The Last Dance takeaway: Scottie Pippen thrived in the storm
“He often was the calm in Jordan’s storm. Yes, that Scottie Pippen.” -Sam Smith
Remind Me Later •
Episode 7 of "The Last Dance" documentary spent a few minutes detailing Scottie Pippen's refusal to play the final 1.8 seconds of a playoff game against the Knicks. While that moment could've broken the team, Sam Smith details why part of Pippen's brilliance was succeeding while being in the storm.
Chicago sports owns some of the most famous numbers in sports history. There's obviously 23, which has been celebrated again with "The Last Dance" documentary Sunday on ESPN. There's 34 for Walter Payton, 14 for Ernie Banks, 51 for Dick Butkus. And, of course, 1.8.
But that polarizing and unthinkable Faustian moment when it seemed that Pippen had sold the soul of the team also represented the soul of Scottie Pippen, and what actually enabled him to become perhaps the most unexpected great player in NBA history.
Look, this guy was the clubhouse attendant as a college freshman, hanging on through a work/study program to a nowhere school walk-on athletic scholarship. It did appear Pippen was going to be an early one-and-done. You know, one year of college and done and on the way to the factory.
It couldn't have been more Pippen Sunday in the documentary to say of the infamous 1.8 moment, "It was one of those incidents where I wish it never happened…"
Now wait for the sine qua non that is so Scottie Pippen…
"But if I had a chance to do it over again I probably wouldn't change it."
As unexpected as the laconic Pippen's snake-like reach on defense and gliding balletic offensive strides toward the basket are, so are his responses to adversity and accusation. But it's also perhaps the most vital armor Pippen has, the callous that serves as his shield against the barbs and bites of life.
It perhaps emerges from that impoverished rural life in Arkansas, the youngest of 12 in a two-room house, a father and a brother handicapped and in wheelchairs. Still, Pippen's trait is unique, in some respects like Michael Jordan who became his only family member taller than six feet. There was something special and unusual with Scottie Pippen, a peculiarity that perhaps isn't politically correct. Obstinate, unyielding, sure. They generally aren't the attributes scouts look for. Yet, it's probably as much as any which enabled Pippen to emerge as the second that helped make all those championships possible. And for Michael Jordan to reach the destiny that at least he expected for himself.
Scottie Pippen simply refused to be who everyone expected him to be. For better or worse. And it didn't much matter to him what anyone said or thought about that.
It's also a unique skill to exceed despite that.
One of my favorite stories about Pippen was one few would recall, just another night in a long season before the Bulls were winning championships. The team was in Boston and Pippen, as has often been explained in the documentary, was predictably unhappy with general manager Jerry Krause about his contract. Pippen was forever lagging behind in salary because he always insisted on the security of long term contracts. Which in the vast escalation of salaries in the 1990s become outdated quickly.
Pippen, as Steve Kerr eloquently described in the documentary, was something of the antidote to Jordan's passion and wrath. At least during Kerr's Bulls tenure. By then, Pippen, buttressed by his Dream Team success and MVP-caliber 1993-94 season, had settled into his Robin-to-Batman role of facilitator to Jordan's finisher.
Pippen was the one during the second threepeat who always knew who was on the court a long stretch without a shot. He'd tell that player to relax, that he'd get him a shot. He often was the calm in Jordan's storm. Yes, that Scottie Pippen.
Doug Collins relied excessively on Jordan at a time when the roster was weak and in transition. But Collins also fought in vain to get the ball out of Jordan's hands to start possessions. He wanted Jordan to go downcourt to lure the defense. But Jordan was so distrusting of the other players, he insisted on carrying the ball and doing it all himself. The teamwork breakthrough for Jordan wasn't just the triangle offense, but the trust in Pippen to start and run the offense.
