A banner night for Scottie Pippen and 23,000 close friends
By Conrad Theodore | February 7, 2006
“Sorry fellas. Not tonight,” sheepishly voiced Michael Jordan, trying desperately to slip under the radar as he walked from the underground parking garage at the United Center towards an elevator during the first quarter of the Bulls-Los Angeles Lakers game on December 9.
“Please, Michael. Just a couple of words … about Scottie,” a few of us in the media begged, determined to get a quote after confirming the rumor that His Airness was indeed returning to the West Side of Chicago.
Perhaps because he’s finally lost a step since his last retirement, or simply felt compelled to exchange a kind gesture about his greatest teammate, we, the media, collectively accomplished a feat no one had ever witnessed in this building before—or any other NBA arena, for that matter.
We were able to contain the greatest player of all time. Well, for a few minutes anyway. He is, after all, still Michael Jordan!
Of course, Jordan would be in attendance tonight. Why wouldn’t he be? This wasn’t just any regular season game. It was Scottie Pippen Night, complete with a halftime ceremony during which Pip’s number “33” would become only the fourth jersey ever retired by the Chicago Bulls.
“Is [Scottie] going to cry, Michael?”
“Oh yeah! It’s a very emotional time. There’re some genuine feelings for what he accomplished,” explained Jordan. “So for him not to cry—oh, he’s going to cry.”
“What’s it feel like to have a number hanging from the rafters?”
“Well, you feel old,” MJ joked.
“For Scottie to always have to follow in my footsteps, he never really got his just due. But, in all honesty, there was no way I could have been as successful without him. It’s hard to be remembered as always finishing second.”
There were a lot of smiles and occasional tears of joy throughout the halftime retirement festivities. The original Bull himself, Johnny “Red” Kerr, played emcee for the evening and promptly introduced a lineup of former teammates that better resembled a reunion of an old hit TV series—which in a sense it was. Horace Grant, Craig Hodges, Toni Kukoc, Dennis Rodman, Will Perdue, Bill Wennington, Stacey King, Charles Oakley and, of course, the one and only Michael Jordan all hit town from various parts of the country to take part in this special occasion.
Along with former Bulls, current Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson was also in attendance, sitting center court, as were Pippen’s college and high school coaches, along with his wife Larsa, and four young sons.
As if the crowd needed any more pumping up, a video montage of Pippen’s career highlights played on the scoreboard high above the United Center hardwood, along with recorded messages from several NBA notables.
NBA Commissioner David Stern congratulated Pippen while listing all of his career accomplishments, predicting the Hamburg, Arkansas, native would someday soon be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But, before Stern was done, he was drowned out by the 22,000-plus fans in attendance chanting, “Scottie, Scottie.”
Up next was Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson, who also commended his former teammate, saying, “You were an unselfish star and an unselfish teammate.”
Former coach Doug Collins chimed in, noting that Pippen was “incredible at both ends of the floor.”
Of course, it came as no surprise that Sir Charles Barkley would have the funniest line of the night: “Michael Jordan should be kissing the ground you walk on because you helped him win all those championships—and you did all the heavy lifting.”
When Phil Jackson grabbed the microphone and spoke affectionately about his days with Scottie, it was as if the clock had been spun back, and we were all treated to a moment in time.
“For the coaches that worked with Scottie, he was the best,” Jackson said pacing the floor. “He worked hard at this game, had an aptitude for this game.”
Jordan himself, getting a thunderous applause when he was introduced, had only kind words to say regarding his partner in crime. There would be no heckling, no bantering-–just wonderful, caring words from the heart.
“Scottie Pippen, he’s my guy. I love him like a brother,” Jordan said sincerely. “He pushed me to be the best basketball player every day in practice. And I pushed him to be the best he could be. When we went into battle, I knew I had someone to watch my back.”
Steve Schanwald, the Bulls’ executive vice president of business operations, then took the floor and, on behalf the organization, presented Pippen with gifts, including a montage of his Bulls career, a framed jersey and a replica banner of his retired number, along with replicas of the team’s first three championship trophies, to complete Pippen’s set of six.
