Intentionally, as if we had forgotten the crown, the 10 episode documentary The Last Dance reminded us that Michael Jordan is a complicated champion and polarizing figure. A feral bully, a preacher, a capitalist, a champion, Michael Jordan was petty, judgmental, competitive. He was ruthless. And he was fragile. Michael Jordan is like one of those abstract paintings you see at the museum. The meaning of the art depends on who is looking. Michael did what had to be done to reach his very lofty goals. Or, Michael was an oppressor who enjoyed making others suffer. While fans wanted to be like Mike, his teammates never did. You loved him if you were buying a ticket. You hated him if you were his teammate.
Now that the dust has settled and the documentary is over, it doesn’t surprise me that Scottie Pippen is emotional about it. He’s a sensitive man and so certain exchanges got under his skin. According to reports, Pippen is livid by how he was portrayed in The Last Dance. How it all looked. But it was Michael Jordan’s documentary; he had editing privileges.
What went in The Last Dance was what Michael wanted in. What was left out was what Michael wanted left out. Scottie, understandably, isn’t thrilled with the editing, how he was made to look like a disgruntled character in a horror flick but here’s the thing. Scottie was disgruntled. He hated Jerry Krause. He thought the Bulls lowballed him on his contract. He resented the Bulls love fest with Toni Kukoc. Pippen was also his own worst enemy in the doc, speaking in monotone, rigid in his chair, expressionless as a statue.
Sensitive and cautious about what he says publicly, Pippen has his fans and his detractors but the documentary didn’t explore either, nor was their much mention about Pippen’s star power. In fact, to the chagrin of his friends and family I’m sure, Pippen had a supporting role in The Last Dance. He wasn’t the star by any stretch of the imagination. He was Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. He was Morgan Freeman in Seven. He was Denzel Washington in Fences. Supporting actors have significance but they don’t carry the freight. They carry the water.
Because he played with Michael Jordan and won titles while Jordan was taking home MVP trophies, Scottie Pippen has never gotten his due. Some of that he has to own. He didn’t have the hunger that a Jordan or a Kobe or a LeBron has. He was a versatile athlete absent the killer instinct to humiliate his opponent. Scottie had a Southern soul on the court. He made other players better but he wasn’t Michael Jordan, wasn’t charismatic, larger than life, rigid, nor was he cruel. More than any one storyline, the documentary focuses on Pippen’s loathing because of his contract and he comes off as talented but petulant, self-absorbed, injured at the wrong time, versatile, gifted but brooding. He wasn’t particularly likable in the documentary. But neither was Jordan.
It didn’t help that Jordan called Scottie selfish for not having surgery early in the summer of 1997. The result was Jordan had to do more to carry the team when he was exhausted. He was forced to rely on Dennis Rodman more. Up to that point, the beauty of the Jordan/Pippen relationship was an interchangeable balance on the court. Different pieces but the puzzle worked. However, Jordan’s ruthlessness was no match for Scottie’s sensitivity.
In The Last Dance only one side of Pippen was portrayed but perhaps that was the only side that Michael saw. He and Scottie weren’t friends.
Thankfully, the documentary didn’t put Scottie in the “sidekick” box but it did devalue his contributions. He felt he was a whipping boy for the entertainment of the ESPN public and it’s easy to see why after 10 hours of a Michael Jordan autopsy. Someone had to play opposite Julius Cesar, had to be Brutus. Someone had to take it on the chin. Enter Scottie Pippen.
The problem is one of perception. Scottie left Chicago for Houston and then Portland. His reputation as a 1A followed him. In a WCF Game 7, Scottie’s team the Portland Trailblazers had a 4th quarter double-digit lead that the Blazers choked away. Scottie was held responsible for succumbing to Kobe and Shaq. One person put it this way, “Phil knew Scottie would bend under pressure.” It continued a narrative Pippen just cannot shake. Great player with Jordan. Okay player without him. The middle is probably where the truth lies.
As for the documentary that fetishized Michael Jordan’s brilliance. It also summed Pippen up in honest terms. Pippen’s problem is his personality isn’t one that pops on screen. Next to an expressive Jordan, on camera Pippen came off as guarded, expressionless, and passive-aggressive, as if he didn’t trust the filmmakers enough to unburden his soul. But at the end of the day, sport isn’t about personality but achievement. I didn’t need a Michael Jordan-centric documentary to tell me Scottie Pippen was a gifted team player, someone sensitive enough to hold a grudge about his paycheck, and at his best when he was a lockdown defender and versatile playmaker.
Pippen wanting to get paid what he was worth mattered more than championship number 7. That is selfish. But selfish isn’t always detrimental. Often, it means looking out for yourself and your interests because no one else will. Like when Michael Jordan quit and played baseball. That was selfish too.
No one called it that though. Not even Pippen.