The Chicago Bulls were sitting atop the basketball world.
Led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, both of whom were in the prime of their illustrious careers, Chicago had become just the third team in NBA history to three-peat and a fourth straight championship seemed inevitable with the Hall of Fame duo on the court.
But then, just days before training camp for the 1993-94 season opened, Jordan at the age of 30, walked away from the game. As he made his announcement at the Berto Center, his teammates, Pippen included, stood by and it was obvious they were stunned.
“We were all devastated by the decision Michael made,” recalled Phil Jackson, who led the Bulls to six championships in his nine seasons as Chicago’s head coach.
Jackson had met with Jordan upon team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s insistence to be certain the decision was firm for a player who had already won three NBA MVP awards. But Jordan had made up his mind.
“It was time to move on,” said Jackson.
“It was pretty shocking, and looking back at it, it was emotional too,” remembered Pippen, who had played all six of his professional seasons alongside Jordan. “It took us all by surprise, but it didn’t change anything in terms of what we had to do as players. We had to focus on preparing for another season. We had to stick to our routines, continue to train, and be ready for camp. Michael retiring opened up an opportunity for us to show that we were still a very good team.”
As an added challenge, Jackson and his staff had to integrate several new faces on the roster.
“We had to scramble,” acknowledged Jackson. “We had to find some players to replace Michael, which was an impossibility. But those guys were determined to make it show and they stepped right up.”
Pete Myers started on opening night at shooting guard. But in a way, it didn’t matter who was out there as filling the most famous sized 13 Air Jordans ever worn was an incomprehensible, hopeless task. Several players from the three-peat teams were still on board, including B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, while newcomers Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington, as well as Luc Longley in a February trade for Stacey King, were added to the mix.
“It ended up being a far different roster than what we had won with, but the system made it easy for new players to step in and understand the offense,” said Pippen. “Defense continued to be one of our strong points.”
Determined as ever to prove that life would go on without Jordan, who signed with the Chicago White Sox organization to play minor league baseball the next spring, it was a rough start to the season as Pippen missed 10 of the team’s first 12 games with an ankle injury.
The Bulls were just 5-7 when he returned on Nov. 30. But Pippen recorded 29 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in a victory over Phoenix. Chicago went on to win 30 of 35 games heading into the All-Star break.
It was at that 1994 NBA All-Star Game in Minneapolis when Pippen, joined by teammates Armstrong and Grant, walked onto the court with his memorable red Nikes – custom shoes like that weren’t as common in those days – and stole the show, finishing with 29 points, 11 boards and four steals.
On a national stage competing with and against the game’s best, Scottie Pippen, no longer second fiddle to Michael Jordan, claimed MVP honors from the game.
“It was a great accomplishment, but not necessarily a major one in the big picture,” said Pippen. “It was nothing like winning a championship, of course, or even being on the All-Defensive team. I was able to show the best talent on that particular day playing with and against some of the world’s best athletes. But that’s all that I really take from the award.”
The consummate teammate, Pippen and the Bulls weren’t concerned about individual accolades; they wanted to make a run at another title.
As the Bulls put the finishing touches on fifth straight 50-plus win season and a 24-17 road record, second best in Eastern Conference and third best in NBA, Pippen capped off the most impressive season of his career, at least from a statistical standpoint.
The leading vote-getter for the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team, Pippen ranked eighth in the league in scoring (22.0), 23rd in rebounding (8.7), 19th in assists (5.6), and second in steals (2.93).
“Everyone worked hard at it and Scottie was an unbelievable leader that year, probably deserving of MVP in the league,” said Jackson. “That was a year in which he had shown everyone the quality level that he could play at and his team played very well, very unselfishly.”
The media agreed with Jackson’s assessment, as Pippen finished third in NBA MVP voting behind Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon and San Antonio’s David Robinson.
And while with Jordan’s departure came an opportunity for Pippen to showcase his talents and prove that he was among the NBA’s elite, he never saw it that way. He stayed true to how he believed the game should be played and along the way led the Bulls to a 55-27 record, a level of play that no one thought could be achieved without the services of No. 23.
“I never thought about trying to win MVP,” said Pippen. “I never thought about trying to do things as an individual. That’s just not how I played the game and it wasn’t in my pedigree. I couldn’t have made myself play that way. It never crossed my mind to try and lead the league in scoring. I viewed that as sort of selfish goal and while I did have personal goals, they were to make the All-Defense team or be Defensive Player of the Year. I of course wanted to be one of the top players in the game, but I wanted to do it within my natural style of play. So I learned to let the game flow to me and stayed away from putting pressure on myself or rushing aspects of my game.”
