originally published March 22, 2017
It happened to Scottie Pippen and it has never happened to anyone else. Not in the playoffs. Not in a game they had to win. But, it happened to Scottie Pippen. It happened to Scottie Pippen when he was 28 years old. He was in his basketball prime. It happened to Scottie Pippen in full view of the world, as cameras were documenting the blood brawl that was always Knicks-Bulls. It happened to Scottie Pippen. It happened to Scottie Pippen when Michael Jordan was playing baseball which only made it worse like MJ was some dark cloud weighing upon Pippen’s psyche. And ego. Without Michael, Scottie had to be the star. He had to be an adult. He wasn’t even the little brother when Jordan was on the court. He was the other brother. Pretty good but Jordan was way better. And so in May, it happened to Scottie Pippen. It was the worst thing he would ever do in a game. But, still. It happened to Scottie Pippen.
Scottie Pippen won three titles with Michael Jordan. Jordan had a way of blocking out the sun and Pippen. But in May of 1994, Jordan was on hiatus, and Pippen was the star. Even in the days before social media, in-game action was continually dissected, exaggerated, and held to the light. Like when Pippen was booed and played the race card, said the white Bulls fans booed him because he was black as if white players were somehow exempt from wrath and disgust of the paying customers. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, being the face of the franchise.
These were the facts. The second-round playoff series between the Bulls and Knicks had reached an epic moment in game three. The Bulls were trailing the series 2-0. The Knicks had the better team that year with Patrick Ewing carrying them. And so, there they all were. Patrick Ewing. Charles Oakley. John Starks. Anthony Mason. And there they all were. Scottie Pippen. B.J. Armstrong. Horace Grant. Toni Kukoc.
Ewing had just floated a hook shot to tie the score 102-102. It was game three. The Bulls needed a win to get back in the series, otherwise, it would be true what everyone thought about them, about Pippen: they’re nothing without Jordan. 57 wins don’t matter without Jordan. So Ewing’s shot quieted the Chicago Stadium crowd. The Jordan narrative had returned. With 1.8 seconds left, the Bulls needed a Michael Jordan miracle.
But this wasn’t the Jordan Bulls. The Bulls had a 22 point lead. Jordan would have turned a 22 point lead to 40. Or, that’s what the mythology of Jordan made everyone believe. Without Jordan, the lead was wasted and now the Bulls were tied. How had it come to this most anxious point, the Bulls choking in a playoff game?
Because Jordan was playing baseball.
1.8 seconds left and Phil Jackson huddled the troops like a five-star general booming out orders in his guttural voice. It was simple. Pippen was to take the ball out of bounds, Kukoc was to set up at the top of the key, rub off his man and shoot. One pass. One move. Boom. Score.
Jackson, a 3-time champion, a motivator of men who had the gravitas and respect of his team, enough that they read books and meditated and practiced tribal rituals, heard his best player say, “I’m tired of this.”
And then it happened to Scottie Pippen. His brain went on a vacation. His ego blew up larger than the 18,676 screaming fans. He went and sat down on the bench.
His teammates were in shock. What was he doing? They tried to get his ass up. They pleaded with him, but this was the thing everyone knew. Pippen would never have pulled that crap if Jordan was there. And if Jordan were there he wouldn’t have said, “come on Pip, get up.” Jordan would have forcibly pulled his ass back into that game. Or, he would have slapped Pippen the way he slapped Steve Kerr. But Jordan was playing baseball.
Jordan was playing baseball.
Four men took the court. Um…technical foul. Better get a fifth man out there. Jackson hurriedly called a second timeout. Jackson put in Pete Myers. Who?
When the NBA had a zillion rounds in their draft, Pete Myers was drafted in round 6 which would be pick number 120. That tells you everything you need to know about Pete Myers. He lasted on the Bulls for a year then went to the CBA. He tossed around the NBA, then played in Italy, was back in the CBA, and had a second stint with the Bulls which is how he wound up being Scottie Pippen.
So here comes Pete Myers off the bench. He does what Scottie Pippen wouldn’t. He passed the damned ball to Kukoc. Who then did a very Kukoc thing.
That season Kukoc was epic in last second bombs. He had done it three other times. So it wasn’t a surprise that Jackson called Kukoc’s number. And because it was the playoffs, when Kukoc sank a 22-footer to win the game, there was bedlam. The crowd was hysterical. The Bulls jumped Kukoc. The fans would have bled tears if they could. Jackson had that sly, arrogant Zen master grin. But Pippen?
Something happened to Scottie Pippen.
Jackson refused to cover for him post-game which was fitting with Jackson’s ideology of accountability. Jackson’s philosophy of a coach was to rid players of their innate selfishness.
“Scottie Pippen was not involved in the play. He asked out of the play. That is all I’m going to say about it.”
Many years later, Jackson admitted he wouldn’t make excuses to the team about Pippen’s mutiny. Pippen had to apologize to his teammates who had trusted him up to that point. He had to explain himself.
To the media Pippen said, “Phil and I kind of exchanged words. That was pretty much it. It wasn’t Phil taking me out of the game, we pretty much exchanged words, and I took a seat. I think it was frustration. We really blew this game as much as we possibly could. We were able to pull off the win. Toni made another outstanding shot and it was a well-called play by Phil. I wasn’t doing anything, anyway. That’s pretty much it.”
Pippen’s aversion to Kukoc wasn’t a secret. Ever since Bulls GM Jerry Krause openly lusted over Kukoc, Pippen saw him as a threat. That he was a Euro player, who as a group were looked upon as the have-nots, made it even worse. In Kukoc’s contract it left open the possibility he might be the highest paid player on the Bulls and that didn’t sit right with Pippen. Pippen added heat to the fire when he arrogantly said it wouldn’t bother him if Horace Grant, an impending free agent, made more money than him, upping his resentment of Kukoc.
Kukoc was all class after he sank the game-winner to give the Bulls the first win in the series.
“How did I do it? Easy. I shoot the ball and hope it goes in. The ball came in my hands and there was not much to think about. I had a pretty good look at the basket.”
Pippen’s look at the basket was good too, from the bench. Forever in the history books, it will record his mutiny. Something bad happened to Scottie Pippen.