Pippen beat the odds to land in Hall of Fame

Scottie Pippen - Hall of Fame 2010

Scottie Pippen

There surely is no one who really was less likely to reach the zenith of basketball immortality than Scottie Pippen, who on Monday was named to basketball's Hall of Fame Class of 2010.

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Scottie Pippen shouldn't be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Oh, he deserves it, and it became official Monday in Indianapolis when the Hall of Fame announced that Pippen would be part of the Class of 2010 to be inducted in Springfield, Mass., in August.

But there surely is no one who really was less likely to reach the zenith of basketball immortality than Scottie Pippen.

He wasn't even a scholarship player in college. And that wasn't even at a big school, just tiny NAIA University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark.

Pippen was just another gangly kid from rural Arkansas, the last in a family of 12 kids living in two rooms in Hamburg, Ark. Scottie played basketball and football in high school, just one of the guys, about six foot and 150 pounds, nothing special, really, just a kid who liked to hang around the players.

College wasn't expected in Hamburg, so Scottie worked as a welder and his high school coach, as a favor, asked the coach at Central Arkansas if Scottie could have a role. Not a scholarship, not even a position on the team.

Manager. You know, handing out the towels, cleaning up in the locker room for guys who had no chance of playing at any big time program. Yes, Scottie was there to pick up for them.

Perhaps a symbol for his future, though.

I've asked him about it many times and he said he enjoyed it, liked being around the guys and the games, never thought much about it as demeaning or beneath him. Scottie's dad, Preston, worked in a local paper mill but was disabled by a stroke when Scottie was 14. The bigger kids all helped out around the house, Scottie's sisters much older and out by now so he could have a bed. Scottie was the baby, and a bit spoiled, he'd concede.

Still, it was just part of life to work and get along and have some fun.

Eventually, Pippen would grow to almost 6-8 and get that scholarship and become a star for the basketball team, averaging 23.6 points and 10 rebounds as a senior and being named an NAIA All-American. But Pippen had to attend the Portsmouth pre-draft camp for lesser prospects to be discovered and quickly become the hot prospect of the 1987 draft as this unusual big man with guard skills.

Pippen later attributed his unusual versatility in ball handling, passing and defense to having played point guard as a high schooler and into college became he was small.

But is there another player in the player in the Basketball Hall of Fame-heck, any hall of fame-who by the time he was college age was only good enough to be the student manager of a small town college basketball team?

That's how remarkable Scottie Pippen's story is, how far he's come, less in miles and accomplishment to become a legendary figure in the international basketball work as the crucial matching part of the six-time world champion Bulls.

Yes, Michael Jordan was the star and arguably the best player in the history of the game, and inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. But would Jordan have been as successful and accomplished without Scottie Pippen?

It's long been questioned and debated, but even Jordan in his acceptance speech last year acknowledged Pippen in that regard as the only teammate he singled out.

They used to indict Pippen with the sidekick label. They'd call him the co-chairman, the vice president. I once said he was the ultimate superstar role player.

It's impossible to quantify what Pippen was because of where he was and who he played with and what they accomplished.

Yet, before Pippen joined the Bulls in a brilliant draft day trade in 1987, Jordan's Bulls teams were 1-9 in the playoffs. Not to say it wouldn't have changed, but it was Pippen as a reserve his rookie season until the deciding Game 5 of the first round playoff series against the Cavaliers.

Coach Doug Collins substituted Pippen for Brad Sellers. Pippen scored 24 points to save the final game and was a starter from then on with the Bulls. Sort of the rest is history thing, the rest of the story.

It's been a remarkable story for Pippen, who seemed never quite in place, never quite comfortable in the shadow of Jordan, with the responsibility of stardom, with fame and the big time.

His basketball achievements, which were spectacular, often were overshadowed by his controversies on and off the basketball court. Like his upbringing and entrée into basketball, few would have survived that to emerge unscathed and successful into society.

Likewise, it probably was that unusual trip to manhood that inured Pippen to the peccadilloes and misdemeanors of his own making. But that same toughness that accepted life in such poverty and misfortune and waited patiently for success against such odds was also his armor against a world which didn't always understand how you get here from there and when you do you are not quite what everyone else is.

There was Pippen's famous 1.8 second sit down strike in the 1994 playoffs when he declined to enter the game for a last second play when his name wasn't called for the shot. Pippen went on to play through it in his greatest individual season and perhaps be denied the most amazing circumstances of winning a title after Michael Jordan retired by a questionable foul call in the conference semifinals.

There were the controversies with management over salary and personnel, a gun charge arrest which later was dismissed, a big migrane headache in the 1990 conference finals which led to doubts about his commitment, trade demands, almost being traded twice, rages private and public.

