- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
A COUPLE OF years ago, Jud Buechler’s daughter Reily was walking through Los Angeles International Airport when she spotted one of Buechler’s longtime teammates: Scottie Pippen. She texted her father about her celebrity sighting. Her phone rang.
“Reily,” Buechler implored his daughter, “turn around right now and introduce yourself. Tell him how thankful you are for what he did for your dad.”
She approached Pippen.
“He was great to her,” Buechler said. “And for me to tell her that — it shows how much love I have for that guy.”
Love comes up often when former teammates discuss Pippen — particularly those, like Buechler, who joined the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s brief retirement and remained once Jordan returned. Randy Brown, who signed with Chicago in 1995, tells Pippen he loves him at the end of every phone call.
At their final team dinner days after winning the 1998 NBA title, Phil Jackson ushered players into a private room, away from coaches and spouses, and asked each to toast one teammate. Buechler toasted Pippen.
“It was, ‘I hope Scottie goes somewhere and gets paid, gets what he deserves,'” Buechler recalled.
Teammates didn’t mind that Pippen timed his foot surgery in October 1997 so he would miss the first two-plus months of that season. They sympathized with his contract situation — why he had once craved the security of a long-term deal, and the resentment he felt when it became clear he was underpaid. Pippen and 11 siblings grew up in a two-bedroom house in rural Arkansas.
“We knew why he took that deal,” said Will Perdue, Pippen’s teammate over eight seasons. “He was a good family man.”
“We felt his pain,” Brown said. “We wanted him to play, but we understood.”
Pippen had built up enough goodwill to sit. “He was beloved by everybody,” said Steve Kerr, a Bull from 1993 to 1998.
“He is my favorite Bulls teammate,” said Bill Wennington, a member of Chicago’s last three title teams.
Some of the fondness stemmed from Pippen’s playing style: pass-first, eager to take the toughest defensive assignments. Some of it was about the contrast in leadership styles with Jordan.
“He was a perfect complement to Michael,” Kerr said last month on the Lowe Post podcast. “Michael was the hard-ass. You had to be ready every day for his criticism. Scottie would put his arm around you and make sure you were OK. He is a kind soul.”
Teammates said the juxtaposition is not meant as criticism of Jordan’s ruthlessness. “You need both,” Buechler said.
AS CHRONICLED IN the ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance” and in Sam Smith’s seminal book “The Jordan Rules,” Jordan’s intimidation tactics were meant to steel teammates for the postseason. Even teammates who did not enjoy the withering glares and verbal jabs concede Jordan’s methods had some effect.
They also wonder how the team might have functioned if its second-best player weren’t wired the way Pippen was. What if Pippen had been as merciless as Jordan? Would teammates have quaked under a two-man dictatorship? Would that version of Pippen have chafed at No. 2 status?
With Chicago trailing Game 1 of the 1998 Finals against the Utah Jazz by three with just under 3:00 left, Pippen attempted a game-tying triple. A timeout followed. As the Bulls huddled on the sideline, Jordan lectured Pippen; Jordan had been rolling, and he was apparently upset Pippen had not fed him. Pippen had made the shot. (NBC’s cameras caught the exchange; Bob Costas cackled at Jordan’s alpha competitiveness.) Pippen listened, and offered what appeared to be a rebuttal. They put the issue to bed.
“There was always a lot of communication between Michael and Scottie, and frequently it was heated,” Kerr said. “But never disrespectful. It was always with the intention of trying to win.”
What if Pippen had been shy — reluctant to offer support for teammates experiencing self-doubt?
When Brown was struggling to learn the triangle offense, Pippen pulled him aside. “You’re not gonna play if you don’t get this,” Pippen told Brown. “I know what you bring, but Phil has to trust you.” Pippen was encouraging, not admonishing. He had seen the triangle befuddle newcomers.
“It was like learning Mandarin,” said Horace Grant, still one of Pippen’s closest friends. (Grant acknowledged he had such trouble at first that Johnny Bach, a Bulls assistant, nicknamed him Fubar, the military acronym for “f—ed up beyond all recognition.”)
“Scottie was patient,” said Pete Myers, who rejoined the Bulls in 1993. “Otherwise, it would have been tough.”
Pippen admitted mistakes, and protected teammates.
During one game against the Indiana Pacers, Pippen instructed Wennington to break with Jackson’s game plan and double Indiana center Rik Smits. At a film session the next day, Jackson paused the tape: “Billy, what the hell were you doing?” Jackson chided, according to Wennington.
Pippen spoke up: “Coach, I told him to go.”
“A lot of guys in Scottie’s position would have left me hanging,” Wennington said.
During Chicago’s first three-peat, Jackson would sometimes yell at B.J. Armstrong for some mishap that was actually Pippen’s fault. “I caught on that Phil couldn’t scream at Scottie, so he’d scream at me,” Armstrong said.
