I Loved Watching Scottie Pippen Play Basketball
Scottie Pippen will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, and quite simply, I loved watching that man play basketball.
To me, Scottie Pippen was the ultimate embodiment of team basketball, on both ends of the floor, and played with a physical grace that made him at least as aesthetically pleasing to watch as any player of his era, including his most famous teammate.
I consider Pippen to be the greatest individual perimeter defender of all time, outstanding on the ball and even better as a help defender. And I can't lie, how you feel about Scottie Pippen is a referendum on how I feel about you as a basketball fan. If you don't think Pip was one of the 25 or so best players of all time, I don't think I want you in my life as a basketball fan.
That I even have to write those last couple sentences is a reflection that Pippen's legacy can be strangely polarizing to many fans, and that the particular moments and perceptions which stick in fans' heads can be unpredictable, and powerful forces in shaping their memories of players as a whole.
A complication for Pippen in memory is that the signature moments of his career which have stuck with many people are negative - the infamous 1.8-second sitdown in the 1994 Playoffs, and the migraine headache which rendered him utterly ineffective for Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals - and skew the perception of his career as a whole, in my opinion.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the play I consider to be a signature defining moment of Scottie Pippen's career is actually a defining moment of not only another player, but an entire era of another franchise:
This play has lived on in basketball lore as "Charles Smith missed four layups". But watch that play again and tell me that those are remotely close to easy shots - as the word "layup" would connote. Smith is under extreme duress from one of the greatest defensive triumvirates in basketball history. To me, the play sequence goes like this:
- - Outstanding block by Horace Grant
- Outstanding strip by Michael Jordan
- Block by Scottie Pippen
- Incredible block by Scottie Pippen
For a smaller player to make that play, from behind, on a second jump, from a standstill, without fouling - how did he make that play from that angle without fouling?! - is just incredible to me. And consider the circumstances. It was a game-saving block to give Chicago a 3-2 series lead and avoid having to win Game 7 in New York in a hotly-contested series - the most challenging series of the Bulls' six championship years, in my opinion.
All things considered, I believe Pippen's blocks to be among the very best clutch defensive plays in NBA history. As usual, Marv was on it with the call: "What a play by Scottie Pippen!" Yet, instead of being a Scottie Pippen signature, the sequence lives on as Charles Smith's failure.
In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons wrote, "[W]here you stand on Scottie depends on one question: do you give up on anyone who ever made a stupid mistake?"
He's of course referring to Game 3 of the Bulls-Knicks series in 1994, when Pippen took himself out of a tie game with 1.8 seconds left, after Phil Jackson called a play for Toni Kukoc instead of Pippen in the timeout huddle.
It was unquestionably a terrible moment for Pippen, but as Simmons (who emphatically supported Pippen in ranking him as the no. 24 player ever) writes, "If you think one selfish moment should overshadow a totally unselfish career, maybe you should climb off your high horse before you get hurt." I tend to agree that 17 seasons and 6 championships worth of consummate unselfishness should not be negated by 1.8 seconds.
That's the irony: Scottie Pippen was one of the ULTIMATE teammates in NBA history, purveyor of some of the most unselfish pure team basketball ever seen in the pro game - especially as the team leader in 1993-94 after Michael's first retirement - and largely beloved by his teammates.
In Second Coming: The Strange Odyssey of Michael Jordan, which chronicled Jordan's first retirement and subsequent return to the Bulls in 1994-95, Sam Smith wrote this:
- "Scottie is one of the best teammates I've ever had," said [Steve] Kerr, who had played with Phoenix, Cleveland, and Orlando before coming to the Bulls as a minimum-earnings free agent in 1994. "Everyone loves him. He's so unselfish the way he plays and plays so hard. He knows where you'll be and where you want the ball for a shot. And he'll consciously try to get you shots. He'll be aware when you're struggling in a game, or when you've gone awhile without a shot. He cares about everyone like no star I've ever played with. It's a shame he has the reputation he does."
It was a fact: the media and the fans loved Jordan; the players loved Pippen.
"I'd say, with the players, Scottie was the most popular," said Jud Buechler, who joined the team for the 1994-95 season. "No question, if you had a problem, it was Scottie you would go to."
