Central Arkansas jersey retirement one of Scottie Pippen's highest honors
Bulls legend Scottie Pippen discusses heading home to Central Arkansas for his No. 33 jersey retirement and his upcoming trip to Russia as an ambassador for the game of basketball.
This week is a big week for me, as the University of Central Arkansas will retire my No. 33 jersey on Wednesday during a halftime ceremony. It’s going to be a very special night for me. It’s long overdue as they’ve reached out to get be back several times prior to this, but either I was still playing or it didn’t work out for whatever reason. My old coach, Don Dyer, who had coached there for so many years, retired a few seasons ago and we’ve long talked about the ceremony. It’s just a great situation to be able to go back and see so many people I was fortunate to be involved with and celebrate the night.
There are a lot of people from my Central Arkansas days that I owe a lot of thanks to for how they helped me over the years. College was a very necessary step along the way to my professional career. As I look back, I realize how much of an eye opener it was for me in terms of moving forward and developing as a basketball player.
Coach Dyer was a great mentor for me and a great teacher. He’s been out of the game for several years now, but won over 650 victories over his career and had a huge impact on my success as a pro. Before him, my high school coach, Donald Wayne, pushed me and prepared me for college. He was the one who helped get me to that point where I had the opportunity to get a college education by playing basketball. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those men’s contributions and efforts.
The odds were against me when I arrived at Central Arkansas. I was barely 6-foot-2 and didn’t have a scholarship. But I always felt I could make it to the NBA; it was as if I had foreseen my future and I knew I would make it. As for how everything played out, I never could have imagined being fortunate enough to accomplish some of the things that I did. I believed that if I kept pushing and kept my dream alive, failure wouldn’t enter the picture. I never let go of the hope that I could become a star player in the NBA. Things eventually evolved for me.
My wife and kids unfortunately won’t be there for the ceremony because it’s in the middle of the week and they’ve got school. But many of my siblings from Hamburg, Arkansas and several of my old teammates will be on hand and I can’t wait to see them. There are other friends from my college days, some of who played football, which will be there as well. I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of people back at Central Arkansas and still make my rounds down there in the summertime. We’ll get together and play golf or bring our families back for a homecoming weekend. Mostly all of my family is still around there too, living in Hamburg. I’m the youngest of 12 children and though I did have one sister who passed away this last summer, the majority of my family is still in that area so I’m back visiting pretty often.
When I look back on my time at Central Arkansas, I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to reach a level playing field in which I could earn a scholarship. It was such an important accomplishment for me as a player and it gave me a great deal of confidence that I could someday be one considered one of the world’s best basketball players. I looked at it as a situation in which I had four years to develop and that time would propel me to that next level that I very much wanted to be. I just wanted to put forth the right effort and do all the things I needed to do in order to get there.
It’s going to be a tough night for me emotionally. It’s really where it all started. When I grew up, I was just another kid who wasn’t going to college. I didn’t have any scholarship offers and there were times I wasn’t even thinking about basketball. I just wanted to be in a positive environment and have a situation where I could lead a good life. Basketball ultimately gave me that. Coach Wayne coached four of my brothers at Hamburg High School. He saw something special in me that I didn’t even see. I owe the world to him for putting his neck out there and making me the person and the player I became. So few of my siblings had the opportunity to go to college because they didn’t have basketball to get them there or take them beyond the situation we were in. Without people like Coach Wayne, I may not have made it either. I didn’t always try back then, but I was pushed. And that’s what created the work ethic and the pride that allowed me to accomplish what I did.
I tell people all the time, I’m used to fighting from the bottom. I never knew what it felt like to be at the top. Even when I was drafted by the Bulls, no one knew much about me or what to expect. I was the fifth pick in the draft in 1987, but I hadn’t done anything yet. I came from a NAIA school and I had to keep it going. Whether it was high school, college or in the NBA, I learned that you still had to follow through. Especially coming from a small school, the competition I faced wasn’t at the same level for players who attended major universities.