Pippen would take the blame in the huddle or apologize to Armstrong as they strode onto the floor. “He didn’t have to say anything,” Armstrong said.
EVEN IN THOSE early years, Pippen seemed to sense the Bulls needed a balance to Jordan.
“I tell people all the time, Scottie was the best teammate I ever played with,” said Stacey King, a reserve on Chicago’s first three title teams. “MJ would get on you, and Scottie would say, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t listen to him. You’re gonna be OK.'”
Players who signed with Chicago during Jordan’s 17-month retirement grew comfortable playing with Pippen as their centerpiece. Jordan’s return was like an earthquake. They leaned on Pippen for guidance.
“The [players on the first title teams] got to know Michael the person,” said Armstrong, who stuck with the Bulls through 1994-95. “The new guys never got to know that person. They only knew the Air Jordan character. He jumped in and started playing, so they couldn’t develop that relationship. Scottie knew that, and knew he had to manage the other guys.”
That included Toni Kukoc — symbol of the disconnect between Pippen and Jerry Krause, Chicago’s general manager, and at first the target of Pippen’s rage. Pippen derisively referred to Kukoc as “Jerry’s boy,” and poked fun at Kukoc’s defense.
Kukoc took it and worked. He detected constructive criticism beneath the barbs. Pippen softened.
“I love Scottie,” Kukoc said. “The guy that helped me the most those first two years was Scottie. I never felt [the criticism] was mean. He was trying to point me in the right direction.”
Circumstances tested them again in 1994, when Pippen refused to play the final 1.8 seconds in Game 3 of Chicago’s playoff series against the New York Knicks because Jackson designed the game-winning shot for Kukoc — with Pippen inbounding. It was an act of defiance that could have fractured the Bulls.
Kukoc greased the healing process by swishing a game-winning buzzer-beater. In the locker room, Bill Cartwright, the team’s veteran leader, scolded Pippen in front of teammates. Cartwright wept as he told Pippen how hurt he was, according to teammates and past accounts.
Pippen sat in silence and absorbed it, teammates recalled. “He listened, and he knew,” Armstrong said.
Pippen briefly apologized, according to Grant and Wennington.
Teammates were upset, but they tried to imagine how they might have reacted in Pippen’s position. “He was our best player,” Grant said. “He probably should have taken that shot. Phil should have [designed the play for Pippen]. That doesn’t excuse not going back in. We were disappointed in Scottie, and Scottie was disappointed.” (Both Pippen and Jackson have declined media requests during the run of “The Last Dance.”)
Cartwright addressing the wound immediately, with such profound emotion, was vital in the Bulls moving on. “Nothing could fester,” Perdue said. Pippen had banked enough trust for everyone to put it behind them by the time they left the locker room.
“It was, ‘OK, Scottie went to the twilight zone, but now he’s back,” Grant said.
THAT 1993-94 GROUP — the one without Jordan, featuring several newcomers — had a particular admiration for how Pippen approached that season. They arrived curious if Pippen would view Jordan’s absence as an opportunity to assert control, and chase points.
Pippen had his best season, finishing third in MVP voting and leading the Bulls to 55 wins. That season changed the perception of Pippen as a player. He did it without veering from the triangle or his natural temperament. Pippen averaged 22 points — only one more than in 1991-92. He attempted 17.8 shots per game, up from 16.5 over the prior two seasons.
“He didn’t go out there like, ‘This is my team,'” Grant said. “He wanted us in the fold. He learned from MJ that he needed us.”
Pippen had worked toward his moment as Chicago’s undisputed star. He was almost as competitive as Jordan in practices. Perdue and Pippen — usually on opposite teams — got into a few dust-ups, Perdue said.
When Jordan returned, Jackson would now and then split up his two stars. “Scottie would go at Michael,” said Jim Cleamons, a longtime Bulls assistant.
Pippen had license to pick at Kukoc’s weak point — defense — because he had worked to refine his own flaw. “Scottie couldn’t make a 15-footer when he started, but he worked his ass off,” Cartwright said.
Pippen never became a true plus shooter. Those 1994 Bulls lost in the second round, leaving Pippen forever short of immortal “best player on a title team” status. That said, the Bulls were one controversial call from taking a 3-2 lead over the Knicks in the second round, with Game 6 in Chicago and a 47-win Pacers team waiting in the conference finals. How would a potential trip to the Finals without Jordan — even a loss to the eventual champion Houston Rockets — have changed Pippen’s legacy?
Pippen did wobble under the off-court demands of alpha superstardom, Perdue said. Pippen could no longer deflect media duty, assuming Jordan would handle it. When reporters asked about the performance of a teammate, Pippen would let slip the occasional impolitic sound bite — and apologize the next day, Perdue said.
“I don’t think he realized how easy MJ made it for us,” Perdue said.
