In case you haven’t heard, Scottie Pippen — along with Karl Malone, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Bob Hurley Sr., Cynthia Cooper, Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson, and Maciel “Ubiratan” Pereira as well as the 1960 and 1992 U.S. Olympic teams — was selected for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2010.
Pippen’s selection wasn’t simply well-deserved, it was a no-brainer. After all, Scottie was the second-best player on six NBA championship teams over an eight-year period. And the best player on those teams happened to be the greatest ever. So although Pippen was and probably always will be best-known for playing second fiddle to Michael Jordan…that was still a pretty mean fiddle.
On the subject, it’s fitting that Pippen will become a Hall of Famer exactly one year after Jordan. Scottie spent most of his career as the Robin to Michael’s Batman. Not by choice. That was decided by fate, not to mention fans and a press corps that never fully appreciated what Pippen meant to the Chicago Bulls.
For sure, MJ was the foundation on which those six titles were built. But Scottie was like championship spackle. He filled all the holes. Scoring, rebounding, passing and especially defense. Pippen spent a full decade on the NBA All-Defensive First or Second Teams. But those are just numbers. The reality is, he was without question one of the best defensive players of his generation and probably of all-time.
Guarding Kevin McHale — who himself spent 12 seasons as Larry Bird’s second-in-command — was once described by then-Piston John Salley as “being in the man’s [torture] chamber.” Well, being defended by Scottie was like being in Pippen’s chamber. Just ask Magic Johnson, who got hounded almost to the point of distraction by Pippen in the 1991 NBA Finals. You could also ask Mark Jackson, who received 94 feet of pain from Scottie in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. When Pippen guarded you, it was like being locked in shackles, covered in crawling insects, and then set on fire.
In a word: Terrible.
Whenever Scottie comes up during conversation with my basketball buddies, I almost always harken back to one of my all-time favorite Chicago teams: The Pippen-led 1993-94 squad. That was the first year of Jordan’s first retirement, when Michael left the Bulls to play baseball (and, really, to escape the constant grind of pursuing NBA championships). Finally, Scottie got a chance to be the Batman.
All Pippen did was set career-highs in scoring (22.0 PPG), rebounding (8.7) and steals (2.9), not to mention Player Efficiency Rating (23.2). He also finished third (behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson) in MVP voting. But discussing stats, as impressive as they may seem, kind of undersells Pippen. He was a leader. He pumped up his teammates. Jordan led mostly by example and fear. But Bulls players, when they needed a pep talk or a little inspiration, went to Scottie. No less an expert than Phil Jackson said so.
At any rate, Scottie pushed the 1993-94 Bulls — who were forced to plug Pete Myers into the gaping hole left by Jordan — to 55 wins. That was only two fewer wins than the 1992-93 team, which featured an in-his-prime MJ and won a third straight championship. Think about that. The Bulls replaced Jordan with freaking Pete Myers and only dropped two more games. Who would have thought that was even possible?
Those 55 wins weren’t all Scottie. Due credit must be given to then-coach Phil Jackson and his amazing system, not to mention other players (most notably Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong and Toni Kukoc) picking up their games. But Pippen was the foundation of that team, and he proved more than up to the task.
That squad could have won the title. I’m being completely serious. It could have happened. As it was, the 1993-94 Bulls lost a hard-fought seven-game series to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. (Don’t even get me started about the officiating in that series, especially Game 5. I’m serious. Don’t get me started.) The Knicks went on lose their own hard-fought seven game series to the Houston Rockets in the 1994 Finals — thanks in no small part to an epic 2-for-18 shooting meltdown by John Starks — so it’s not a huge stretch to imagine the Bulls making it that far and prevailing.
Maybe they would have lost to the Rockets too. After all, Olajuwon destroyed Patrick Ewing in those Finals. What do you suppose he would have done to Chicago’s three-headed center monster of Bill Cartwright, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley? We’ll never know, but I’m guessing it would have been ugly.
That said, the 1993-94 Rockets didn’t have anybody who was going to stop Scottie Pippen. So…who knows? In the final analysis, the 1993-94 Bulls stand as a glowing example that Jordan — as great as he was — didn’t do it alone. A lot of people tend to overlook it, but Scottie almost led the Bulls to their fourth straight title without MJ. So, like I said, Pippen’s spot in the Hall of Fame is a no-brainer.
At any rate, I’m happy for Pip. He’s certainly earned a time to shine.
Note: Okay, it’s hard to bring up the 1993-94 Bulls and their playoff series against the Knicks without mentioning how Scottie refused to play the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 because Jackson didn’t write up the game-winning play for him. That incident capped off a season in which Pippen spent way too much time complaining about his salary and even made a rude hand gesture to Bulls fans for booing him. (Pip then compounded that last faux pas by claiming fans were booing him because he was black.)
Living in Jordan’s shadow — and being underpaid in part because of that and in part because Jerry Reinsdorf is frighteningly cheap — bothered Pippen a lot. And all too often his mini-rebellions made him look like a bratty malcontent. Which, at times, he was. But, in my opinion, those things shouldn’t diminish his contributions to the Bulls. After all, Jordan punched out Steve Kerr in practice. Oh, MJ also punched out Will Perdue. Since indicents like that haven’t hurt Michael’s legacy, then Pippen’s occasional outburts shouldn’t tarnish his.