Scottie Pippen’s Return Engagement
Scottie Pippen’s uncanny ability to knife through opposing defenses will once again bring Chicago Bulls fans to their feet.
Posted November 12, 2003
Thomas Wolfe, one of the most noteworthy American novelists of the 20th Century, wrote four mammoth novels during his lifetime, which, while highly autobiographical, presented a sweeping picture of American life.
His 1940 classic, You Can’t Go Home Again, which declares that, however dear the past might be, one must go forward, can certainly describe life on Chicago’s West Side these past five winters.
For the past half decade Windy City hoop fanatics have longed for the glory days of old when the Bulls were winners of six NBA World Championships during the 1990s. Instead of Jordan, Pippen, Grant and Rodman, Bulls fans have had to patiently observe the on-court exploits of journeymen Kornel David, Dedric Willoughby, Cory Carr and Charles Jones while Chicago collected some very impressive yet raw young talent through the NBA Draft.
However, on a summer night just a few months ago someone very important did come home to the City of Big Shoulders—Scottie Pippen—a major actor in the Bulls’ glorious history.
“A lot of people think we’re trying to relive the past,” said John Paxson, Chicago’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and former Pippen teammate. “But I’m looking at this as the best move for our future. What Scottie can give us on the floor is immeasurable.”
Often praised as the ideal teammate—unselfish, hard-working and quick to offer encouragement in the locker room—it feels almost surreal that the franchise’s second-greatest player of all time, owner of six championship rings, now runs with such talented young stars in the making as Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Jamal Crawford.
“I’ve always been a Bull in my heart, and now I will play where my heart is,” Pippen proclaimed upon the announcement of his return to Chicago. “I’m here to help this team back in the playoffs. That’s my goal. I’ve made the playoffs every year of my 16-year career, and I don’t plan on breaking that streak now.”
Pippen, named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all-time, was 38 years old on opening night. However, that fact is of little concern to Bulls brass, including Head Coach and former teammate Bill Cartwright, who sees the athletic forward as the perfect leader for a young team that has shown signs of breaking out. Cartwright and Paxson also believe their former running mate is the perfect foil for team captain Jalen Rose, who is more than willing and eager to share the spotlight of directing Chicago’s attack.
“I see Scottie handling the ball a lot,” Paxson says. “Bill wants to run more, and Scottie can still rebound and push the ball. He’s in good physical shape and can play any number of roles for us on the court, but his value goes beyond that. His experience and leadership are what a young team such as ours needs more than anything.
Scottie Pippen is back playing below the six world championship banners he helped bring to Chicago.
“We know the ball has to go inside,” Paxson continues. “That means Eddy [Curry] is going to get more opportunities to score. Jamal [Crawford] is also blossoming as a scorer. So now with Scottie out there, Jalen won’t feel like he has to do everything. Scottie can facilitate that process.”
“Scottie’s experience, knowledge of the game and knowledge of preparation will teach our young players how hard they have to practice, how they have to prepare and conduct themselves,” adds Cartwright. “Then, as they step on the floor, he will give them an understanding of how to guard somebody and how to run the offense. Having him on our side is very important.”
“I’ve always been a big-time Scottie Pippen fan,” gushes Rose. “That was my guy growing up!
“People don't realize this, but throughout my career, I grew up patterning my game after Scottie Pippen's. I admire him for his versatility. I’ve always worked hard at being a well-rounded player. He became a point forward, and so did I. I've always gotten a kick out of leading my team in assists. It's going to be great to be on the floor with him at the same time.”
Cartwright also believes that the pairing of Rose and Pippen will produce a prolific and highly effective duo for Chicago.
“I believe Jalen and Scottie will really enjoy playing together because they’ll both be productive and will teach our younger players a lot,” Cartwright declares. “We were the third youngest team in the league last season, and our guys need to know and learn how to be NBA players. Like I said before, that entails addressing all parts of life. It’s showing up on time. It’s practicing hard every day. And, most important, it’s getting on the floor and being competitive for your job and playing at a high level night in and night out.”
