Scottie Pippen: Greatest Teammate Gets His Due

Scottie Pippen

Throughout his career of 17 seasons, Scottie Pippen was often overshadowed by his seemingly immortal teammate, Michael Jordan. That won’t be the case tonight at the United Center, though, as Pippen, Jordan and several of his former teammates, coaches, family and friends gather to see his number 33 retired. Prior to the ceremony, met with Pippen, one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All-Time, to discuss his accolade-filled career, his future and more.

Is it hard to imagine the feelings and emotions that you’ll have as you and your family, friends, coaches and former teammates see your number unveiled at the United Center?
“I can’t really imagine it. I try to think back about what goes on during these ceremonies and I can’t even recall Michael’s. It’s one of those situations where you’re very happy, but you’re happier to get it behind you. But it’s the pinnacle for me. Getting my jersey retired has never happened to me at any level of the game. It’s special for me because I know that no one will ever wear that number again.”

What kinds of things have you found to enjoy the most since you retired?
“I spend a lot of time at home with my kids. I like to sneak out to the golf course when the weather permits and I’m doing some analyst work with ESPN. I’ve found a way to manage my time between this and that and it keeps me busy. I’ve also got a couple of small businesses back in Arkansas that I deal with.”

You mentioned filling in at ESPN as of late. Are you focused on broadcasting as the next chapter of your life? Is coaching still a possibility?
“Broadcasting is where I want to be right now. Coaching jobs are far and few between; you try and get into the right situation and take advantage of it from there. Someday I would like to get into coaching, but for now I’m enjoying the broadcasting side of things. It gives me a little more flexibility and I can be at home and spend time with my family. Hopefully, though, someday I’ll get back into the game.”

What have you found you miss the most about playing basketball? Is it the competitiveness of the game, the camaraderie in the locker room, or something else?
“It’s both of those—I really miss the competitiveness but I also miss the locker room. There’s nothing like the camaraderie of being around the other players. I don’t miss it to the point where I feel I want to come back and play, but it helps you realize what a great thing it was to once play. You only miss it when it’s gone.”

Scottie Pippen

Was there a point when it sunk in that you were capable of being more than just a good basketball player? Was there a moment in your career where you feel you figured things out?
“Things for me really started to click right after my third year in the league. I sort of figured out that there were a few things that I needed to do if I wanted to get better—I needed to gain some more weight and add some strength. During the year that I had the migraine headache, I didn’t have a good feel for what I needed to do moving forward, as far as taking care of my body. So it took me up until that moment to really realize that I needed to start to take care of myself a little better if I wanted to take things to another level.”

When you were younger, did you ever envision having a career like you had?
“I had always dreamed that I would someday be in this game, just like any other kid growing up and thinking that they were going to be an NBA player. I just stuck with my dreams and kept trying to reach high. Obviously I didn’t get an open invitation to walk through many doors with a college scholarship, but opportunities were there for me and the situation kept me hungry.”

As a freshman at Central Arkansas, you didn’t have a scholarship and you enrolled under a work study program. Would you say that your first year of college had any kind of significant impact on the direction of your career?
“It really didn’t affect it at all. It was really just a job that I had as I was going through the offseason with the other players and working out and playing ball. Some opportunities came and a scholarship became available. By then I had made some progress as a player and physically and all sorts of ways. My coach recognized that and gave me an opportunity. I wasn’t deterred in any way by starting off on the work study program and I knew that one extra year would help me out if I had it.”

If you had to identify one person as someone who has helped you out the most throughout your career, who would it be?
“I would probably have to say my high school coach, Donald Wayne [Hamburg High School]. I wasn’t even really thinking about playing college ball until he turned me on to his college coach who gave me the opportunity. He came to me and told me he wanted me to go to Central Arkansas and try out. He told me about the coach that was there, Don Dyer, and how he played for him and how I should let him take a look at me. Maybe they already had something worked out, with an understanding that they didn’t have a scholarship but I would be able to play and earn one. That’s how the work study program came about. Once all that happened, I realized I did want to go to college. He really opened some doors for me, and after that point, I just rode it out.”

