MJ may not have won without Pippen

Updated: October 5, 2004, 7:11 PM ET
By Sam Smith | Special to ESPN.com

Scottie Pippen may have been the most significant figure in the history of the NBA.

Nah, lots of guys refuse to go into games. Heck, Carmelo Anthony made the Olympic team after he did it last season. At least Pippen didn't have the gall to do it as a rookie.

Scottie Pippen
Scottie Pippen's career is defined by more than numbers.
No, Scottie Pippen enabled Michael Jordan to be a champion.

You say you see it the other way around, that Pippen rode Jordan's coattails, or at least his Air Jordans, that Jordan's greatness enabled Pippen to play for six championship teams, to be named among the top 50 players of all time in the vote in the late 1990s, to become a probable Hall of Famer in 2009.

That's when Pippen will be eligible after officially announcing his retirement Tuesday from the NBA.

It was a sedate ending Tuesday at the Chicago Bulls' Berto training center in Deerfield, Ill. No press conference, though there'll be one and a jersey retirement ceremony, but maybe not for another season or two.

"I don't really have any regrets," said Pippen in a brief session set up for local media.

No Tom Brokaw, like at Michael Jordan's retirement announcement. Pippen did, however, say he was 100 percent sure he wouldn't return, going one tenth of one percent up on Jordan.

See, he could offer one higher percentage than Jordan.

"I think I learned a lot from a lot of experiences that I dealt with over my career," said Pippen. "Everything was a lesson learned and a step forward for me. I knew one day that this day would come. It's a tough day for me, but I also understand the game of basketball has been so great for me for so long. I'll miss the competitive side and the camaraderie of being around the players and competing each and every day. That's the side of me that's going to be the hardest thing to deal with. As for my next career, I haven't decided yet. I want to take some time away from the game, even though I'll be here helping with some of the young players as much as possible. I will be watching the game from afar."

For now, not that far. Pippen said he'll be around the Bulls through training camp and will live at his Chicago home this winter. Since Pippen also owns a home in Ft. Lauderdale, it seems his decision making off the basketball court remains in question. He'll be paid by the Bulls the full $5.4 million on his contract, very little of which he earned this time around.

So Pippen's return to the franchise where he attained glory wasn't bittersweet. It was just bitter.

He was unable to play because his body wore out after more than 1,300 NBA games. He was a winner, like him or not, though he often was a headache. His 208 playoff games and more than 8,000 minutes rank second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He's the all-time playoff leader in steals and second in three-pointers made and among the top 10 in field-goal attempts, free throws and assists.

All Jordan, you say. Anyone playing the Robin role would have tallied enough to make the record books with Jordan dragging him and everyone else along to his own destiny.

Or perhaps not.

And it's not just the championships, which Pippen didn't win without Jordan. Though Pippen came a lot closer without Jordan than Jordan did without Pippen.

Now before you get too upset, don't misunderstand.

Just as Dan Quayle was no John Kennedy, Scottie Pippen is no Michael Jordan. Jordan has to be considered among the greatest to play the game. It would be hard to find a place for Pippen in the top 20, though mostly because Pippen didn't have the skills the public and media demands for an elite star -- scoring ability and individual highlight dominance. Pippen had different, more subtle greatness -- supporting greatness, if you will.

It was Jordan who first minted the expression that has created the caste system for players: My supporting cast.

Pippen was the ultimate supporting player, the perfect complement.

He didn't always appreciate it or embrace it, at least off the court, where his relationship with Jordan was one of awe, jealousy and resentment. Even Tuesday, Pippen talked about playing with "one of the greatest players to ever play the game." He never could join the No. 1 chorus for Jordan. He wanted to be like Mike, like everyone else. It was tougher to take when you were that close, though it was clear you'd never get there.

Pippen tried that one season in 1993-94, when Jordan left the NBA for the first time, and he was close at times, but not quite up to it. He was the All-Star Game MVP and led the Bulls to 55 wins, only two fewer than in Jordan's first final season. Who knows how far the Bulls would have gone against perhaps the weakness champion ever, the role player-loaded 1994 Houston Rockets.

