Pippen soars from obscurity to Hall

By K.C. Johnson
Updated: August 13, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — On Friday night, in the birthplace of basketball, Scottie Pippen entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

It’s an honor that perhaps only Pippen believed was possible while growing up a gangly kid in Hamburg, Ark., the last of 12 kids living in two rooms.

The tale of Michael Jordan not making his high school varsity team as a sophomore has become legend. But Jordan eventually landed a scholarship to North Carolina. Pippen entered NAIA University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark., as a student manager.

“I always respected how he had risen out of the circumstances that he came from,” Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said in a phone interview.

“He rose above it all.”

That’s a fitting image for Pippen, who soared to international prominence as a six-time NBA champion with fellow Hall of Famers Jordan and coach Phil Jackson. Jordan served as Pippen’s presenter.

Chicago lived through Pippen’s ascent, so the accomplishments easily roll off the tongue: seven All-NBA teams, 10 All-Defensive teams, an All-Star Game most valuable player award in 1994, two Olympic gold medals, inclusion in the NBA’s all-time top 50.

But it was the way Pippen played — with poise and grace and unselfishness — that led so many former teammates to call him their favorite player with which to toil.

“He had a great sense of humor,” longtime assistant coach Johnny Bach said in a phone interview. “I remember one time he came to practice five minutes late. And he said, ‘My cat died.’ I’ve heard a lot of excuses, but I’ve never heard that one. Even Phil laughed at that one.

“He could laugh in pressure situations. It wasn’t that he was a clown.

But he could break tension. And he grew so much and became authoritative. Let’s face it: He came from a tiny town in Arkansas all the way to the NBA. That’s a hell of an adjustment he made, and he made it quickly. He kept adding as his career progressed — skills, leadership, you name it. That’s a rare trait.”

Dealing for a Doberman It’s also why Pippen was able to rise above some very public missteps to claim his place as a Bulls icon — and now in NBA immortality. His familiar No. 33 has hung in the United Center rafters since December 2005. And now he will represent the Bulls forever in Springfield.

That, famously, took some major maneuvering.

Pippen’s performances at several pre-draft camps, most notably in Portsmouth, Va., created a strong buzz in 1987. The Bulls were picking eighth and 10th.

“I knew we had to get ahead of Sacramento, who was picking sixth,” former general manager Jerry Krause said in a phone interview.

Krause said he began talking to then-SuperSonics executive Bob Whitsitt three hours a day, targeting Seattle’s fifth pick.

“The night before the draft at about 4 in the morning, Whitsitt said to me, ‘If the player that I want is not available at No. 5, I’ll do this deal,’ ” Krause recalled.

Krause said Clippers owner Donald Sterling told Reinsdorf shortly before the Clippers’ fourth pick that Sterling’s franchise was taking Georgetown’s Reggie Williams, which Krause relayed to Whitsitt.

“And he says, ‘Our deal is on. That’s the guy we wanted,’ ” Krause recalled.

Few could know the draft rights to Olden Polynice, whom the Bulls selected for the Sonics at No. 8, would prove so valuable. When Krause ended a Joe Wolf- Horace Grant debate by listening to strong coaching-staff support for Grant at No. 10, the mood was ebullient.

“There was a feeling in the room that night that we might’ve drafted a championship,” Reinsdorf said.

Or six.

“People don’t remember Scottie didn’t start that first year; Brad Sellers did,” Krause said. “And that helped him because he was able to come in with no pressure on him.

“But he was so unselfish and always a good passer. He fit perfectly in the triangle when Phil took over for Doug (Collins), who was great for him his first two seasons. He might’ve been one of the best triangle players ever.

“And he was such a great athlete. He had those long arms. He had great hands. He had quick feet. When we drafted him, I thought worst-case scenario he’d be a great defender. But I knew if he learned to shoot, he could be a star. Still, he had such great progression that he surpassed all expectations.”

From the Bulls’ first championship over the Lakers in 1991 to the grueling, seven-game Eastern Conference finals victory over the Pacers that led to the sixth title in 1998, Pippen’s defensive dominance shined.

His shadowing of Magic Johnson in 1991 turned that series after the Bulls dropped a heartbreaker at home in Game 1. And his blanketing of everyone from point guard Mark Jackson to power forward Derrick McKey in the taut Game 7 victory over the Pacers in 1998 demonstrated his unique combination of length and savvy.

“What set Scottie apart defensively was his versatility,” Krause said. “He had the ability to guard so many different players.”

Added Bach, credited as the architect of the “Doberman” defense: “With his long strides, he could recover fast. He had good vision. He had long arms. You couldn’t throw the ball over his head. And in many cases, you couldn’t throw the ball past him. He could guard forwards small or big.

And he was quick and long enough to disrupt guards.

“And he made Michael a better defensive player because Michael gambled, and it was often that Scottie moved up to cover for Michael. And he could cover so much ground. He had such good instincts. It wouldn’t have been a Doberman defense without him. He was so aggressive. And he loved playing that end too.”

Sitting out, stepping up Pippen’s occasional petulance featured clashes with management over salary and personnel, public trade demands, two near-trades and, most infamously, his refusal to re-enter Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks because Jackson designed the last-second shot for Toni Kukoc.

“That was cleared up in the locker room by him right after the game,” ex-teammate and current Bulls broadcaster Bill Wennington said in April.

“He understood he made a mistake and let his emotions get the better of him and told us. Then it was over.”

That incident came at the tail end of Pippen’s emergence from the prodigious shadow of Jordan, who had retired abruptly before the 1993-94 season. Pippen averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, won the All-Star game MVP award and led the Bulls to 55 victories.

If not for Hue Hollins’ foul call on Pippen, which led to Hubert Davis’ winning free throws in Game 5, the Bulls might have advanced unexpectedly to the conference finals.

“That was my favorite team, even more than any of the championship teams,” Reinsdorf said. “We didn’t have time to plan for Michael’s retirement. But that team scrapped, hustled. They never should’ve won as many games as they won after having lost Michael.

“I would’ve preferred to see Michael remain the main guy. But I was proud to see Scottie step up and be the No. 1 guy.”

When Jordan returned from his baseball hiatus, the dominant duo racked up the Bulls’ second three-peat. And Pippen continued to earn his teammates’ trust and admiration for his selfless style.

“He was accountable for his actions on the floor,” Wennington said.

“Usually, other players get blamed for stars’ mistakes. Scottie wasn’t like that. He worked hard at practice every day, even if he was banged up.”

A Bull for all time When the dynasty dissolved, the Bulls signed-and-traded Pippen to the Rockets. That began his five-season run in the Western Conference that included four successful seasons with the Trail Blazers.

One of John Paxson’s first moves after succeeding Krause as general manager in 2003 was to sign Pippen to a two-year contract that summer.

Though Pippen played just 23 games before he physically was forced to retire, his locker-room presence positively affected young Bulls such as Kirk Hinrich.

“He helped restore a culture of professionalism,” Paxson said.

Ultimately, even with his missteps, that is how Pippen will be remembered — a professional who met whatever challenge the game dictated. For someone who once raised questions about his commitment with an infamous migraine headache in a Game 7 loss to the Pistons in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals, Pippen overcame all with his commitment and competitiveness.

“Of course I have a favorite memory: It was the last game against Utah in 1998,” Reinsdorf said. “Scottie had a horrible back problem. He kept going back into the locker room and getting treatment. He was in excruciating pain. But he managed to get through that game.

“That was a remarkable performance. And it speaks to what kind of competitor Scottie was.”