As he looked back on that season, Jackson said he had a feel for what Pippen was capable of doing as he continued to mature and develop. He even admitted to taking a step back on occasion and appreciating what Pippen brought to the table.
“I certainly did,” said Jackson of Pippen’s game. “I admired it a lot, but I was not surprised. We knew how much Scottie had matured in the 1990-91 season. So we made adjustments to accommodate Scottie’s game and use his talents. It was a springboard that made us a championship team for those three years. We knew what effect he would have in the game and what he could do. We just didn’t know if he was going to be as big of a scorer as he was, but his scoring jumped considerably.”
As the 1994 NBA Playoffs got underway, Chicago quickly disposed of the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 3-0 sweep in the first round. Then, for the fourth year in a row, the New York Knicks awaited and a memorable, eventful series would ensue.
Patrick Ewing and the Knicks claimed the first two games played at Madison Square Garden and the Bulls returned the favor with a pair of wins at the Chicago Stadium to even the series at 2-2. But with Game 3 came controversy in its final 1.8 seconds, as Pippen became upset when a play was drawn up for Kukoc to take the last shot, which he hit to secure the victory.
Pippen immediately apologized to his teammates and coaches after the game. They accepted it and everyone moved on.
“He was disappointed and he didn’t go in the ballgame,” acknowledged Jackson. “But it didn’t seem to affect the team. He came back and played well. We won another game and pushed the series to the limit.”
And as Jackson noted, Pippen’s huge night of 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists and just one turnover lifted Chicago to a crucial Game 4 victory.
Game 5 in New York, however, would not go Chicago’s way, though it looked like it would late in the contest. That’s when one of the most debated calls in Bulls history was made, a sequence in which Pippen was whistled for contact on Hubert Davis with 2.1 seconds remaining. Davis made a pair of game-winning free throws and New York moved one game closer to advancing.
“It really was just an energy play,” said Jackson of the foul. “[Pippen] made an effort to contest a shot. Now of course that would be called an offensive foul if a player does that. But at that time, they hadn’t made a ruling on it.”
“I don’t dwell,” sighed Pippen of NBA referee Hue Hollins’ call. “I don’t put too much weight on it. It is what it is and he saw what he saw. He made the call. You can go back and look at it, and he might make that same call again. The ball just didn’t bounce our way that night.”
While Chicago would even the series at 3-3 in Game 6, the final game played in the Chicago Stadium and a matchup that featured Pippen’s legendary dunk in transition on Ewing, New York went on to claim the series. The Knicks then defeated the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the conference finals and before ultimately falling in seven games to the champion Houston Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals.
“It was a great year,” said Jackson. “It was painful to lose obviously in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference, but we felt we gained ground with that ballclub anyway.
“In a sense, it was kind of our final hurrah [for the first three-peat group],” Jackson continued. “And it was a wonderful experience for us all. It was a very satisfying season. I know guys were very saddened by the loss because they wanted so desperately to win in spite of losing Michael, but we understood we had a great season.”
Pippen, in particular, erased all doubts about whether he was a superstar in his own right, cementing his place in basketball history in the process.
“Scottie was the heart and soul of that team,” said Bill Wennington. “He put that team on his shoulders and was taking all the big shots.”
B.J. Armstrong agreed, saying, “He was just incredible. He was running around and doing things, really getting a chance to explore every aspect of his game. I think it really answered a lot of questions in the back of his mind.”
“He was just unbelievable,” said Pete Myers, friends with Pippen dating back to their college days in Arkansas. “He did everything for us. He rebounded the ball; defensively, he guarded the perimeter; he just did everything imaginable, which made everyone else’s job easier.”
“To this day, that was my favorite team,” said Jerry Reinsdorf of the 1993-94 Bulls as Pippen was approaching enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. “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.”
“It was one of my greatest seasons,” said Pippen, now an executive with the team. “It wasn’t quite as successful of a season as we wanted, but I enjoyed the team and I loved my teammates. I enjoyed my growth and development as a player, as well as the leadership role that I had. It was the first time for me to be the clear cut star. I didn’t always have a chance to rise up when Michael was there, especially in my first three years. But by him stepping away a little bit, it gave me a little room to grow. And when he came back, it gave me an opportunity to stand beside him instead of standing below him.”
NBA’s top small forwards of all time at 28 years old:
Elgin Baylor (1962-63): 34.0 points, 14.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists in 42.1 minutes
Larry Bird (1984-85): 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals in 39.5 minutes
Julius Erving (1978-79): 23.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals in 35.9 minutes
John Havlicek (1968-69): 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists in 38.7 minutes
LeBron James (2012-13): 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals in 37.9 minutes
Scottie Pippen (1993-94): 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals in 38.3 minutes