Owing to our belief that there can be only three true recent NBA icons -- the almighty, all-enduring troika of
In the case of Pippen, of course, the giant shadow of Jordan looms large. Would Scottie have ever won anything without Jordan? As for Malone, well, we all know what club he's in: the Great Players Who Never Won a Championship Club, no matter that it includes such luminaries as
So let's get it out of the way right now as the Hall honors Pippen and Malone, both singly and as part of the Dream Team, which enters en masse: They weren't perfect players. But they were very, very good, indisputable first-ballot honorees. (The fact that another Dream Teamer,
Pippen and Malone were country boys in a city game. Pippen grew up as the youngest of 12 in a poor family in Arkansas, Malone as the eighth of nine from a poor family in Louisiana. They were late bloomers, too, Malone a self-described "scrawny kid" who didn't get his Mr. Olympic body until he whipped it into shape later in life, Pippen an underrated high school player who didn't even earn a scholarship at Central Arkansas until he was a sophomore.
On the court, though, they were a study in contrasts. Pippen achieved his greatness with versatility, by doing a lot of things very, very well. Malone built his rep on endless repetition. He can be compared most easily to a tight end, a possession receiver who game after game, year after year, converted Stockton's half-court pick-and-roll passes and fast-break dishes into points. The Mailman finished with 36,928 career points, second all time behind
They were judged by different barometers, too. There was no one in the game like the multitalented, 6-foot-7 Pippen -- a crack defender, shooter, playmaker, rebounder -- so he was compared most often to his more celebrated teammate. And we know how
Malone, on the other hand, had a natural foil in
I watched Pippen and Malone grow up in the spotlight, the former's process of maturity being the more painful because it took place in the lit-by-a-1,000-suns universe surrounding Jordan. Early on, Michael treated Scottie (who had a boy's name and was two years Jordan's junior) rather like a little brother. I remember being in a locker room before a Chicago Bulls game in Philadelphia and trying to draw Pippen out on the subject of his superb athleticism. In his heart, Pippen must've believed he was a better athlete than Jordan (I said
Pippen always claimed that he was comfortable in the spotlight, that he always believed that, as he told me not long ago, "I was a really good player." But it took quite a while for him to grow into his role. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it came in Game 6 of the 1992 Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, when, at the beginning of the fourth period and the Bulls trailing 79-64,
It was later that summer that the world really saw how good Pippen was. With the Dream Teamers practicing and playing together for the better part of six weeks, culminating with the gold medal in Barcelona, a couple of things became clear. First, Jordan was twice as good as anyone else. Second, Barkley was a force of nature so large that he sometimes obscured even Jordan. Third, Pippen was the second-best all-around player in the world. True, Magic and Bird were near the end of their careers, but that doesn't change the reality of Pippen's jaw-dropping versatility.
By the time Pippen hung it up early in the 2003-04 season, I felt that Pippen was comfortable in his own skin, accepting of his role as Sundance to Jordan's Butch Cassidy, content in the knowledge that, yes, he needed Jordan, but Jordan needed him, too.
In one respect, Malone had it easier than Pippen. The Mailman's running mate, Stockton, was the anti-Jordan, a man who considered it a good day when no one noticed him, which was often the case. And if Pippen played in the Second City, how far down does one have to go to get to Salt Lake? Malone did make a little noise from time to time, pounded his chest about being underappreciated, and, for that matter, pounded an opponent or two, as when he opened up a 40-stitch gash on the forehead of a hated opponent,
At the same time, though, quiet, conservative Salt Lake was the perfect place for a country guy, even an African-American guy in a city that is more than 90 percent white. In a
The Mailman loved the fact that basketball superstardom gave him the independence to pursue his true loves of trucking, farming, timbering, cattle breeding, pro wrestling (surely you remember his 1998 "Bash at the Beach" against
Ultimately, though, that press conference got overshadowed, for it transpired days after
Remember that Pippen's career ended in frustration, too. He truly believed that he could win a championship with the Trail Blazers, show the world that he didn't need Jordan to do it. But in 2000, Portland's best chance at a title in Pippen's four-year tenure, the Lakers rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals en route to a three-peat. After an abbreviated and ill-advised 23-game comeback with the Bulls, Pippen hung it up, frustrated not to have won anything after management broke up the Bulls in '98.
But, look, it ends that way for almost everyone. Bird, racked with back pain, played for six title-less seasons after his Celtics won in '86. Magic was frustrated that he could never find his basketball mojo after the Dream Team experience. And, lest we forget, the last image (not the most enduring but the last) we have of Jordan is his struggling through two seasons as a Washington Wizard.
So as Scottie and the Mailman go into the Hall, let's think of what they meant to the game. For in what is recognized as a golden age of the NBA, the decade from the early '80s to the late '90s, the names of Pippen and Malone are near the top. Not as high as Jordan, Magic or Bird. But near the top ... and that is saying a lot.