Wennington: Pippen was my favorite teammate
For a player who wasn’t even sure he would be with the Bulls for longer than just the start of the 1993-94 season, things have worked out pretty well for Bill Wennington.
Having played five seasons with the Mavericks (1985-90) and one with the Kings (1990-91), Wennington then spent two years playing for Italian teams. His goal was to come back to the NBA, but he didn’t have a great deal of options at the time. The Bulls offered him a deal that guaranteed the first month of the season and he took it.
Wennington managed to stick in Chicago, playing six seasons and helping the team win three consecutive titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Now set to enter his eighth season as the team’s radio analyst, Wennington recalled last week from the Berto Center the career of the player with whom he most enjoyed sharing the court.
“Scottie was my favorite teammate to play with,” Wennington said of Pippen, who will enter basketball’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 13. “Despite how the media depicted him and some of the incidents that happened off the court, when you have a teammate like Scottie who is willing to stand up for his actions on the floor, good or bad, it makes playing with him and the team chemistry a whole lot better.”
A teammate of Pippen’s for five seasons, Wennington cited an infamous moment from Pippen’s career to tell the story of what made him such an extraordinary teammate.
“He was very accountable,” Wennington explained. “A lot of people want to talk about the 1.8 seconds and how Scottie didn’t play. But Scottie came into the locker room immediately after the game and understood what he did. He apologized to his teammates.”
The incident Wennington was referring to, of course, was during the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Bulls faced the New York Knicks. With Game 3 tied and 1.8 seconds remaining, the final play was designed so that Pippen would inbound the ball to rookie Toni Kukoc, who would then take the potential game-winning shot. Pippen was upset by the call and watched from the team bench as Kukoc connected at the buzzer to secure the win.
“The media will never know what he said, but the way he handled it resolved the situation instantly,” said Wennington. “Scottie knew he made a mistake and that’s what people don’t understand. That was only my second year in Chicago, but I had all the respect in the world for Scottie after that.”
The rest of the NBA did too by then, as in Chicago’s first season following Michael Jordan’s retirement, Pippen took over his leadership role and led the Bulls to a 55-27 regular season mark. Though they ultimately lost in the aforementioned series to the Knicks, it was a remarkable run for a team for which expectations were not very high.
“He was phenomenal. He really did carry that team,” Wennington said of Pippen during the 1993-94 season. “He pretty much put that team on his shoulders. No one was expecting a whole lot to happen, but we ended up winning 55 games. Scottie was the heart and soul of that team. He took a lot of the big shots and was the reason we won some big games. I can’t say enough for how he stepped in so quickly and going from one of two guys to ‘the guy.’”
As for Pippen’s leadership, he became a team captain for the first time in his career and regularly worked with all players, most notably during practice. Wennington said those kinds of actions went a long way, especially with the team’s reserves.
“He was very helpful and never derogatory,” recalled Wennington. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t even supposed to be on the team. But he was willing to help me out in practice when we were learning plays or working on the best way to cover a guy. He was able to talk to me without giving the impression like I was below him. He really wanted me to succeed and do well because that made him better.”
Speaking of practice, Wennington said that was where Pippen made his mark, along with Jordan, of course. Both players came in each and every day and gave the same level of effort that you would see on a game night. It was that kind of consistency that allowed them to be great and lead in the way they did.
“Scottie wanted to win basketball games and he understood that the harder you work in practice, the easier the games are for you,” said Wennington. “He really put his heart and soul into practice and left it all out on the floor. When you have guys of that talent level who are working that hard, it makes practice fun. You have to compete. There were no off days in practice.”
Wennington said that when Phil Jackson really wanted to push the group, he would have Pippen switch teams and guard Jordan.
“They could pretty much cover each other and make it competitive for both teams,” said Wennington. “We knew what kind of practice we were going to have when Phil separated them from the start.”
Pippen put his team first, something that was evident by his actions on the court.
“Scottie made everyone better because he was unselfish,” said Wennington. “He’d move the ball to the right spot. He had such a great basketball mind and really understood what was happening on the floor. He was always willing to help out his teammates and make them better.”
Off the court, Pippen looked out for his teammates as well. Wennington recalled a film room session in which the team was discussing a defensive scheme. In one scenario, Wennington wasn’t supposed to double team in the post, so he followed his man towards the top of the key. Pippen was isolated on his man and offered to help cover Wennington’s assignment as well, so he sent him back down low to assist. Jackson took note of Wennington’s double team and began to lay in to the center.
“Before I could even answer, Scottie said, ‘Phil, I told him to do it.’ That to me spoke volumes about what type of guy he was,” said Wennington. “With your teammates, when something happens on the floor, you work together. Coaches don’t always know why you do something; they may think you broke a play. Scottie stood up for me and that speaks volumes about him as a person.”
Wennington says he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to be in Springfield, Mass. when Pippen is enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
“Scottie had a great career, played hard and sacrificed a lot of his game,” said Wennington. “He proved in the first year I was here that he was a great player in his own right. He played most of his career in the shadow of Michael, but for him to be able to step up when he needed to step up, yet still fulfill a team’s goal and make it happen, was huge. I’m honored to know him and I’m extremely excited because it’s a well deserved honor for him.”