What New York Knick coach Pat Riley might call a "defining moment" occurred for Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls in the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Chicago Stadium on May 29. Pippen dribbled downcourt in his signature full-throttle glide, leaped high and unleashed a ferocious tomahawk dunk over Knick guard John Starks, who stumbled and fell to the floor. As Pippen trotted back upcourt, he glanced at Starks ever so briefly, with a wholly uninterested look, as if to say, "Oh, were you there? Didn't see you, man."
Pippen has long been capable of such supreme athleticism, as well as such supreme arrogance—after all, why shouldn't a guy with a Roman nose carry himself like a Roman emperor? But in the series against the Knicks, both Pippen's athleticism and his arrogance were backed by rugged resolution. Throughout the entertaining Eastern scrum, which ended last Friday night in Chicago with a 96-88 Bull victory in Game 6, Pippen and Michael Jordan were like pop-ups in an arcade game: Slam one down with a rubber hammer and the other springs up.
It was not surprising that Jordan was able to pick up Pippen, of course; such acts are part of Superman's daily agenda. But it was intriguing to see Pippen step into the temporary vacuums left by the sometimes physically exhausted and mentally overburdened Jordan (page 13). For the first time in Chicago's three successive marches into the NBA Finals, in fact, a Bull other than Jordan would have deserved to be named MVP in a playoff series, were such an honor awarded for a series other than the Finals.
The spotlight will inevitably be trained on Jordan and his superstar counterpart, Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns, in the 1993 NBA Finals, which began in Phoenix on Wednesday. But if Jordan's shaky shooting continues—a career 52% shooter, he made only 40% of his shots against the Knicks—Pippen's number will be called, again and again.
June 13, 1993
During the decisive Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, for example, it was not Jordan who made the big second-half shots but Pippen, he of the supposedly crumbling-cookie composure. When the Knicks, having almost eliminated a seven-point deficit, threatened to steal the game late in the fourth period, two Pippen jumpers with the shot clock almost at zero bailed out the Bulls. The first came from the deep right corner just after Pippen had flashed a smirk at Knick superfan Spike Lee, sitting at courtside. The second, a three-pointer from beyond the top of the key, was followed by Pippen's raising his index finger and glancing at Starks with another Were you there? expression on his face. Boy, the Knicks must've felt like killing Pippen.
Then again, that was precisely their strategy as the series began. And it will most likely be the plan employed by the Suns, though not as overtly. Look for Phoenix guard Dan Majerle, among others, to bang Pippen around physically, and look for the Suns' suddenly feisty point guard Kevin Johnson to get in Pippen's face a time or two. "It's no secret," says Bull coach Phil Jackson. "So goes Scottie Pippen, so goes Chicago." Nothing like a little pressure, eh, Pip?
The strategic rationale for getting tough, both physically and psychologically, with Pippen is this: Jordan must almost always be watched by two and, sometimes, three defenders. It is therefore impossible to double up on Pippen. But if one defender can shut him down, the Bulls might well go down too. But the underlying reason is this: Many teams still believe that when subjected to constant physical and mental duress, Pippen will crack like a walnut. So sure were the Knicks of this that soft-spoken forward Charles Smith, who was matched against Pippen much of the series, attempted to reinvent himself as a heavy—talking trash, throwing elbows, bumping chests, ignoring pregame handshakes and affecting a kind of sneer normally displayed only by teammate Anthony Mason. (Memo to Smith: Madonna could walk around in a nun's habit, but that doesn't mean we should call her Sister.) Smith's posturing made it particularly delicious for Pippen when he blocked the final two of Smith's four futile shots from point-blank range in the waning seconds of the Bulls' 97-94 win in Game 5. That victory, in New York, took the home court edge from the Knicks and turned the series Chicago's way.
Does Pippen, a Dream Teamer and a three-time All-Star, still warrant this no-respect approach? One of the first questions he was asked following his superb performance (24 points, seven assists, six rebounds) in Game 6 was this: "Scottie, do you think this was the series when you finally proved yourself?" Pippen took a deep, resigned breath and said, "I have two [championship] rings. I don't think I have anything to prove."
Whether he likes it or not, the yardstick against which Pippen will always be measured is Jordan, and in most cases, Pippen will be found wanting. His dilemma is nothing new, of course. Christopher Marlowe wrote some pretty good plays, but it was that Shakespeare fellow who got most of the attention in Elizabethan England. Closer to home was the situation of the Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale—no matter what he did, no matter how he did it, he could not be Larry Bird.
The difference betwen McHale and Pippen, though, is that the loquacious McHale seemed to enjoy his status. He was quite comfortable extolling his teammate's virtues, to the point of playing oral hagiographer, reciting the accomplishments of St. Larry to an eager press and public. That's not Pippen. There are many occasions, when the subject is Jordan, on which Pippen's pique rises suddenly to the surface. On Jan. 16, for example, when Pippen was asked about Jordan's 64-point explosion in a 128-124 overtime loss that night to the Orlando Magic in Chicago, he just pointed to this stat: Jordan, 49 shots. After Jordan's 54-point gem in Game 4 of the Eastern finals, Pippen said, "Michael had a hot hand, but when that happens, there's a lot of isolation, and it allowed New York to get back into the game. It's not that we don't want him to get his points, but it makes it tough for others to step up when they need to."