After stops in Houston and Portland, respectively, Pippen’s second tour of duty with the Bulls officially tipped off on October 29, as Chicago opened at home against Washington.
“I love this city and the Chicago fans,” Pippen says with a smile, “I’m very comfortable here and confident of the people in place. I have a tremendous amount of trust in and respect for Pax. Coming back to Chicago was a huge factor [in my decision to sign], and having John Paxson in charge tipped the scales. He is a class act, and he’s well-deserving of that position (general manager). When I first came into the league, Pax was a mentor to me, a friend who took me under his wing.
“Chicago’s where I started my career. I’ve had a lot of success playing here. My wife (Larsa) is from here too, and that’s really icing on the cake.
Although 38 years of age is considered young by most, by NBA standards, Pippen’s a grey beard. However, his court savvy and guile still allow him to dominate games defensively, and while playing for Portland last season, he often proved lethal for opponents when he controled the ball on offense.
“I don’t know if people truly understand the impact Scottie had for us,” says Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks. “At times last season, he carried us offensively and he always solidified our defense. The guys looked up to him as a leader. With him gone now, we have to find someone who can make up for that.”
Although a little older and wiser, the Bulls are still one of the NBA’s youngest teams, so Pippen’s leadership both on and off the floor will be essential for success.
Cheeks isn’t just whistling in the wind on that point. Amid the Blazers’ frequent transgressions off the court the past few years, Pippen remained above it all, emerging as a classy professional who provided stability on the floor and in the locker room.
“Scottie was one of the good guys, no question,” Cheeks adds. “We are never going to replace Scottie Pippen—I mean, he is one of the all-time greats.”
“I think it would be pretty tough to find a teammate of Scottie’s that doesn’t like him,” Cartwright says. “He’s a good teammate. He’s a good player. He makes good decisions. Let’s face it—that’s what we need. That’s the bottom line.”
Cartwright’s opinion sums up the many insider perceptions of Pippen’s career. True enough, there have been some regrettable moments throughout his 16 years in the NBA, but overall the highs outnumber the lows threefold.
Former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1999 stated: “On the Bulls, Scottie was probably the player most liked by others. He mingled. He brought out the best in players and communicated the best. Leadership, real leadership is one of his strengths.
“Everybody says Michael [Jordan] was a great leader. He led by example, by rebuke, by harsh words. Scottie’s leadership was equally dominant, but [his was] a leadership of patting on the back, of support.”
The fact of the matter is, when healthy, Pippen did carry the Trail Blazers last season, as evidenced by Portland’s 38-19 record when he was in the starting lineup. Without him, Portland, a team loaded with talent, sported a very mediocre 12-13 record.
For the season, Pippen played a total of 64 games and averaged 10.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.6 steals in over 29 minutes of play. Six times the old man had five or more thefts in a game, and passed Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler for 4th on the NBA’s all-time steals list. This season, he’ll no doubt pass Cheeks, his former coach, for third place, after picking 25 more.
Los Angeles Clippers guard and Chicago native Quentin Richardson attests that even at 38, Pippen can still play at a high level.
“I know when I line up against him, I’ve got to bring it every night,” Richardson says emphatically. “Regardless of what people who don’t play basketball think, I know what happens when I’ve got to play him. He’s one of the best defenders ever. He’s hard to go around and he’s just so smart.”
A self-made star, Pippen grew up the youngest of 12 children in the tiny rural town of Hamburg, Arkansas. He originally attended Central Arkansas University in the hopes of being the school’s football manager. However, he hit a growth spurt and became an NAIA All-American, averaging 17.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in 93 collegiate tilts.
At the 1987 NBA Draft, Pippen was picked fifth overall by the Seattle Supersonics and was immediately dealt to Chicago for the rights to fellow draftee Olden Polynice and two second-round picks, plus the option to exchange 1989 second-rounders.