A late foul call against Pippen in the second-round series against the Knicks, one still fresh to Bulls fans and long conceded by NBA insiders to be erroneous, likely cost the Bulls the series against the Eastern Conference champion Knicks. Phil Jackson often called that season his most satisfying with the Bulls. They all showed they could win without Jordan. And they liked the feeling. But Pippen also had trouble holding it together under the strain and demands.

Earlier in the season, Pippen melted down during a loss to the Clippers, when he was ejected and tossed courtside chairs onto the court. He spoke repeatedly about wanting to be traded, and that was the playoffs of the infamous 1.8-second departure when Pippen refused to enter the game because the last play was called for Toni Kukoc.

Kukoc hit the shot to get the Bulls out of an 0-2 hole and to that fateful fifth game, which should have ended in a 3-2 lead going home. But many never forgot the moment that branded Pippen a quitter to many.

So it wasn't such an emotional return when Pippen re-signed with the Bulls last summer. Many in Chicago never forgot that disappearing act, and the one after the 1998 season when Pippen forced himself out and aided the team's breakup. Pippen wasn't able to play. The Bulls' young players virtually ignored him and often mocked him for his vain attempts to instruct while sitting around and earning more than most of them. Then it was clear it was over.

Though Pippen suggested several times last season that it would be his last time in certain arenas, there was no farewell tour and no sentimental fans. Pippen's uncertainty seemed to be to make sure he was paid his final season with the Bulls in 2004-05. And so he will be and the team finally will wave goodbye to this perplexing man.

Some of the biggest moments in team history were Pippen transgressions, like his migrane headache in Game 7 of the 1990 conference finals, his 1.8-second leave, an arrest for gun possession (dropped), rages against management. He was hard to figure out, and perhaps the most remarkable story in a league filled with them, with poverty and hardship almost a rite of passage for pro basketball.

Pippen wasn't even a scholarship player until after he got to little Central Arkansas U. As a freshman, he was a team manager, handing out towels to players who didn't even dream about playing in the NBA. Perhaps it was that environment that toughened Pippen so much he was able not only to deal with criticism and condemnation that would have crippled most other athletes, but he was able to excel in the NBA alongside its greatest star.

Pippen did what Jordan couldn't, or wouldn't. Pippen usually guarded the toughest offensive player, enabling Jordan to freelance in the lanes for steals and the fast break that broke most teams. While most regard those champion Bulls for Jordan, it was their aggressive defense that produced its offense and created the fear.

When the Bulls won their first championship in 1991, it was Pippen guarding Magic Johnson and creating so much havoc for the Lakers. It was Pippen who directed the triangle offense, enabling Jordan to get in position on the wing to attack the defense. It was Pippen who was the good teammate. Steve Kerr used to say how Pippen not only would get you the good shot, Pippen knew when you were slumping or hadn't had a shot in a while and he'd work the offense to get you a good shot to get going. It was Pippen who was the more favored teammate.

Pippen wasn't a very good shooter, and as Jackson knew in that 1994 playoff game, not great at getting his own shot -- one of the major measurements of individual greatness.

Pippen, instead, was a great teammate, a great role player. He scored when he could, four times at more than 20 points per game. He defended always, eight straight times making the all-NBA defensive first team, winning two Olympic gold medals, seven times an all-NBA player.

There aren't supposed to be superstar role players, but Pippen was one. One definition of greatness is making other players better, and Pippen did that.

Though no one really wants that to be all. Everyone, even Scottie, wants to be the hero. He tried and wasn't quite up to it. He came closer in 2000 than Jordan ever did to that No. 7, but Pippen had to leave it to Rasheed Wallace, who also was never up to individual greatness. And Pippen began to fade from there, his back and knee problems finally catching up.

No, Pippen may never have had a title without Jordan. But there's a good chance Jordan would never have had a title without Pippen. And what would NBA history be like then?

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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