Pippen: Jordan always ready to pull up his boots
It was the 1991 NBA Finals, and Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls were taking aim at the highly improbable task of winning three straight games in Los Angeles to claim the title.
But Magic Johnson and the Lakers weren’t giving up, and neither was the raucous L.A. crowd. Late in a fourth quarter, the Bulls were down and needed a bucket. Enter Jordan, who took the ball the full length of the court, beat his man, Byron Scott, and made an incredible, unlikely shot over the 7-1 Vlade Divac.
“Divac towered over him and he got the shot off,” Pippen recalled from his Highland Park home. “It was a big play for us, because we were down late in the Finals and he took it the length of the court. It was our first championship, and we went in to L.A. and beat them three straight.”
The rest is history, as John Paxson caught fire in the final minutes of Game 5, recording 20 points on nine-of-12 from the field, and an emotional celebration for Jordan ensued in the locker room.
As a rookie three seasons earlier, Pippen never could have envisioned what was coming.
“I was really more focused on trying to make my mark in the league,” said the University of Central Arkansas product. “It had been a long journey for me just to get drafted. I had to work very hard as a collegiate player just to get recognized being at a small school.”
Selected with the fifth pick in the 1987 NBA Draft and traded to the Bulls for Olden Polynice, Pippen acknowledged he was nervous about fitting in with Jordan and the Bulls as a first-year player. He also knew the acclimation to the NBA would take some time regardless of where he ended up. But was the 22-year old ready for playing with a rising superstar in a major market like Chicago?
“Playing in a big arena was different, but as a player, it comes down to what happens on the court, not the surroundings,” said Pippen. “The only culture shock for me was the weather.”
Doug Collins was Chicago’s coach at the time, and Collins and Jordan had a good bond, according to Pippen. The practices were competitive, and Pippen credited Collins for understanding what he was going through and spending the extra time to help him develop. It was the height of Jordan’s scoring—he averaged 37.1 points per game the season before Pippen’s arrival, and 35.0 points per game when he was a rookie—which, in a sense, made it relatively challenging for the other players.
“Playing with a guy like Michael, who demanded a lot of touches, he was a one-man game who was going to create his own shot, especially in my early years,” said Pippen. “It was fun watching him play, but he wasn’t the easiest guy to play with.”
While Jordan’s torrid scoring would slightly slow over the years and he learned to put greater reliance on teammates, it was the endless practice sessions that Pippen said in which the greatest improvements were made.
“He was very competitive, so he went at me and that helped me learn,” said Pippen. “You continue to compete against the very best every day, and you will get better, or you’ll be embarrassed.”
Pippen knew he had room for improvement, and he focused on getting stronger as a player, and becoming a better passer and ballhandler. He worked on his shooting as well, and his efforts paid off in the 1988 playoffs, when he claimed a spot in the starting lineup.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
Pippen’s second season would be Collins’ last in Chicago. Phil Jackson was promoted to head coach in the summer of 1989, and a new emphasis would be placed on defense that would eventually become one of the Bulls’ calling cards.
“I went to a small school, so I had to be a jack of all trades and master a few,” said Pippen. “Defense was one thing I was really able to work at and get better. I came into a situation where I had some good coaches who really understood the defensive end of the game. They taught me things that made a difference.
“A lot of my instincts came from guarding Michael all the time in practice,” he added. “I had four other guys on my team, but I had schemes that I would throw out there depending on what he did. I’d say, ‘If I make Michael do this, then you go trap him.’ There were things I tried to do on defense to trigger him into a mistake. He was a great player, and if you couldn’t try it on him in practice, there was nowhere else to try it.”
Jackson also implemented the triangle offense, and a long, difficult learning process would ensue.
“It was tough at first for us, because we didn’t believe in it,” admitted Pippen.
For Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls, it was an offense that players of their age and caliber hadn’t experienced before. As they became more familiar with it, though, and as it became more of a natural process, the triangle paid great dividends.
