It was still several hours before the Chicago Bulls were to play an exhibition game in Las Vegas, and in his room at Caesars Palace, rookie swingman Scottie Pippen positioned his 6'7" self squarely in the middle of the circular bed, then looked up at the mirror on the ceiling to see if it was really him up there, so high and mighty. Only a month earlier, Pippen had been spending some of his time in his hometown of Hamburg, Ark., which lies halfway between Mist and Old Milo—you can look it up—as the traveling salesman flies. Now here he was, unknown, untested and under his first mirrored ceiling, about to find out if it was possible to fit a square peg into a round bed. "I tried to take my picture lying in that bed," Pippen says sorrowfully, "but the flash made my face disappear."
A clear image of Pippen—who he is and where he came from—is just beginning to develop before our eyes, like a photograph from an instant camera. Pippen was an indistinct blur when he was chosen fifth in the NBA draft last June. He was so underexposed that when his name was announced, Reggie Williams of Georgetown, who was picked fourth, said, "I never even heard of Scottie Pippen until two weeks ago."
Basketball fans may soon be hearing about him regularly. The Bulls have purposely tried not to rush Pippen's development, though through last weekend he had played an average of 21.5 minutes in Chicago's first nine games. His scoring average was 8.6, and he was showing some good defensive moves, averaging nearly two steals per game. (Last season's leader, Alvin Robertson of San Antonio, averaged 3.2.) Pippen has spent most of his time subbing for Brad Sellers, who may be the league's first 7-foot small forward, but coach Doug Collins has also used Pippen, who did it all at the University of Central Arkansas, at both guard spots.
"It'll take him a while to get the Central Arkansas out of him," says Cotton Fitzsimmons, director of player personnel for the Phoenix Suns, "but he's going to be a very, very good player."
November 30, 1987
The transition from the NAIA competition at Central Arkansas—which Bulls assistant general manager Billy McKinney likens to "amateur night at the Y"—to the pros probably should have intimidated Pippen, especially considering that the first NBA game he ever saw in person was one he played in. But so far nothing he has seen seems to have left him overawed.
Jerry Krause, the Bulls vice-president for basketball operations, says Pippen is "not afraid of anybody in the NBA because he doesn't know who most of these guys are." In fact, when Krause complimented Pippen on the defensive job he had just done in one of last spring's college all-star games, Pippen seemed blasè. "I guess guys who play on national TV get a lot of publicity," he says. "I was expecting more from them."
Pippen was similarly unmoved after being assigned to guard Michael Jordan in one of his first practices with the Bulls. "He's a good player and all," Pippen said when the workout was over and he had done just fine, "but I didn't feel there was anything he could do to me that he hadn't already done to somebody else."
Pippen isn't doing anything now that he hasn't already done to somebody else, but he did it in such obscurity that hardly anybody ever knew. The one person who did was Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting. During Pippen's senior season at Central Arkansas, Blake tried getting the word out. "I advised as many teams as I could to go see him play," Blake says, "but when you're dealing with a player they've never heard of from a small college, the trick is to make people believe that he's bona fide. Some believe, and some don't."
When Blake called Chicago last February, Pippen was "just another name on a list to me," Krause says. But Blake had discovered forward Dennis Rodman performing in anonymity at Southeastern Oklahoma State, another NAIA school, and Rodman turned out to be one of the top rookies in the league last year, playing for Detroit. Though scouts—even ones as successful as Blake—are forever claiming to have discovered the next Magic Johnson playing in a church league in the Amish country, Krause was impressed. He thought he heard an edge in Blake's voice and decided to dispatch McKinney to Conway, where Central Arkansas is located, to watch Pippen go against Henderson State.
Officals at Central Arkansas had been told that Blake was urging all NBA teams to see Pippen play that night. "The people in Conway were expecting this horde of people from the pros," McKinney says. But the invasion never materialized; McKinney was the only scout to show up.
McKinney was intrigued by Pippen's performance—29 points, 14 rebounds and 5 steals—but felt it raised more questions about how good he was than it answered. "Billy called the next day and said it looked like Scottie could be a high second-round pick," Krause says. "But it was hard to tell what he was because the competition was so awful." One thing McKinney could see, though, was that Pippen was a player. And that in itself was something of a miracle, because when Pippen enrolled at Central Arkansas in 1983 he expected to be the manager.
Scottie, the youngest of 12 children born to Preston and Ethel Pippen over a span of 24 years, grew up on the playgrounds of Hamburg (pop. 3,394) where he and his brothers frequently held court for hours as a team. His father spent most of his life working long shifts in a paper mill, until one day seven years ago he came home and suffered a massive stroke. Confined to a wheelchair since then, Preston never saw Scottie play basketball until he watched a videotape of a Bulls' game.