Pippen’s relative limitations as a pure scorer and jump-shooter would have made it difficult for him to become the best player on a championship team. Opponents often stashed undersized defenders on Pippen, betting he would not exploit them. Sometimes, they were right. Here and there, Pippen summoned a sudden, vicious fury and went at them one-on-one.
(He brutalized Terry Porter in Game 5 of the 1992 Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, one of the defining wins of Chicago’s first three-peat. Jordan and Pippen combined for 70 points on the road to put Chicago up 3-2; Pippen finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists.)
As a No. 2, Pippen was perfect. In constructing a title team, that apex No. 2 might be as valuable — perhaps more — than some No. 1 types who rank a tick behind the very best ball-dominant stars of their era. Those guys get you far. They helm very good offenses. But as the lead guy, they usually fall short of the ultimate prize.
Stick them in a No. 2 role, and their game can be diminished. They don’t have the ball as much. They aren’t as good at one or more of the requirements for a championship-level No. 2 guy — defense, spot-up shooting, on-the-fly playmaking.
Calling Pippen the greatest No. 2 ever is not a backhanded compliment. It does not make him a lesser player than some No. 1 options who put up gaudier numbers but did not approach a championship in that role. Pippen was lucky to play with Jordan, the best No. 1 option ever, but Jordan was lucky to play with Pippen too.
THERE HAS NEVER been a player quite like Pippen. Advanced statistical systems spit out unsatisfying comps: secondary wings who lacked Pippen’s playmaking and all-world defense (Shawn Marion, Khris Middleton); some alpha scorers who don’t fit Pippen’s mold (Paul Pierce, Clyde Drexler). Grant Hill’s name comes up, but he was a more prolific scorer. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard, who has grown into a pantheon-level No. 1 — with Pippen-quality defense.
Jimmy Butler is a popular contemporary comparison. That’s close. Butler operates a little more like a No. 1 scorer, and doesn’t quite match Pippen’s wiry length on defense. Paul George is probably today’s premier No. 2, but he laps Pippen as a shooter — while falling short as a playmaker and by a little as a defender.
At least one of those players will go down as better than Pippen. Most won’t. Regardless, none feel much like him stylistically.
Perhaps if you crossed George with Draymond Green — blending their respective 3-point shots — you’d get Pippen. In spitballing sessions a decade ago, one team brought up prime Andre Iguodala — almost a 20-point scorer — as Pippen-esque in theoretical scenarios pairing Iguodala with a top-5 player.
Some players exert a disproportionate impact on the game when they have the ball. Pippen’s on-ball impact wavered, but he mattered every second he was on the floor. He was like an electrical current humming in the background.
“Scottie could score one point, and it would feel like he had 30,” Brown said.
Huge portions of the 1997 and 1998 Finals between the Bulls and Jazz amounted to a game within the game: John Stockton and Karl Malone running pick-and-roll on the left side, Pippen rotating from across the floor to smother them while still vaporizing Stockton’s cross-court passing lanes.
“He was the best center fielder I’ve ever seen,” Kerr said. “He guarded everybody.”
Pippen is one of only three players — along with Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon — to record 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season.
“He was a huge risk-taker, but he could recover,” Armstrong said. “If I got beat backdoor, I got beat. If he got beat, he’d get back and block the shot.”
Jackson identified the linchpin of opposing offenses, and sent Pippen there: Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals; Mark Jackson in the 1998 conference finals; sometimes Stockton. He even toggled Pippen onto big men just to switch pick-and-rolls.
“If someone was causing trouble,” Cartwright said, “the answer was, ‘Put Pip on them.'”
Pippen was durable, appearing in at least 72 games in each of his first 10 seasons.
A lot of what made Pippen great fades with time. Extra passes rarely make highlight reels, and when they do, the focus is on the shot-maker. In rewatching old playoff games, one such forgotten sequence stands out. With 45 seconds left in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals and Chicago up by two on the Phoenix Suns — and up 2-1 in the series — Charles Barkley intercepted a wild Pippen pass and kicked the ball ahead to Kevin Johnson.
Johnson streaked up court with Dan Majerle on his right, only Pippen in front of them — a 2-on-1 to tie the game, maybe the series. Johnson picked up his dribble near the 3-point arc, perhaps spooked by Pippen, and dished to Majerle. Majerle rose for a layup; Pippen pivoted to his left and swatted the ball out of bounds.
On the inbounds pass, Danny Ainge, a Suns guard, popped off a pindown from Barkley. Pippen, defending Ainge, switched onto Barkley in the post. This was MVP Barkley, a rare combination of athleticism and brutality. Barkley shoved Pippen behind him. Ainge threw an entry pass. Pippen slid around Barkley’s right shoulder, and deflected the ball out of bounds.
Armstrong stole the ensuing inbounds pass, sealing the game.
“Scottie connected everything together,” Armstrong said. “We were a good team, but with Scottie, we became a great team. You can’t say you love basketball and not love the way Scottie Pippen played.”
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