I recall one when the team was in Boston and Pippen went on and on demeaning general manager Jerry Krause. We returned the next day to Chicago and the story had been in the newspapers. The practice facility was flooded with media waiting for another Pippen outburst. As Pippen was walking into practice, he said to coach Phil Jackson, "Why are so many of them here?"

"They're here for you?" Jackson said.

"Why?" Pippen asked.

It was Pippen's way. He said what he had to and went on. If you like it fine; if you don't, heck, "I'm Scottie and I've dealt with worse."

Though he has mellowed some and it led to our falling out.

Pippen had called me a few years back after Scott Skiles was fired and wondered about being coach. I said I thought he could be a good coach because he thought the game so well and knew players' tendencies and wouldn't worry about holding guys accountable and what they felt.

So we talked and I asked him about the Bulls team. He said they couldn't win because Tyrus Thomas was a star from the head down, Kirk Hinrich wasn't a good enough lead guard, Ben Wallace wasn't playing hard enough, Luol Deng was concentrating too much on getting a contract, Ben Gordon was taking bad shots.

It actually was what led to Skiles' dismissal and Pippen was right on. But he didn't like the way it came out and said it would hurt his chances. Clearly, the Bulls have taken care of everything he said then, though in some time.

When Pippen came to the Bulls you could barely understand him in that deep bass voice and clipped southern accent. But he just had this wonderful sense for the game.

Teammates loved to play with him.

I remember Steve Kerr saying Scottie would always know when Kerr had gone a bit without a shot and needed the ball to get in rhythm. So Pippen would mention it and know exactly where Kerr wanted the shot from and deliver the ball right in shooting motion to make for the best release.

It was what the great point guards could do.

Pippen was the secret weapon of Phil Jackson's defense.

The Jackson key was always to deny a great team their first or primary option.

Pippen was tall and with long arms, but was quick enough to defend guards or even power forwards. He'd harass even the best point guards like Mark Price or Kevin Johnson into crucial mistakes or giving up the ball and having someone else make a play, which was why the Bulls had so much success against Cavs teams that had more overall talent.

When the Bulls finally got to the NBA Finals in 1991, the key to the defense which frustrated the Lakers was Pippen playing Magic Johnson. Jordan did in Game 1, but the Bulls lost. Jordan got quickly into foul trouble in Game 2, and on came Pippen and the series changed. No one in the NBA could ever keep Johnson from seeing over the top of the defense and staying in front of Johnson. Pippen did so.

Though perhaps Pippen's coming out party was the 1992 Dream Team Olympic team.

Chuck Daly had seen Pippen in all those great, crushing series between the Bulls and his Pistons. He was coach of the Dream Team, which also will be enshrined with his class, and he said he was stunned to watch Pippen in those games, and especially those practices. Daly said Pippen was perhaps the best there, even as good as Jordan, much better than Barkley or Drexler or Malone or any of the big name guys.

Jordan cast this overwhelming shadow and it also covered Pippen with an ambivalence which moved from embracing Jordan to rejecting his secondary status.

Back in the 1980s when the team practiced at the Multiplex health club, we could watch their practices. It was something to see, far better than the games the way Jordan and Pippen went at one another, fighting, defending, talking, daring and then helping, Jordan later stopping to show Pippen how, for instance, to create contact and draw fouls.

They'd work out together, though Pippen generally was closer with fellow 1987 rookie Horace Grant. But Pippen was so prideful that he'd come to resent the notion it was Jordan who made him special.

I remember a few years back Pippen being asked about it and saying, "I think people love me just as much as they love Michael. The fans who understand the game, the GMs and coaches. I think they'd rather have a Scottie than a Michael. Because I'm an all-around player. Coaches would rather have a Scottie-type player than a Michael. I was an all-around player. I made people around me better."

I got the point, and the Bulls understood.

In the 1993-94 season after Jordan left for the first time, Pippen was as good as anyone.

The Bulls won 55 games, two fewer than the year before with Jordan. Pippen averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists and was All Star game MVP. Who knows what would have happened if not for that famous late foul call that cost Game 5 in New York against the Knicks, who went on to the Finals, in a series in which the teams won all their home games. Would winning a title without Jordan have changed everything? Even the following season when Jordan came back, Pippen led the Bulls in five categories, the first player since Dave Cowens almost twenty years before.

With Jordan back, Pippen eventually fell back into his ideal role. He may have resented it at times, but his instincts for the best for the team and his teammates always were transcendent. He wasn't the political figure Jordan needed to be, and the 1993-94 season burned Pippen that way.

But he continued to perform. Eight straight times all-defensive first team and 10 all-defensive teams combined, perhaps the greatest perimeter defender ever. Seven times all-NBA. Two Olympic gold medals. Top 50 of all-time in 1997. Played in 208 playoff games. Six championship teams.

Scottie Pippen is a Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame can be proud.

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