And for a good while hardly anyone else saw him play. Pippen got so little court time as a sophomore at Hamburg High that he decided before his junior year to skip the basketball team's off-season conditioning program and serve as manager of the football team. "I was responsible for taking care of the equipment, jerseys, stuff like that," he says. "I always enjoyed doing that, just being a regular manager."
Pippen was discouraged that at 15 he was still no taller than his mother, although she's a solidly built 6-footer. "Everyone in our family is tall," Pippen says. "Being the size I was then, I didn't have any big plans for basketball." Because the football and basketball seasons overlapped, Pippen missed conditioning drills, and the basketball coach, Donald Wayne, was not going to let him play. Eventually Wayne changed his mind only because the players voted that Pippen should be allowed back. Pippen was rarely allowed off the bench the rest of his junior season, but by his senior year he was Hamburg's starting point guard. At 6'1½" and 150 pounds, however, the excitement he generated among college recruiters was less than zero. If Wayne hadn't recommended Pippen to Central Arkansas coach Don Dyer as a walk-on prospect, Pippen might well have ended up working in a mill, like his father and brothers before him.
"I wasn't really that interested in playing," Pippen says. "I had gone through some hard times not playing in high school, but my coach had it in his mind that basketball was the way I would get an education." Dyer helped Pippen get a Basic Education Opportunity Grant so he could attend school, and then he set him to work as the Bears' manager. Pippen had grown to 6'3" by the time school opened, so Dyer also allowed him to practice with the team, and Pippen quickly proved himself worthy of a spot on the Central Arkansas roster. By his sophomore season he was 6'5" and the best player among the Bears. "He had a point-guard mentality, and we used him to bring the ball up the floor against the press," says Dyer. "But I also played him at forward, center, all over the floor."
Pippen majored in industrial education, figuring he would begin a career in factory management when he finished school. But after spending two summers working in furniture plants, he dedicated himself to basketball more than ever. He averaged 23.6 points, 10 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game his senior season, while shooting 59% from the field and 58% from three-point range. Blake first heard of Pippen during the '84-85 season from one of the many coaching contacts he has around the country. Two years later he saw to it that Pippen was invited to Portsmouth, Va., for a series of postseason showcase games that are conducted each year, largely for the benefit of pro scouts. Krause, who in his days as director of scouting for the Bullets had spotted, among others, Jerry Sloan out of Evansville College and Earl Monroe from Winston-Salem, had still seen Pippen play only on videotape. "When I saw Scottie at Portsmouth, that shook me up real good," Krause says.
Pippen played so well he was named to the all-tournament team, and that got him invited to another all-star affair in Hawaii, where the competition was even stiffer. This time Pippen not only made the all-tournament team, he won the dunking contest. By now, Krause was dying inside: The Bulls had two first-round draft picks—the eighth and the 10th—and at first he had figured that Pippen would still be available when the second of those selections came around. "We wanted to try to sneak him past people," says McKinney, "but you can't hide a guy with that kind of ability."
In his three years of running the Bulls, Krause has gained a reputation for making controversial first-round picks. He had been operating the club for only two months when in 1985 he traded first-round picks with Cleveland and came up with another small-college player most people had never heard of, Charles Oakley of Virginia Union. Chicago fans were surprised, but Oakley finished second in the league in rebounding in 1986-87. Through the first two weeks of this season he was No. 1, averaging 16.6 per game. Krause was also pilloried after the '86 draft for taking Sellers of Ohio State ahead of Duke's Johnny Dawkins. Then came last spring. "About a month before the draft, I told my wife, "Honey, get ready because it's going to happen again,' " Krause says. He was determined to draft Pippen, but first he had to sell the idea to his coach.
"When Jerry and I talked to Doug, he was skeptical," says McKinney. So Krause put together highlight videos of all the players from the all-star games in Hawaii whom the Bulls were considering, gave Collins and his assistants a roster with names, numbers, heights, weights and schools but no definitive background information on it, and let them see for themselves. "After they came out," Krause says, "I asked them if there were any questions, and the first thing out of their mouths was, 'Who the hell is Scottie Pippen?' " They soon found out when they flew Pippen to Chicago for a day and a half of interviews before the draft.
At 2:30 a.m. on June 22, 10½ hours before the draft began, the Bulls, now impressed by Pippen's personality as well as his talent, completed a deal with Seattle. The Sonics would draft Pippen with the fifth pick, if he were available, and trade him to the Bulls in exchange for Olden Polynice, the former Virginia center, whom Chicago would take with the eighth choice. Pippen was available and in the space of just six weeks, he had gone from an unknown to a first-rounder who would sign a contract reportedly worth more than $5 million, including incentives, over the next six years.
"It's a blessing that he's playing with Michael Jordan, because that will remove the pressure that goes with being a high draft choice," says New Jersey Nets director of player personnel Al Menendez. "People are going to be so busy watching Jordan that nobody is really going to notice his mistakes."
In time, Pippen may even get his own flash working, and when that happens, he and Jordan could make a lot of defenders disappear. And they won't be doing it with mirrors.