Commentary

MJ's year off gave Pip time to shine

Want proof that Scottie Pippen is an all-time great? Look at the 1993-94 season

Updated: August 31, 2010, 4:07 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

"All I know," joked Scottie Pippen the night of Oct. 28, 1993, "is I'm getting his locker. It's the greatest promotion I've ever had."

And as he started moving into the famous double stall in the Bulls' locker room, a future Hall of Famer began to emerge.

"Michael, I love you," Pippen called out to no one in particular, "but I'm glad to see you go."

No one who witnessed the scene could have thought for a moment that Pippen was glad the team was losing Michael Jordan's many basketball gifts. But he was clearly glad to find out where he finally stood as the Bulls' leader and one of the top players in the NBA without Jordan's shadow looming over him.

Like the little brother standing on the driveway as the big brother goes off to college, Pippen would miss Jordan. But he would also grow, in the most public and often painful fashion, like no other time in his career.

[+] EnlargeScottie Pippen
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesScottie Pippen finished third in MVP voting during the only full season he played in Chicago without Michael Jordan.

After an early 10-day stay on the injured list rehabbing his ankle that 1993-94 season, Pippen led the Bulls to 30 victories in 35 games leading up to the All-Star break. But it was not by imposing his scoring skills on the rest of his team. Much to the contrary, Pippen, like no superstar had done quite so effectively since Magic Johnson in his heyday, truly made his teammates better.

Yes, he would lead the Bulls in scoring when he had to -- his 29 points in a 132-113 November rout of Phoenix were a stirring display of his offensive abilities. "It became obvious then," Steve Kerr would say later, "that Scottie was the center of our team, that it revolved around him."

But there was B.J. Armstrong scoring in the 20s and Bill Wennington, Horace Grant, Scott Williams and even Jordan's replacement, Pete Myers, sharing nightly scoring honors while Pippen, his basketball IQ never more evident, averaged a brilliantly complete 22 points (on 49 percent shooting), 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals per game.

His defense was perhaps most impressive of all. No longer able to cherry-pick errant passes forced by Jordan's gambling ways, when the two formed one of the most imposing defensive tandems in league history, Pippen relied more than ever on his speed, range and guile.

And yet all the guile in the world could not keep him from controversy. That same season in which he was at his very best on the court also revealed some of his very worst judgment off of it.

Like Jordan before him, Pippen enjoyed pushing GM Jerry Krause's numerous buttons, but never quite got away with it as easily as Jordan did. Likewise, Pippen's place in the public eye was an uneasy one, exacerbated by an arrest in January of that season for having a loaded gun in plain view in his car.

[+] EnlargeScottie Pippen and Michael Jordan
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesPippen will go down as one of the greatest second fiddles in sports history.

Those charges were later dropped because of an illegal search, not that Pippen ever denied having the gun. He apologized for his bad decision as the mayor of Chicago publicly criticized him.

The next month, after a loss to Cleveland during which the home fans booed him, Pippen expressed apparently simmering frustration by saying he had never seen a white player booed by Bulls fans.

And then there was the 1.8-second incident.

It was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls down 2-0, another in a series of brutal battles with the New York Knicks, when Pippen notoriously refused to re-enter the game with 1.8 seconds left in regulation after a play was drawn up calling for Toni Kukoc to take the last shot.

Kukoc would hit the game winner but never would a playoff victory cause such angst in the winning locker room. So angry was Bulls center Bill Cartwright that he was brought to tears in a postgame lecture that left Pippen shaken and apologetic.

Pippen would later explain himself by saying that he only wanted to be an option with such an important game on the line.

"It's like, when we lose, everything is on me," he tried to explain to me as I was collecting information for my book "Transition Game." "So just give me a chance to answer to that."

If ever Pippen had to perform under pressure, it was in Game 4, and he responded by leading the Bulls to a 95-83 victory in their finest defensive performance of the postseason, finishing with 25 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and just a single turnover.

"When Michael left, I looked at it as a challenge right away," Pippen told me years ago. "I definitely knew it would be fun for me."

I looked at him funny. Fun?

"It was fun, though," he said. "No matter what happened. The statements I made, me being caught with a gun, me not going back into the game. I was still able to enjoy it. I know how that sounds, but it's true."

No reason not to believe him. The Bulls would lose in the second round of the playoffs that year as well as the season after, the only two blips in a stretch that would include six NBA titles. And yet for Pippen, 1993-94 was instrumental, even magical in many ways as he explored his potential, his true superstardom, for seemingly the first time. It really was fun.

He was the MVP of the NBA All-Star Game that year and if not for his off-court transgressions, could have been MVP of the league (instead it was Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon). Pippen finished third behind David Robinson.

But then he was used to that.

It's impossible, even on the day the skinny kid from Hamburg, Ark., is enshrined among basketball's immortals, to mention Scottie Pippen without Michael Jordan, who will present his longtime teammate in the ceremonies Friday night.

The two were never better than when Jordan returned. But more than that, they were never more appreciative of each other.

For the Christmas of '97, Pippen had an earring made for Jordan -- a diamond-encrusted replica of the NBA championship trophy. Jordan, who had planned to give Pippen a box of cigars, reconsidered and instead gave him his red Ferrari, which Pippen had long admired.

"He wanted it so bad," said Jordan.

It wasn't a double locker, but it would do.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. Her 1994 book "Transition Game" covered the Bulls in the season following Michael Jordan's retirement.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.