How ironic, considering Pippen was the one always embroiled in the controversies, uncooperative and uninteresting to reporters. Not like Jordan, around whom even veteran columnists swooned when Jordan flashed the smile, the eye contact, the knowledge of the first name. But it was Pippen who charmed the players. "Scottie always has a kind word for you, a 'hello' at practice," said Buechler, another player Jordan didn't talk to. "He's a really nice guy."
And Pippen passed first. In fact, he preferred that. Asked which part of the game he enjoyed the most, Pippen said without hesitation passing.
The fact that the migraines from Game 7 in 1990 stick with Pippen - emblematic of a sense that Scottie lacked a certain toughness or ability to step up in big games - is just outright comical to me.
Sam Smith wrote an exceptional profile of Pippen which appeared on Bulls.com on Thursday. Considering that the story is titled "No one tougher than Scottie Pippen", I have clearly been on the same wavelength as Smith in preparing this post the last few days.
It is absolutely ludicrous that the 1990 migraines stick with Pippen in a way that Game 6 of the 1998 Finals does not. In that game, Pippen fought through crippling back pain to give the Bulls a court presence they desperately needed - it was really nothing short of one of the guttiest performances in Finals history, and should be remembered as a defining moment of Pippen and his toughness.
How about Game 5 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, with the Blazers trailing the Lakers 3-1, and needing a win in L.A. to stave off elimination? The game story reads: "Led by Scottie Pippen, playing most of the game with two dislocated fingers on his left hand, the Blazers stunned the Lakers 96-88 Tuesday night to stay alive in the conference finals." Pippen tallied 22 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 6 steals and 4 blocks on 8-12 FG despite his injury.
What about Game 5 of the 2000 Western Conference Semis, in which the game story said this:
- "Pippen, dazed for several minutes after being inadvertently knocked down from behind by teammate Arvydas Sabonis, hit a 3-pointer with 7.3 seconds left Tuesday night, lifting the Portland Trail Blazers to an 81-79 victory. The loss eliminated the Jazz 4-1 in the best-of-seven series.
What about this play from the end of Game 3 of Chicago's 1997 series vs. Washington, which can only be described as a back-breaking dunk, as Pippen takes the hit as he delivers a game-winning last-second shot with the Bulls down one, described by Hubie as: "Now that was a primetime clutch play by Scottie Pippen."
There are examples of this man's toughness as a player, and his ability to deliver in big games, all over the place.
And let's talk about Scottie Pippen in the clutch a little bit. There is another misperception which I believe has grown in memory over time, that Michael Jordan was always the guy taking the big shots, and that Pippen was always a supporting, secondary player to Jordan.
Let's be clear: Michael Jordan's status as the greatest basketball player - and the greatest clutch player - who ever lived is unassailable. I get offended that there are even conversations which attempt to compare Kobe Bryant to Jordan.
But there were multiple pivotal playoff games in which it was Pippen who not only hit the biggest shots, but was also the best player on the floor. Granted, part of the reason that I think Pippen gets slighted here is the lack of truly signature shots - it was indeed Jordan who hit the iconic last-second game-winning shots time and again. But Pippen delivered clutch plays in critical games over and over and over again.
We've already noted a few of them, such as the Charles Smith block, above. Let's go through a few more examples, and let's start by going back to that epic Bulls-Knicks series in 1993.
1993 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6
After winning Game 5 in dramatic fashion, the Bulls went home for what was pretty close to a must-win Game 6, so they could avoid having to go back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7.
The Bulls won that Game 6, 96-88, and it was Scottie Pippen who was the best player on the floor, and who hit the game's critical shots. Pippen posted a 24-6-7 on 9-18 FG. Jordan did have 25 points and 9 assists, but made just 8-24 FG. Marv Albert said during the game broadcast that, "This has not been one of the stronger performances for Michael Jordan. It's the others that have done it tonight."
With about three and a half minutes left, Pippen beat the shot clock with a long jumper to give the Bulls an 85-80 lead. Marv says, "Another big shot by Pippen, who has certainly made a habit of it in this series."
Then, with a minute left, Pippen knocked down a three-pointer to give Chicago a 90-82 lead and effectively end the series. Marv says, "Again Scottie Pippen has hit the big shot," while the Czar remarks, "Time after time Scottie Pippen in this series has proven that he can come up big when they need him."