Pippen backed up Brad Sellers during his Chicago rookie campaign, and then broke out the next season, almost doubling his scoring average to the tune of 14.4 points a night. From there, the sky was the limit for the lanky 6’8” swingman. Besides teaming with Jackson, Jordan, Paxson and Cartwright, to lead Chicago to three straight NBA titles in the early ‘90s, Pippen firmly established himself as one of the game’s elite. Twice, he captured Olympic gold as a member of the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic “Dream Teams.” He also is a three-time All-NBA First Team selection (1994-96), an eight-time member of the All-NBA Defensive Team (1992-99) and a two-time All-Defensive second team (1991, 2000) member as well. During the 1994-95 season—the year Jordan retired for the first time—Pippen became the first player since Hall-of-Famer Dave Cowens of Boston to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots.
“[Scottie’s] experience and leadership are what a young team such as ours needs more than anything,” says Bulls GM John Paxson.
“He had to work to become what he is,” Cartwright says. “He is a great example of what you can be from working. How do you prepare? How do you be professional in the NBA? How do you get to be a Scottie Pippen? That’s what our young guys will learn from him. Scottie’s a finished product. That’s what he brings.”
Pippen isn’t being counted on to be an iron man like Major League Baseball icon Cal Ripken was during his career. Ripken, if you remember, played a record 2,632 consecutive games spanning nearly 17 seasons for the Baltimore Orioles. In fact, Pippen’s not even being counted on to log more than 30 minutes a night. Last March, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and missed 17 of Portland’s last 19 games, as well as three playoff matches against Dallas in a hotly contested seven-game series. Both Paxson and Cartwright say they intend to limit his work load as best they can, especially early on.
“Some games Scottie may not play,” Paxson concedes. “Maybe we can rest him at the end of blowouts. We’ll watch him closely. But we’re confident that he’ll be fine.”
“Everything about Scottie is positive,” adds Cartwright. “But we’re going to have to be careful of how we handle him and his body. We don’t want to work him too hard in practice and during busy stretches, like four games in five nights. I can’t put an exact number of games and minutes per game. But if we can get at least 64 solid games out of him, I believe we will be greatly helped.”
The 2003-04 Chicago Bulls will need to work hard to become a serious playoff caliber team, but with the continued maturation of talented youngsters Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Marcus Fizer, Pippen’s addition to go with the likes of returning veterans Jalen Rose and last summer’s free agent pick-up, Donyell Marshall, bodes well for the future.
“The thing about the NBA now is that it is so young that you can never have too much experience, too much leadership and too much know-how out there on the floor in order to be successful,” says Rose. “To me, having Scottie Pippen out there is the next best thing to having Michael Jordan in his prime. I don’t see how other people see it, but that’s Scottie Pippen to me.
“He’s a guy who has won six rings; he’s one of the most versatile players of all time and is one of the top 50 players in NBA history. That’s not only somebody I respect to the highest, but he’s somebody I’m going to really enjoy playing with.”
As throwbacks go, Scottie Pippen is a proven classic. His style of play—and that of the Bulls throughout their history—has always been hard-nosed and blue collar. Diving onto the floor for a loose ball, smothering an opponent who dares attempt to bring the ball up court or flying down the lane on the break and finishing with flair have always been staples in Pippen’s game. Although the legs don’t move as easily or as quickly as they once did, his savvy from 16 campaigns as an NBA hardcourt warrior alone brings credibility back to a franchise in desperate need of success. Five straight seasons of losing big can chill one’s heart. With Pippen back in the fold, a sixth is not likely to occur.
“I know how to win games,” Pippen says with unyielding certainty. “It may sound simple, but both winning and losing can become a mind-set, and I won’t accept losing—ever. Whether it’s on the floor, in the huddle, at practice or just demonstrating a winning leadership, I plan on helping this team win.”
By Anthony Hyde