I’ll always remember my college years fondly. No one knew back then what I was capable of doing or what my future held. At the same time, it was easier to fall off and accept failure. Back then, I felt like I had never truly succeeded. I remember the night in December 2005 when the Bulls retired my number and will never ever forget it. But the college years were a different phase of my life and that is why this week will mean so much to me. For me, getting your number retired is the greatest accomplishment. There is no accolade with more significance that you can receive from an organization or school. Whether it was my four years at Central Arkansas or all my seasons with the Bulls in Chicago, it’s a sign of respect for what I have done. Defensive awards and accolades aside, to have your jersey retired puts you in a position where you’ll be known forever. Any time there is an event inside the United Center—whether it’s a basketball game, hockey game or concert—my number is going to be up there and it is hard to imagine a greater accomplishment than that.
That being said, I am of course thinking about next summer and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. If I do get elected, I’m sure that will take it over the top for me. When people think about basketball’s Hall of Fame, it’s on a larger and more worldwide scale than me being at Central Arkansas or with the Chicago Bulls. It means you are part of an elite class of players who have ever played the game at any level. Ultimately, that was my goal all along. I wanted to reach a point where I was competing with some of the best players to ever take the court.
We all saw Michael Jordan and his Hall of Fame induction last fall. He had a lot of great accomplishments early on in his career. As a young player, he solidified his position in the game and everyone could see he was a future Hall of Famer. For me, I had been working my way up from the bottom my entire life. There wasn’t one year I had as an NBA player in which I was guaranteed an All-Star spot. I always had to go above and beyond to make the All-Star team. You look at Larry Bird for example, one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Whether he was out there on the floor doing his thing or sidelined with an injury, he was a sure thing to be an All-Star. I was never one of those players. All of my accomplishments were made because I worked and persevered, not because I was drafted high. Even as we won the six championships, I couldn’t become complacent or I wouldn’t have had the success that I did.
To Russia with Scottie
My week doesn’t end on Wednesday night, as Friday I fly to Russia until the end of the month. I’ve been going there for several years now, usually arriving in Moscow and moving around from city to city. Basically it’s an opportunity for me to spread my message to collegiate players, coaches and other young people who are around the game of basketball. Having played for the Bulls and winning like we did, it’s a situation that made me and what I represent very recognizable. It helps the players respond to me when I teach them about working hard and letting them know things will pay off if they do. I see some of the same players during each year I visit and it is rewarding to monitor their progress. When a young player demonstrates greater focus and preparation in terms of how they approach the game and want to improve, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. My hope is that it allows them the opportunity to someday move forward and achieve their goal of playing at a professional level or in the NBA.
Russian Students Day is on Jan. 25 and what I’m around is similar to the NCAA tournament here. I will attend games and meet with various teams about the game of basketball and I try to impart things to them which will help them succeed on the court. The NBA has so many initiatives out there to try and establish and maintain a global presence and this sort of ties into those efforts. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is involved in the purchase of the New Jersey Nets, is someone who I’ve gotten to know and we work together as well on trips like this. For me to work with him and have the involvement that I do with these events is great and very rewarding. The NBA helped make me who I am so I am thankful for any opportunity I have to give back. If my efforts help sell the NBA and game of basketball to others around the world, it’s a win-win. Hopefully the young players out there respond to what we’re doing. Russia is a country that really does a good job of promoting some of their athletes from over the years, including former Olympians. When I’m over there for Students Day, recognizing those athletes is something that I help take part in and I think that’s important to the sport and its fans. I really look forward to getting over there and hope it’s another great experience.
People have told me that trips like this sort of make me an ambassador of the game. That’s an honor for me to hear and it is a role that I embrace. Because of my career, I’ve been put in a position where I’m able to promote basketball all over the world. I’ve spent time in Sweden, Finland, China and Russia. It is inspiring work and I enjoy that I’m able to connect with people on that kind of basis. At the end of the day, I simply don’t think I will ever remove myself from basketball. My interest level and excitement for the game are still there and who knows; maybe someday I could make my way to the bench as a coach. I’d look forward to getting back into the NBA, working from the sidelines and being part of another championship season.