"His greatest strength was his knowledge of how things worked on the defensive end of the floor," Jackson said of Pippen. "Scottie was the voice of our team—figuratively and literally, as he did a lot of the talking and kept our team on the same page."
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
By Adam Fluck | 07.30.2010
It was a late fall morning very early in Scottie Pippen’s professional career, as it was for Phil Jackson too, for that matter. The Bulls, at the time, held practices at the Deerfield Multiplex, with the coaches’ offices located just off the baseline, only 12 or so feet away from the court.
When Jackson and his staff emerged a few minutes before practice started, they saw Pippen and Michael Jordan on the side of the court working on a segment of the team’s offense called the “corner series.”
“They were making a reverse pivot and Scottie was going to the basket dunking with his left hand,” Jackson recalled in a phone interview. “Michael was trying to learn from Scottie how to get the steps right to finish with his left hand. That was something that Scottie could do which Michael wanted in his repertoire.”
Yes, even the game’s greatest player ever learned a thing or two from his teammates from time to time. But Pippen, of course, was no typical teammate. Though he and Jordan had their ups and downs throughout their time together, Jackson’s seemingly insignificant anecdote signified the kind of relationship they had—one that started early on and continued throughout Chicago’s dynasty of the 1990s.
“It was the tremendous amount of respect that they had for each other,” Jackson said regarding why Pippen and Jordan’s relationship worked. “They both worked incredibly hard on their game, always putting in the extra work to be better players. They had an understanding of how to get a job accomplished and there was regular collaboration between the two of them that brought an incredible amount of success to that basketball team.”
“Michael came back from the Olympics and he told me Scottie was the second best player on that team,” said Jackson of Jordan, Pippen and the 1992 Dream Team.
On Aug. 13, Pippen will join Jordan and Jackson in basketball’s Hall of Fame. The moment will come some 24 years after the legendary coach first saw Pippen, a lanky, relatively unknown out of Central Arkansas, a NAIA school at the time.
It was the summer of 1986 and Jackson was coaching his last season for the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. He watched as Pippen put on a show during a draft combine.
“He showed a remarkable amount of capabilities playing the guard position given his size,” said Jackson. “He also demonstrated a tremendous level of activity on both ends of the floor and fast breaks. Defensively, you could see he had a great deal of talent.”
The next fall, the two were paired together in Chicago—Pippen as a rookie with the Bulls and Jackson as one of Doug Collins’ assistant coaches.
“We quickly developed a relationship because of that,” said Jackson. “We would occasionally play one-on-one, as I was able to still play a little bit of basketball.”
Though Pippen did not start right away, averaging only 7.9 points per game his first season, he worked his way into the starting five for good by the time the 1988 NBA Playoffs rolled around.
“It seemed like every time he got on the court, good things would happen,” Jackson recalled. “He had an opportunity to help us win games almost immediately, many times from the defensive end of the floor.”
While Jordan scored at a torrid pace, Pippen quickly became the anchor of the team, providing the stability it greatly needed as the 1990s approached. His scoring came around as well, as his production increased in each of his first five professional seasons.
Though Jackson had played Pippen at the small forward position early in his career, a seemingly obvious choice given his 6-7, 228-pound frame, he made a change heading into his fourth year.
“I always felt Scottie’s contribution to our team became elevated when we moved him from being a forward to a guard in the 1990-91 season,” said Jackson. “Using Scottie at the guard position within the triangle offense allowed him to do all the things that he did so well.”
Defensively, Jackson explained, Pippen had made his mark by then, knowing when to overplay, make steals and play help defense. The shift to the backcourt allowed him to do all of those things on opposing shooting guards, while also taking better advantage of his offensive skills.
“He would rebound and push the ball, which really put us in an ideal situation to set up our offense,” explained Jackson. “His skills at guard with the basketball in his hands put a tremendous amount of pressure on opponents to match up.”
"When Michael retired for the first time and left to play baseball, Scottie took over the leadership of the team," Jackson said of the 1993-94 season. "We all saw him bloom into a star."
Taking advantage of Pippen’s size and versatility was perhaps never more useful than during Chicago’s first championship run.
Taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals, the Bulls lost the first game, 93-91, at the old Chicago Stadium. Jackson made a switch and assigned Pippen to Magic Johnson for the rest of the series, resulting in four straight victories and the organization’s first of six NBA titles.
Not long after, Pippen was chosen to join the Jordan, Magic, Larry Bird and the best of the NBA on the 1992 Dream Team, which will also be enshrined in the Hall of Fame on Aug. 13. That team easily captured gold in Barcelona, captivating the world’s attention and dominating its competition.
Jackson recalled a conversation he had with Jordan following the Dream Team’s legendary run.
“Michael came back from the Olympics and he told me Scottie was the second best player on that team,” said Jackson. “People knew he was a pretty good sidekick to Michael, but all of a sudden, they were starting to recognize that he was a legitimate star in his own right who had really developed over the prior three to four years. He wasn’t just an active, defensive small forward anymore. He was a player who could excel at three, if not four, positions. He was a real force on our team in that regard and Michael recognized that.”
But Pippen’s best work had yet to come. Following the Bulls’ first three championships, Jordan unexpectedly walked away from the game on October 6, 1993. A heavy onus was placed squarely on Pippen’s shoulders, and there was some doubt as to how he might respond.
“When Michael retired for the first time and left to play baseball, Scottie took over the leadership of the team,” Jackson said of the 1993-94 season. “We all saw him bloom into a star. He was MVP of the All-Star game and finished third in the NBA MVP voting. He stepped into his role and had a terrific season.”
That season didn’t start out so great, though. Pippen missed a small stretch due to injury, including the team’s annual Circus Trip, and the Bulls struggled, losing six out of seven games and falling to a record of 4-7 early in the season. Pippen returned on Nov. 30, as the Bulls came home to Chicago to take on the Suns and attempted to get back on track.
“He had a huge game,” Jackson said of Pippen, who finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in a 132-113 win. “But it was more than that. Scottie established the fact that we were going to be fine. He showed that night he was going to be comfortable taking over that leadership role. He of course went on to have a great season and we had a great year.”
Whereas Jordan and Bill Cartwright had previously been team captions, Jackson praised Pippen for taking the initiative to step up and embrace that role.
“Scottie moved into that position with a tremendous amount of comfort,” said Jackson. “He was always a very good person on and off the court. He understood his teammates and he helped them out. That was a major development in Scottie’s career.”
For Jackson, pinpointing Pippen’s finest qualities from a career that spanned 17 seasons and seven NBA All-Star appearances comes down to defense.
“His greatest strength was his knowledge of how things worked on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “Scottie was the voice of our team—figuratively and literally, as he did a lot of the talking and kept our team on the same page. When he wasn’t at the top of the key harassing a guard as a special assignment, he was on the backside of our defense talking his teammates through different situations, whether it was a double team, trap or some other important aspect. Because of that, he was very vital to the run that we made.”
Given Pippen’s knowledge and his new role as team ambassador for the Bulls, Jackson said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Pippen eventually work his way into the coaching ranks.
“Scottie has a great understanding of basketball. I think that he would make a good coach and there is an opportunity for him,” said Jackson, who does not plan on attending the enshrinement ceremony in Springfield, Mass.
“I’m really glad that he’s back with the Bulls and has a chance to find his way in whatever capacity he ends up around the game,” Jackson continued. “This is his opportunity to really re-establish himself back in Chicago, where he didn’t get the chance to play all that much when he closed out his career.”