Monday, November 1, 2004 Updated: May 31, 2:26 PM ET
Praising the other '33'
By Bill Simmons Page 2
Editor's Note: This article appears in the October 29th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Where you stand on Scottie Pippen depends on two questions: 1. Do you follow the NBA? I mean, do you really follow it? 2. Do you give up on anyone who has made even one stupid mistake in his life?
You don't define a career by one play that wasn't.
If the answer is "yes" for No. 1, you probably wonder why Scottie's recent retirement wasn't a bigger story. It's not every day one of the 20 greatest players ever hangs it up, right? Does MJ win six rings without him? Does anyone even consider the concept of a point forward? Did any other small forward affect a game in more ways? Was there a more influential defensive player in the past 30 years?
During the 1992 Olympics, Chuck Daly called Scottie his second-best player, describing him as the ultimate "fill-in-the-blanks guy." That's right. Like The Wolf in "Pulp Fiction," Scottie specialized in cleaning up everyone else's mess. When Magic was running amok in the 1991 Finals, Scottie shut him down. When the Knicks were shoving the Bulls around in the 1994 playoffs, Scottie dunked on Ewing, then stood over him defiantly. During the Charles Smith game the year before, Pippen and Horace Grant were the ones stuffing Smith again and again. And when the 1998 Pacers tried to snuff out the MJ era, Jordan and Pippen crashed the boards and willed themselves time and again to the foul line in Game 7, two smaller guys dominating the paint against a bigger team. They just wanted it more.
I always thought MJ and Scottie were like Crockett and Tubbs. Crockett got most of the attention, and deservedly so ... but he's still not taking Calderone down without Tubbs. Even better, Tubbs could carry his own episode every now and then, which was precisely what happened in 1994 during MJ's first sabbatical. Scottie (20.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 49% FG) came within a fishy foul on Hubert Davis from taking Chicago to the Finals. How did he not win the MVP award?
Pippen detractors conveniently forget that season, just like they ignore the older Scottie leading Portland to within one self-destructive quarter of the 2000 Finals, or gutting through the 1998 playoffs with two herniated disks, in the process jeopardizing his crack at free agency. It's easy to dismiss him as Jordan's sidekick. Or to point to the migraine in 1990's Game 7 against the Pistons. Hey, if all else fails, just bring up the quitter thing.
Which brings me to the second question ...
If you can hold you own on the original dream team, that should end the argument right there.
We all remember that Knicks series in 1994, when Scottie asked out of Game 3 because Phil Jackson called the final play for Toni Kukoc (who ended up sinking the game-winner with Pippen sulking on the bench). In the locker room after the game, Bill Cartwright, tears running down his face, screamed at Pippen, later calling it the biggest disappointment of his career. Jackson agreed.
But was it as bad as all that? Without MJ, Scottie carried the Bulls to 55 wins by himself. It was his team, and when it's your team, a mind-set takes hold: everything is on your shoulders, everyone is gunning for you, you can't take a night off. You're a pumped-up star of your own action movie. Unless you think like a superhero, you won't survive. Game 3 was Scottie's Jimmy Chitwood moment. He'd earned the right to say, "Coach, I'll make it." And Jackson took it away from him.
See, Scottie came from the dirt-poor streets of Arkansas, one of 12 siblings with an ailing father who couldn't work. He was a manager at Central Arkansas before an improbable growth spurt allowed his career to take off. Scottie's NBA stock skyrocketed before the 1987 draft, but GM Jerry Krause preyed on his naivete with a crummy six-year deal for short money, refusing to renegotiate even when Scottie emerged as an All-Star. Searching for security, Pippen
eschewed free agency to grab a long extension -- just as salaries were taking off -- playing his prime at a steep discount. To make matters worse, the Bulls courted Kukoc hard, paying Scottie only after Kukoc took a deal in Italy. Scottie never forgave them -- or Kukoc, for that matter. When these factors -- money, jealousy, insecurity, ego, competitiveness -- clashed, a single selfish moment was born, and it stained a career predicated on unselfishness.
Look, Scottie screwed up. He apologized. His team forgave him. He took an enormous amount of heat. And nothing like it ever happened again. I don't care about one mistake. I care about an exceptional athlete who redefined a position, a guy who allowed MJ to be MJ, a guy with enough rings for two hands. There has been no one like him before or since. I care about that. And those of you who are willing to let that Kukoc game overshadow such a unique career, well, maybe you should climb off your high horse before you get hurt.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.