As phenomenal as Scottie Pippen was, he was destined always to be overshadowed and underrated by virtue of playing the majority of his career next to Michael Jordan, widely viewed as the greatest player in the history of the game. And truth be told, Pippen was likely as good as he was in part — maybe large part — because he played with Jordan, whose brilliance and competitive edge clearly rubbed off on his sidekick.
But try to think past Jordan for a second. Just focus on Pippen, and you’ll find a player almost as big a lynchpin on the Bulls championship teams, especially for his tendency to be a force of nature on defense, reducing Jordan’s burden. Chicago likely wouldn’t have won without Jordan, but it’s not totally clear whether Jordan would have won without Pippen, which MJ even acknowledged at the beginning of his Hall of Fame speech.
What makes Pippen’s ascendance to the ranks of basketball’s all-time greats is his relatively humble origin. The youngest of 12 children, Pippen was a high school standout at point guard, but had to resort to walking on at the University of Central Arkansas, actually believing he might simply serve as a manager for the team. Pippen’s famous growth spurt to 6-foot-8 took him from a lightly regarded point guard to an uber-talented small forward, if one that still flew under the radar.
“I advised as many teams as i could to go see him play,” NBA director of scouting Marty Blake said back in 1987. “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.”
One man who came to believe was Bulls executive Jerry Krause, who saw Pippen dominate in post-college workouts and worked out one of the great heists in NBA history, trading up to No. 5 with Seattle to take Pippen. (The No. 8 pick they sent to the SuperSonics was Olden Polynice.) Pippen immediately stepped in as a contributor as a rookie, and then steadily got better.
What he arguably needed to do was get tougher. Pippen was stigmatized for a Bill Laimbeer elbow that knocked him out of Game 6 of the East Finals against the Pistons in 1989, and then for a migraine that ruined him in Game 7 in 1990.
“The time against Laimbeer, I wanted to go back. I asked and asked to go back,” Pippen would tell Sports Illustrated. “The doctor and Jerry Krause wouldn’t let me. The headache? I’d never had a migraine headache before. It’s very hard to tell people what you feel like in that situation. If I were on the other side, it would be very hard to tell me. And once you get people on your back, it’s hard to get them off.
“I think I’ve grown up a lot because of this.”
Fueled by the criticism, Pippen continued to grow stronger as a player, his game honed by 1-on-1 battles with Jordan. He altered his diet and schedule to maximize his skills for when it mattered most: gametime. Pippen became renowned for his defensive contributions, which only became greater as Jordan grew older, allowing M.J. to focus his energies on the offensive end.
Pippen became a driving force as the Bulls won three consecutive championships from 1991-93. In between, he was named to the USA Basketball squad known forever as the Dream Team, in which he — along with Jordan — became the first players to win an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.
When Jordan retired for the first time in 1993, the onus of leadership and superstardom fell to Pippen, who flourished. He averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.9 steals, was named All-Star MVP and finished third in the MVP voting. His first “solo” year was marred, however, in Game 3 of the Eastern Semis, when Pippen refused to enter the game to inbound to Toni Kukoc, who was deigned by Phil Jackson to take the game-winning shot. Kukoc did, in fact, hit the shot, and Pippen was much maligned. And though he apologized, he refused to acknowledge that he was wrong.
“Phil was wrong,” Pippen once told Sam Smith. “Those times in games are the moments you live for. I thought it was an injustice the way Phil treated me, and I had to say something, right or wrong. It wasn’t what people wanted to hear.”
That same series, Pippen emphatically dunked over Patrick Ewing and stood over him defiantly. It was a perfect example of how the chip on his shoulder produced far more positive than negative results, even if he was maligned for it.
When Jordan returned, the Bulls picked up where they left off as the best dynasty of their generation. Chicago went a record 72-10 in 1995-96, and Pippen won his second gold medal at the Olympics that summer. The following season, Pippen was honored at the All-Star break as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players; his greatness would be overlooked no more.
After defeating the Jazz in two consecutive championships, the Bulls would officially break up the band. Jordan retired for the second time, Jackson left and Pippen would be traded to the Rockets to team with fellow future Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon. The team was dominant in theory, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Lakers in the shortened 1999 season.
Pippen was traded to the Blazers, who lost a crushing Game 7 of the 2000 West Finals to the Lakers, a game in which they led by 15 in the fourth quarter. Pippen signed with the Bulls for a final swan song, retiring following the 2003-04 season.
Pippen, who was hired in the Bulls front office after his career, is remembered for being one of the best defenders in basketball history; after reaching the playoffs 16 consecutive seasons, he remains the all-time leader in postseason steals. His jersey number was retired by the team, and he was rightfully elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010.
It’s amazing that a player so good could actually be underrated, but that’s what happens when one plays with a teammate as good as Jordan. And yet anyone who watched NBA basketball spanning three decades knows what MJ himself vocalized: Pippen was arguably as much a part of what the Bulls accomplished as Jordan was. And he carved out his own lane and his own impressive legacy.
“I don’t try to hold up an image for anyone,” Pippen told Smith. “I’m Scottie. I’m human. I’m happy with who I am.”