If Scottie Pippen cries during his Hall of Fame induction speech on Friday, don't be surprised. This is the end of his career. He always cries at the end of his career.
The first time it ended was in 1987. Pippen's Central Arkansas team had just lost 88-87 to Harding in the NAIA District 17 Tournament, and Pippen was pretty sure he had played the last meaningful basketball game of his life.
But, hey, it had been a heck of a run, far better than anybody else expected. He started college as a team manager and walked on to become a three-year starter. To the surprise of some of his teammates, Pippen got invited to NBA predraft camps in Honolulu, Chicago and Portsmouth, Va. At one camp, he won a dunk contest and came home to Arkansas with a big prize: a brand new boombox. But he also told his childhood friend and Central Arkansas teammate, Ronnie Martin, that he had realized something at those camps: He was good enough to play in the NBA.
"He said, 'Ron, I'm going to get drafted. I'm going to be in the top 10. I can play with the rest of them,' " Martin said this week. "I didn't believe it."
Pippen would become the fifth pick in the 1987 draft and go on to win six championships with the Bulls. He became one of the greatest players of his generation. It seems obvious that the Scottie Pippen we remember was not the same player who couldn't even get an NAIA scholarship out of high school. But in a way, he was.
When Pippen is inducted to the Hall of Fame, it will conclude one of the most unlikely and remarkable success stories in the history of American sports. People often tell the story of how his teammate Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and went on to become the greatest player ever. Well, compared to Pippen, Jordan was a child star. Compared to Pippen, LeBron James and Michael Jackson and Shirley Temple wrapped into one.
Pippen couldn't get a sniff from Arkansas. I don't mean the University of Arkansas. I mean the whole state of Arkansas. Arkansas-Monticello didn't want him. Neither did Southern Arkansas. Pippen's high school coach, DonaldWayne, called one of his old coaches, Don Dyer, who was at Central Arkansas. As Dyer recalled this week, Wayne said: "I've got a young man, I don't know if he can play or not, but I'd like for you to look at him." As a favor to Wayne, Dyer helped Pippen get a Pell Grant and a work-study job as a manager for the basketball team. And based on multiple accounts, the deal was not brokered by Worldwide Wes.
That October, another player left the team, opening up a scholarship for Pippen. What happened next still amazes Dyer, even 30 years later. Dyer gave each of his players a 3-by-5 index card and asked them to write their athletic and academic goals on it. Freshman Scottie Pippen wrote that he wanted to play in the NBA.
Pippen was the youngest of 11 children. His father was on disability and his mother didn't have a job. For a boy like that, all dreams are big dreams.
Pippen was barely 6 feet tall. He did not dunk in a game until his senior year in high school. But there were two things that stood out about him, subtle things, things that nobody noticed unless they watched closely. One was that he always wanted to guard the opponent's best player, even in high school. That seemed to matter more to him than scoring. And the other thing was that he would play forever, play hard.
"The only thing we did was play basketball," Martin said. "We used to do it all the way up to 12 o'clock at night. As far as hanging out, we didn't do a lot of that."
Pippen got lucky: He eventually grew to 6-foot-8.
His sophomore year at Central Arkansas, he was the best player on the team. Martin remembers him as a point guard, but Pippen is listed in the Central Arkansas media guide as the starting center for three years. The truth is that he was both. He guarded the opponent's best player, no matter the position.
Then, of course, he got drafted, became Jordan's sidekick, and as Dyer said, "The more famous he got, the less he called. But I could see his development and was really proud of him." He says it without any bitterness or disappointment. ("Since he's retired, he's more gracious, he's more appreciative to people who have helped him.") Scottie Pippen had gone from nothing to international fame. Dyer had no idea how he could handle it.
And yet, he was still the same guy. He worked out in the weight room like a madman. He would stay after practice until he made 100 free throws and 1,000 jumpers. And in a league where the best players are often accused (sometimes unfairly) of not being hungry enough, Pippen's mistakes were often the result of wanting too much. When Jordan briefly retired in the mid-'90s, Pippen famously refused to re-enter a playoff game against the Knicks when the game-deciding play was drawn up for somebody else. The stress of a crucial playoff game gave him migraines.
He became one of the great defensive weapons in league history, guarding everybody, from point guards to power forwards. Offensively, he could score in many ways but didn't look to score much at all. People said he was the ultimate complementary player. But Scottie Pippen was still the same guy who barely made an NAIA team and had his eyes on the NBA. He still wanted more.
When Pippen arrived in Houston in the winter of 1999, he had one thing left to prove. He had won NBA championships. He had won Olympic gold medals. He had been an All-Star many times. He had even been an MVP candidate, back in 1994, when Jordan was playing baseball. But there were still doubts that he could lead a true contender.
So he went to the Rockets, with Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon, and this was his chance. The Rockets wanted him to be the star. He wanted desperately to be the star.
And he couldn't do it.
He was still the kid from Hamburg, Ark. He was still the guy who wanted to defend the other team's best player, who expected to help everybody else score, who needed to work harder than the rest of the team in order to feel confident. He didn't seem to want to admit any of that -- even today, he might not admit it. But it was true. After a year in Houston, Pippen got shipped off to a loaded Portland team, where he could be himself again. He nearly won his seventh title there, but the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers beat him.
Shaq. Kobe. LeBron, Carmelo, Dominique, Isiah. They were typical NBA superstars (if there is such a thing), guys whose superstar talent was obvious from a young age, but who had to fill out the rest of their games. Kobe had to learn to be a good teammate. LeBron had to learn to play defense. Allen Iverson ... well, Iverson had a lot to learn, and he never really learned it.
Scottie Pippen was different. He mastered all the little skills first, when nobody was paying attention, then tried to prove he was a superstar at the end. He never quite finished filling out the picture. But he came damn close.