Scottie Pippen with Michael Jordan and Horace Grant

In 1993.94, a season which Phil Jackson has called his most satisfying with the Bulls, you had an MVP-caliber year and nearly led the Jordan-less Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals. Where does that year rank among the others in your career?
“It was one of my better seasons as a player, but we didn’t achieve as much as we would’ve liked to from a team standpoint. I did a lot of great things from an individual standpoint that year and led the team in a lot of statistical categories and we had a great season. When you talk about regular seasons, it ranked as my best regular season. We didn’t win the championship at the end, but my teammates and I were all on the same page. The familiarity was there. The season was just real simple for us. That was Toni [Kukoc’s] first year in the league and he was only one of two or so new additions. It was a very fun year and we were still a very good team, even without Michael.”

Slam dunks and long-range threes dominate today’s highlights, but at times your biggest contribution in a game was made on the defensive end of the floor. What inspired you to become a great defender and what drove you to have success in that area?
“I think it came down to being competitive all the time. It became a habit and it started in practice with guys like Rory Sparrow and Sam Vincent trying to take the ball from me as I developed as a young guard. They would always try and break me in some way so I tried to turn the tables and used the situation to my advantage. That I knew how to defend guys became something that I could really hang my hat on at the end of the day.”

Would you say that you didn’t necessarily develop that mentality until you were with the Bulls?
“I think I always had the instinct. But coming into the league and playing with some of the rules that were part of the game sort of played into my hands—the fact that you could bump, you could hand check, those things worked to my advantage.”

Why was it so important to you to be the best teammate that you could be?
“I always tried to play the game to make it fun for everybody and play very unselfishly. It was just how I approached the game and I think that is why guys enjoyed playing with me. I took on that unselfish role and winning came first to me.”

What teams did you most enjoy playing against, and what made those rivalries so special?
“It was always the Detroit Pistons when I was coming up. They were the team that was in our way. Once we got by them, it had to be the New York Knicks. For me, it was the Knicks. They faced the same obstacles that we faced. They were the team that we had to knock down off the mountain if we were going to get to the throne. They were never able to do it to us, but that’s what made it so great competing against them. They were going through what we had gone through as a team to get over Detroit.”

Scottie Pippen

Was there a certain player who challenged you the most throughout your career, someone who you always looked forward to competing against?
“New York threw so many forwards at me during my day… you had Xavier McDaniel, Larry Johnson, Johnny Newman… they threw everyone at me. Charles Oakley was one guy I battled with all the time. We were enemies on the court, but friends off of it.”

Like any player, you experienced ups and downs throughout your career. Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?
“I probably would have found a way to get four or five years more in—I would have stopped jumping so much a few years into my career. [Laughs] Honestly, I don’t know if there was anything I really would have done differently. Obviously, you can’t play the game forever. But if I had taken some preventative steps throughout my career, it may have lasted a little longer and maybe I wouldn’t have had so many injuries. You learn from situations; dealing with injuries is a situation every player has to face throughout their career.”

It’s been more than seven years since the Bulls won their sixth World Championship. When you think about all of the titles, which one meant the most?
“It’s always been the first one. Going into L.A. and sweeping them on their home court, there’s no comparison to that. That was definitely top-shelf to beat a team like the Lakers on their home floor for three straight. Going against Magic was the biggest feeling I had of going against a guy who I idolized in my career and my whole life. To have had an opportunity to play against him and [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar and [James] Worthy… they were Showtime back then. But they weren’t Showtime to us when we were playing for all the marbles.”

For most of your career, you played along side the greatest player the game has ever seen. Describe the relationship that you had with Michael Jordan.
“We had a great relationship. We both understood what we needed from each other and we knew what we needed to do for our team to be successful night in and night out. I think he felt that he had certain responsibilities and I had my own responsibilities. Whether or not those things were written in black or white, we just knew what it took to win. We took on different challenges.”

It seems that after all the rings, accolades and records, that fans and teammates alike will remember you as a great teammate. You played like a superstar with a role player’s mentality and did what it took to win games. What does having that kind of legacy mean to you?
“I want to be remembered for all of those things—as a great teammate and a guy who made it fun for his teammates. I hope that I was able to help my teammates have fun and enjoy the game. Ultimately, I was just a guy who played hard and wanted to win every time out.”