats in Springfield, Mass. just one year after his enshrinement.
“A lot of people liked to talk about Scottie as being Batman’s Robin or the Lone Ranger’s Tonto,” said Reinsdorf during a recent interview at the Berto Center. “I never thought that was the case and I liked to think of them as 1 and 1A. They were very, very close.”
The paring of the duo which brought Chicago six world championships in eight years was born on June 22, 1987 in New York City, the night of the 1987 NBA Draft. The Bulls owed two first round selections, eighth and tenth overall.
Then General Manager Jerry Krause had set his sights on Pippen, who had not long before been an unknown prospect out of Central Arkansas, a NAIA school at the time. Given that the Bulls were one of the very few teams who had ventured down to Conaway, Ark. to watch Pippen play collegiately, Reinsdorf recalled being confident they would be able to get him with the eighth pick. But the rest of the basketball world was about to learn of Pippen’s talents and abilities.
“We were sure we were going to be able to get Scottie where we were in the draft,” said Reinsdorf. “Then Scottie went to the pre-draft camps, lit it up and got everybody’s attention. We went into panic mode because we realized he wouldn’t be there when we were going to draft. We somehow had to move up and we were able to pull it off. But it was touch and go for awhile.”
Pippen was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics fifth overall and his draft rights were traded to Chicago for Olden Polynice and future considerations. The Bulls also selected power forward Horace Grant with the tenth pick, setting the stage for the first three-peat.
But Pippen didn’t burst on to the scene as you might expect from someone named to the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History list in 1996.
“His rookie season, you could see that he had talent, but he didn’t look like he was going to be a star,” recalled Reinsdorf. “He had a bad habit of dribbling the ball too high, so it was easy for defenders to take it away from him. He wasn’t much of a shooter that year either, but he had great athletic skills.”
In fact, Pippen didn’t record his first professional start until the postseason of his rookie year, when on May 8, 1988, the Bulls defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their Eastern Conference First Round matchup 3-2. The victory marked the first playoff series victory for Jordan and Pippen.
“It came along slowly,” Reinsdorf said of the Bulls’ rise to prominence. “I don’t think anyone right away saw what a great combination Michael and Scottie would become. It just grew. Scottie got better and better. First, he became a really good three-point shooter, even before he was a good two-point shooter. Then, he became probably the best bank shooter that I’ve ever seen in the NBA. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player that could shoot bank shots like Scottie could.”
As Pippen’s offensive game took shape, so did his abilities on the defensive end of the floor. Reinsdorf pointed to a moment in the 1991 NBA Finals when the Bulls were down 1-0 to the Los Angeles Lakers that illustrates the way Pippen could dominate the game without the ball in his hands.
“The key to that series was Scottie defending Magic,” said Reinsdorf of Phil Jackson’s decision to put Pippen on the legendary five-time NBA champion. “We didn’t have the great confidence and arrogance in that series that we did later on. We lost the opening game to the Lakers and had to go to Los Angeles tied 1-1, having lost home court advantage. And we almost lost the first game out there. It was a brilliant move by Phil.”
Two years later, Jordan abruptly announced his retirement just as training camp was getting underway and suddenly a heavy burden was placed upon Pippen’s shoulders. The seven-time NBA All-Star responded and took on a leadership role unlike ever before, leading his team to a 55-27 regular season record and deep into the playoffs.
“To this day, that was my favorite team,” said Reinsdorf of the 1993-94 Bulls squad. “We would have gone to the Finals if it weren’t for a horrible call in New York. Scottie was clearly the leader of that team. He stepped up and he was the man.”
More recently, Pippen rejoined the Bulls last month as a team ambassador. While the move officially binds him and the organization together again, Reinsdorf said he feels it’s almost as if he never left and that he’ll always be remembered for his success in Chicago.
“Scottie will always be a part of Bulls history,” said Reinsdorf. “Number 33 is hanging from the rafters in the United Center. It would be nice if we had both Michael and Scottie back, but Michael has gone on to bigger and better things and owns his own team. Everyone still remembers Scottie was a great player and it’s important to have him representing the Bulls.”
As for his favorite memory of Pippen, Reinsdorf cites the Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. It’s Jordan’s 45 points and game-winning shot that most fans recall, but for the Bulls’ owner, Pippen’s gutting it out with a bad back, so painful he could barely walk, spoke volumes about the player.
“He would play a few minutes, then go back into the locker room and get treatment. Then, he’d somehow get back out on the court and play again,” recalled Reinsdorf. “He must have been in incredible pain, yet he wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t quit.”
With the conclusion of a season in which Jackson dubbed the “Last Dance” for Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls, the end of an era had arrived. Chicago had had captured its sixth NBA title in eight years. When asked if he felt another team would match such a run eventually, Reinsdorf was skeptical.
“It’s pretty hard to accomplish something like that, but you never say never,” he replied. “The Celtics ran off a streak like that [in the 1960s], but there were fewer teams in the league. Now, with having to go through so many rounds and free agency, it’s a lot tougher. I don’t know if we’ll ever see it, but we’re going to keep trying to get there again.”