Then it was time for the man of the hour to take the well-earned spotlight. Though his eyes filled with tears at the start of the ceremony, Pippen remained as unruffled as the premier player he was throughout his Hall of Fame career.
“Scottie! Scottie! Scottie!” the sellout crowd chanted for several minutes. Pip simply smiled and tiptoed around center court waiting for his chance to address his loyal fans. As expected, he humbly thanked his former teammates for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend and explained how much they contributed right up to this very moment.
“I thank the Bulls organization for a truly great honor for me and my family. It was all for the good, and I learned a lot along the way,” said Pippen, who also thanked the fans. “You made me understand what it really means to love Chicago.”
The fans showed their love by continually drowning out the soft-spoken star.
“You’ve given me everything I could ever ask for,” Pippen continued. “I’ll never forget what you have done for me and what I was able to do for you.”
A spotlight then shot up to the rafters at the west end of the United Center, revealing the unfurled banner that will hang for the rest of time to honor Pippen for twelve unforgettable seasons and six NBA championships with the Bulls. His number “33” will never to be worn again by another Bulls player. He joins franchise icons Jerry Sloan, Bob Love and Michael Jordan as the only all-time Bulls greats who have been so honored.
As a child, Pippen followed the footsteps of number 33, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then later another famous 33, Larry Bird. Now all the kids of the future who enter the United Center to watch their beloved Bulls can look up to number 33, Scottie Pippen, amongst the great ones.
“This is one of the greatest individual honors a player can achieve. It’s something as a kid you dream of happening. To be alongside Michael Jordan’s banner means so much. This is the pinnacle for me. Getting my jersey retired has never happened at any level,” Pippen said after the ceremony, his eyes still tearing. “When I look at my career, I was really about defending. I was a guy that had a lot of tools and could do a lot of other things, but my main thing was controlling the defensive end of the court.”
For the record, the game itself was overshadowed by the guest of honor, Scottie Pippen. When Phil Jackson addressed the media afterwards, everyone seemed much more interested in firing questions about Pippen rather than the game.
“Retiring a number is a tricky, but very special thing. In some arenas, when you look up to the rafters, you see guys retired that you have a hard time remembering. But the numbers of the players the Bulls have retired are easily remembered. Each one hanging is of a truly great player of his era,” proclaimed Jackson. “Scottie Pippen certainly deserved such an honor, and I am thrilled to have been able to be here to witness it.
“I gave my team the option of staying in the locker room or watching the ceremony, and to a man they chose to come to the floor and watch. What I hope they took away from the experience was seeing and understanding the great camaraderie of all the Bulls championship players. Every team that wins a championship understands it has to sacrifice individual goals for the good of the team. Hopefully, tonight, what my team saw was that even after years have past, there will always be a personal fondness among good teammates.”
Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was elated when asked about his friend Pippen. “Seriously, for us, it was an honor to be here. We saw history in the making. I feel blessed to have been able to be here to see Scottie honored,” Bryant exalted.
“Those former Bulls we saw out on the court were very serious about their basketball," he continued. "I remember when I first came into the league as a seventeen-year old. I ran into Scottie, and we talked about a lot of things. One thing I really remember about that conversation was that when I brought up the topic of basketball, his smile went away real quick. That showed me how serious he was about the game. I’ve tried to pass that message on to the new players entering the NBA. Hopefully, I can keep the tradition going.”
Back in the United Center’s underground garage, Jordan continued reminiscing about Pippen and the Bulls’ glory days. The two happen to be the only Chicago players to own all six NBA Championship rings.
“Scottie gave me the luxury to relax,” Jordan said matter of factly. “Even in the days when I just didn’t feel right or couldn’t put up the big numbers or play the way I wanted to play, I knew he would pick me up and take control of the team. It was very comforting to know that I always had someone to help me out when I just didn’t feel it. Scottie was a great guy to have next to you. I’ll always feel that way.”
For this particular night, Scottie Pippen didn’t finish second. Tonight and forever, he will be remembered at the very top. Top of the rafters, that is. Thanks for the memories, number “33.” You’ve done the city of Chicago and Bulls fans everywhere proud.