“It worked because of our talent, chemistry and athleticism,” said Pippen. “Everything had its place in the offense. Once the chemistry was there, it was easy. We knew that if we beat our guy and made another guy bite, we’d have a recipient like [John] Paxson, [Steve] Kerr or B.J. [Armstrong] who would be waiting to knock down an open shot. With all the repetition of going through it every day in practice, at times it felt like we were back in grade school re-learning the game of basketball.
Jackson’s teaching of the triangle, with assistant coach Tex Winter’s help, started with the fundamentals—as simple as re-learning the chest pass, Pippen said—and worked its way up to the more complicated concepts. Once the team got the hang of it, Jordan and Pippen led the way. Challenging them to buy into his system wasn’t an easy task for Jackson, Pippen said, but he ultimately convinced them that his style would put them in a position to win championships.
“That transition was hard, but once it was sold upon us, Phil’s job became a little easier because we were able to police each other and hold each other accountable for certain things, whether it was in practice, or being on time for a flight,” remarked Pippen.
Jackson’s style was successful, and the players gradually saw the nature of how they played evolve. From the Zen to the yoga to the meditation sessions after practice, Jackson was able to prepare their minds and bodies for competition at the highest level.
“That made the game easier for us because we started to think about the triangle that we were living in, where our place was within it, and what we needed to do to make it work,” remembered Pippen. “It became a routine for us and that repetition served us well. We got to a point where we spent less time practicing and banging each other’s bodies and hurting each other because of the different approach we took to the game. It wasn’t totally physical, it was mental as well.”
Following their second championship, Jordan and Pippen were named to the legendary Dream Team that would compete in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
“From a talent standpoint, it’s obviously the best team that I’ve ever seen,” said Pippen. Between the numerous future Hall of Famers and the multiple championships they had won, it was a team destined for success.
Pippen said he will always remember the moment they finally hit the floor and started to practice. All of the NBA’s biggest names—including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—were eager to get a closer look at Jordan.
“All of these players were fascinated by Michael and wanted to know what he was like, how he practiced, and what kind of a competitor he was going to be,” he said. But nothing compared to the scene Jordan’s presence would create when he wasn’t playing basketball.
“Michael’s ability to move crowds like a famous rock star was incredible,” Pippen said. “Even though Larry and Magic were great stars in the game, they were never able to move a crowd like Michael could off the court.”
The Dream Team easily won the gold medal, handily defeating Toni Kukoc’s Croatian team, 117-85, on August 8, 1992. For Pippen, it was the realization of a childhood dream.
“It was special for me to be there with him, because I always wanted to be part of the Olympics growing up as a kid,” he said. “For me to go in and play with Michael and be a part of that historical team that was put together for the first time was great. Anytime you’re able to play with someone you are comfortable with, it pushes you that much further ahead.”
Another prominent memory that comes to mind when thinking of Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls is the legendary Flu Game during the 1997 NBA Finals. In Game 5 against the Jazz in Salt Lake City, with the series tied 2-2, Jordan put on one of his all-time performances while utterly fatigued and nauseated. The reported case of food poisoning forced him to miss the team’s shootaround and put his status for the crucial game in doubt.
Jordan responded with a game-high 38 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes of action. Pippen was the lone player in the game to play longer, logging an additional minute and finishing with 17 points, 10 boards and five assists.
Moments after Jordan’s three-pointer put the Bulls up for good and secured the win, Pippen helped carry the team’s leader on his very last legs back to the bench. His best effort once again was enough for the Bulls, who would clinch their fifth world championship in the next game.
“I think the Zen put him in his own world and he was comfortable going through what he went through,” said Pippen of Jordan’s performance. “He didn’t really let it bother him. He played in a lot of games where he was sick and he came through. I take my hat off to him, because he was a guy that, no matter what the situation was, pulled his boots up no matter what, and that’s the way he did it all throughout my career.”
Pippen will be among those in attendance when Jordan is inducted to the Hall of Fame on Sept. 11. This will be his first trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, but certainly not his last. In 2010, Pippen becomes Hall of Fame eligible.
“You would think that there is something else out there for Michael that is more special or deserving,” he said. “The truth of it is there isn’t. There were other players that paved the way before him. Michael had a long and healthy career, and he’s looked at as the greatest player to play the game. And there’s no accolade for that.”
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)