The New York Times described it like this:
- Ewing answered with a lane jumper, but then Pippen made the game clincher. After Jordan almost fumbled the ball and got it back, Pippen calmly made a 25-foot, 3-point jumper from behind the key to give the Bulls a 90-82 lead with 1:10 left. Chicago Stadium erupted. The fans knew what both teams knew. This series was over.
1993 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 4
It's also worth noting that in Game 4 of the same series, with the Bulls trying to tie it up at 2-2, it was again Pippen who made what the New York Times described as "the game's biggest shot" (which can be seen here):
- Isolated against Mason, Pippen drove to his right and was bumped by Mason as he started to shoot. While fading away from the basket, Pippen made an off-balance 14-footer before falling to the ground, and the foul was called on Mason. Pippen's free throw completed the 3-point play, giving the Bulls a 97-90 lead with 2:09 left.
"Scottie made a miraculous play," Ewing said.
First of all, it was stirring just to go back and watch the fourth quarter of this game, in which the Bulls beat the Pacers 88-83 on sheer heart and will. Chicago played with so much heart in this one, in front of a deafening United Center crowd, that it almost gave me chills. The Bulls had a 22-4 edge in offensive rebounds, with Jordan and Pippen leading the way, combining for 11 O-boards.
Again, it was Pippen who made the game's decisive shots. As the game story reported: "Pippen also made two big shots down the stretch and the Bulls held the Pacers scoreless over the final 2:05 as they reached the Finals for the sixth time in eight years."
The first of the two shots put Chicago ahead 81-79 with 4:40 left, and came after Pippen fought past Reggie Miller for the offensive rebound. That sequence can be seen here.
Then, with two minutes to go, Pippen converted this tough runner while being fouled, extending Chicago's lead to 87-83. A last-second free throw would be the only other scoring, and the Bulls were on their way to the 1998 Finals. Here it is:
Let's cherry pick a few more of Scottie's notable big games:
1991 Finals, Game 5
Pippen posts a 32-13-7 with 5 steals in the game which clinches Chicago's first championship.
1992 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6
In a game that's been on an endless loop on NBA TV in recent days, Pippen displayed his all-around brilliance with a 29-12-5 plus 4 blocks and 4 steals, as the Bulls beat the Cavs to win the series.
1992 Finals, Game 6
Bulls.com called this one of Pippen's 10 greatest moments, describing it as:
- Facing a 15-point deficit going into the fourth quarter of Game Six of the 1992 NBA Finals versus the Portland Trail Blazers, Scottie Pippen led the Bulls’ reserves on a 14-2 run before Michael Jordan and the remaining starters rejoined him on the floor to seal the team’s second NBA Championship.
Chicago’s 33-14 domination in the final frame was just enough for the Bulls to secure the 97-93 victory. The star of the miraculous rally, Pippen, finished the game with 26 points (9-of-17 shooting, 6-of-9 from the line), five rebounds and four boards.
Another of the Bulls.com greatest moments:
- Scoring only four points, Scottie Pippen dominated Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana with his defense on Pacers point guard Mark Jackson, who turned the ball over seven times in an 85-79 Bulls victory. Pippen struggled from the field, but dished out seven assists, grabbed seven boards and added four steals in the win.
"It’s amazing to see how good Scottie is," remarked Bulls guard Steve Kerr. "The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That’s what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn’t have to score a point and he can control the whole game."
In the '90s, I strongly favored the Bulls over both the Pistons and the Knicks as something of a basketball political statement. In the face of the brutish tactics of their opponents, the Bulls stood for skill, athleticism and the beauty of the game - qualities which comprise a substantial part of my Platonic ideal of what the game should be about. I've never seen a pair of teammates who embodied those qualities as well as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Throw in the passing and unselfishness, the elegant long-limbed forays in the open floor, the ferocious "Doberman" attacks on the defensive end, the intelligence in both the triangle offense and the team defense... and man, I loved watching Scottie Pippen play basketball. He is on the very short list of my all-time favorite players to watch.
The Painted Area salutes Scottie Pippen as he is so deservedly inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Thanks for the memories, Pip.