It doesn't matter that Pippen happens to be correct. Such sentiments come out sounding like a bad brew of sour grapes. That feeling is further fueled by the fact that Jordan is sparse in praise of Pippen and, privately, has often expressed reservations about Pippen's toughness. Perhaps if Zeus overpraised his subjects, he wouldn't be Zeus.
Pippen and good buddy Horace Grant, the Bulls' starter at power forward, used to be united in their feelings about their subservient roles as planets revolving around the Jordan sun. But their friendship has diminished somewhat over the years, and it was severely tested when an article featuring the begoggled Grant in the April issue of Inside Sports included this tasty nugget from Grant: "To be honest, Scottie has become arrogant and cocky, but that's to be expected of people who can't handle fame and fortune." Whew! Grant's utterances were made during the preseason, when he was extremely upset over what he perceived to be preferential treatment given to Jordan and Pippen after their triumphant Olympic summer in Barcelona. His anger subsided as the season progressed. But that doesn't mean the comments didn't wound Pippen.
"Horace told me he said that stuff a long time before," says Pippen. "And I said, 'Yeah, but you still said it, so evidently you meant it.' It hurt. I won't say it didn't. I think it was a combination of a lot of things—frustration, maybe misinterpreting me a little bit and confusion over our friendship changing. Things aren't the same as when we were young and it was Scottie and Horace, Horace and Scottie. We've outgrown that, and we both had to realize it. The important thing is that we're still good friends and that we play well together."
The two have also continued a miniritual before the start of each game. Grant walks to the basket nearest the Bull bench, and Pippen follows a few seconds later. They grip each other's arms and trade inspirational clichès about "playing hard" and "getting it going right away," and then they break. It's touching in its simplicity.
In reality the Bulls, as all championship teams must, have reached the point where they are not only able to overcome personal off-the-court distractions but also to thrive on them. (The tempest created last week by the book Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction...My Cry for Help! is only the latest example.) No one knows to what extent the green-eyed monster bothers Pippen when he puts his head down at night, but on the court it bothers him not a whit. Not anymore. There are times when Jordan and Pippen seem to be playing alone out there, slinking into the passing lanes, tipping the ball to each other, running, dunking, gliding in an athletic pas de deux somewhere in the rafters.
Yes, Jordan still comes out far ahead of Pippen as a player, and any attempt to flip-flop their importance to the Bulls is absurd. Pippen is a fine perimeter shooter with as pure a ball rotation as anyone in the game, but Jordan is a great shooter because of his indomitable will to score. Pippen, long of both arm and leg, is a terrific on-the-ball defender, but Jordan is as good a defensive player as anyone who has ever played the game. Pippen's passing gets steadily better, but he does not see the floor nearly as well as Jordan, who dishes almost as well as he drives.
But Pippen's steadiness against the Knicks' pressure defense demands that he be recognized for fulfilling his ball-handling duties, which are far more numerous than Jordan's. Remember the discussion a few years ago about Jordan's having to play point guard because the Bulls did not have a penetrator at that position? It turned out that a true point man was there all the time, but Pippen's talents were hidden by his lack of confidence. "Nobody knows how hard I worked alone on dribbling and just feeling the ball in my hands," says Pippen. Only when Pippen finally proved he could orchestrate both the half-court offense and the fast break did the Bulls become champions.
On Saturday, Pippen talked at length about playing the role of Garfunkel to Jordan's Simon. Perhaps his feelings were colored by the joy of the previous night's victory and the personal satisfaction he got from sticking it to the Knicks. But the evidence suggests that Pippen has come to terms with playing in the shadow of Chicago's guiding light.
"I honestly don't know whether I could function as a player away from Michael now," said Pippen. (Most of Pippen's critics would agree with that, but it was, nevertheless, surprising to hear him say it.) "What Michael has brought us, every night, every game, is the spotlight and the pressure that would've been directed elsewhere. All of us—Horace, Pax [John Paxson], B.J. [Armstrong]—had to respond to it, or else we would've died as a team. Eventually, we did respond, and it made us stronger.
"I wanted more [recognition and shots] early in my career; sure, I did. It was hard always being compared to Michael, because it seemed that no one else was under that same microscope. You never heard about [Los Angeles Laker forward] James Worthy being criticized because he didn't do enough to help Magic Johnson when the Lakers lost, for example. But with the Bulls, it was always, Well, Michael held up his end as usual, but Scottie didn't do enough. I just came to realize that it was a unique situation with Michael because of how truly great he is.
"It doesn't surprise me that teams come after me because they feel they can't get to Michael. I love that challenge; I loved it when the Knicks said they were coming after me. I hope Phoenix does the same thing. During the Knick series I felt really healthy for the first time all season [Pippen had been slowed for a year by a badly sprained left ankle; a cortisone shot he received about a month ago helped], and when I'm healthy, there isn't a challenge in the world I can't meet.
"I've come to terms with my role on this team, and that is to do the things I can do. I'll never be the scorer Michael is. I couldn't put up those numbers even if I tried. And you know what? I hope he leads the league in scoring [as Jordan has for seven straight seasons] for the rest of his career. And when it's all over, I'll be able to say, 'I helped him do it. And I played with the greatest player ever.' "
Funny, but that sounds a lot like Kevin McHale.