The athletic Bulls were taking flight then, better than the aging Celtics, who still had Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. And it was yet another night of Scottie feeling unappreciated and maintaining his petulance. So to some innocuous question, Pippen launched his frustration at Krause and the Bulls. It was another of those endless diatribes of volatile charges and accusations. Not quite to the 1997 level of the refusal to wear a Bulls jersey again, but newspaper headline stuff.
So the team is back in Chicago the next morning and Pippen is wondering what's going on as he enters the north suburban Berto Center practice facility. There are a half dozen TV trucks and media swarming around waiting for the court to open for interviews. Pippen sees coach Phil Jackson while in his casual amble toward the locker room. Pippen's thinking Jordan must have done something again.
"Phil," Pippen asks, "what's everyone doing here? What's going on."
Jackson smiles his smirk. "Scottie," he says, "They're here for you."
Pippen gives Jackson a quizzical look.
"Because of what you said last night," Jackson explains.
"What'd I say?" Pippen asks.
Not that Pippen was suffering early Alzheimer's. But Pippen has the most unusual ability to compartmentalize unacceptable trespass and transgression without letting it affect his abilities.
Pippen, as Phil Jackson acknowledged in his play calling, wasn't the best shooter, scorer or finisher. Though Pippen did work himself up to the fifth pick in the 1987 draft, his overall basketball skills didn't impress that many.
But who does this?
After sitting out that last 1.8, bringing teammate Bill Cartwright to tears over his sit down strike, giving the impression of quitting on his team and it becoming a national uproar and debate, Pippen goes out the next day in Game 4 and carries the Bulls to victory. Pippen goes for 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals. In the Bulls 95-83 victory, Pippen was the only player on either team to score at least 20 points and the only one other than Horace Grant on the Bulls to score more than 10. Before an ambivalent home crowd that included many shouting he was a quitter, Pippen carried the Bulls back into the series that would eventually go seven games and include Pippen's Game 6 dunk stepping over Patrick Ewing.
That's also toughness. OK, maybe some pigheaded in there.
Pippen's kind of behavior should have snapped the bands of collectiveness of a team. Instead, it was an unusual quality of being able to look beyond and even ignore the distraction that symbolized those Bulls as much as Jordan's special abilities.
It wasn't just Pippen's ideal fit as the cog that meshed with Jordan's special wheel of athletic brilliance. But also Pippen's ability to not only ignore the whirling funnel clouds media mayhem around him, but to perform at a high level despite being in the eye of the storm. Jordan's white hot talent that lit the fires around the Bulls seemed also to be cooled by Pippen's somewhat oblivious calm in the storm.
To the outside world it was a tornado that disrupted the sport sphere. To them, it was just the temperature.
That's how you survive getting a concussion in the opening minute of Game 6 of the 1989 conference finals and then the migraine headache in Game 7 of the 1990 conference finals that you could see from the documentary even Jordan still wondered about.
And then to come back in the clinching game Game 4 in 1991 even after Dennis Rodman's vicious attack and play a game high in minutes and record 23 points, 10 assists and three steals with a game high 12 free throw attempts. It was Pippen absorbing the blows. Literal this time, as well.
Which is hardly to suggest that Pippen didn't behave in a questionable manner often.
That postponement of surgery in 1997 so he could miss the first half of that season was discouraging. Not that Pippen ever offered any contrition. And yet there he was in the Finals against the Jazz with 28 points and nine rebounds in Game 4 to help the Bulls to the basically insurmountable 3-1 lead. He played at least 45 minutes in both Games 4 and 5—averaging 42.4 minutes in the first five games—before his back gave out and Jordan carried the Bulls down the stretch in the Game 6 clincher.
The Last Dance is the Michael Jordan story. It's also the Phil Jackson story in the remarkable way the erudite coach was able to manage and motivate this remarkable group of athletes and individuals through one of the most successful sports decades in history. And the Scottie Pippen story of how one man's idiosyncratic inflexibility proved to be ballast not just for the Bulls sometimes listing ship, but his own unusual career. Like a snap of the fingers. Which takes about 1.8 seconds.
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