The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were defined by the inevitability of their success. This is what happens when your star player is being recognized in real time as the greatest to ever play the game, when no record to contextualize your dominance seemed too steep to achieve and when the only playoff series you lost at full strength from 1991-1998 came during a year in which that star player arrived straight from the outfield midseason with a different number on his chest.
Growing up in Chicago at this time, it was, honestly, very easy to take what the Bulls were doing for granted. It was an impulsive response in a child's mind. The Bulls had Michael Jordan and so the Bulls never lost. There wasn't another outcome to color your perception the other way, to create the hard reality that proved just how impossible this thing the Bulls were doing actually was.
Then, at some point, you grow up. It's not just the magnitude that sets in, but the fragility of it all, too. Believe it or not, these other great teams didn't fall to the ground and concede Jordan his destiny. It was, in fact, much harder than that. There were so many times when either of the three-peats could have fallen apart. There were so many times when it was Scottie Pippen, and not MJ, who saved it from happening.
There was the 1991 Finals, when the Bulls lost the first game before Pippen switched onto Magic Johnson, stuck to his hip up and down the court and disabled the Lakers' signature Showtime tempo. There was Game 6 of the 1992 Finals, down 15 heading into the fourth quarter, when Pippen led the reserves on a killer run to bring the Bulls back into contention with Jordan on the bench.
There was the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Knicks had taken the first two games and were about to go up 3-2 in Game 5 until Pippen and Horace Grant combined to deny Charles Smith at point blank range time after time. There was 1997 when Pippen stole Utah's final inbounds pass to seal the Bulls' fifth title. There was the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, when Pippen put Mark Jackson in a straightjacket against his will and refused to free him until the series was over.
It's impossible to reduce Jordan's presence during this time, and the fact that he remains such a ubiquitous specter to this day only solidifies that. But Jordan didn't do it himself, and he couldn't have. Pippen might have been a sidekick in situation, but not in stature and not in ability.
Without Pippen, the spectrum of everything changes. And that is why Blog-a-Bull is celebrating Scottie Pippen this week, the week he turns 50 years old. We remember Pip because he may never have Jordan's wealth and fame or Phil Jackson's continued relevance in the game, but his genius is what made their teflon legacies possible. We remember Pip because, without him, those six banners wouldn't be hanging in the United Center today.
(Credit: Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images)
When Scottie Pippen entered college as a walk-on at Central Arkansas in 1983, his main goal was to become the manager of the football team. Pippen was an all-conference point guard as a high school senior, but at 6'1 and 150 pounds, he didn't seem to have much of a future in basketball.
Then he started growing.
Pippen went from a rarely used reserve as a freshman to a star as a sophomore. By the end of his college career, he shot up to 6'8 while retaining the guard skills he had spent a lifetime honing. Pippen couldn't find much competition at an NAIA school that bused to all of its games, but Bulls GM Jerry Krause saw something in him. Specifically: a 7'4 wingspan, elite athleticism and a great feel for the game.
Krause liked Pippen so much that, according to a passage in The Jordan Rules, he offered to put him up in Hawaii so other teams couldn't get a look at him ahead of the 1987 draft. It didn't work, and Pippen shined at pre-draft showcases. The Bulls had the No. 8 and No. 10 picks and knew Pippen wouldn't be around. So Krause worked out a trade with the Seattle SuperSonics, sending the eighth pick (Virginia center Olden Polynice), a future second rounder and a pick swap in 1989 for the rights to Pippen.
At No. 10, the Bulls took Clemson power forward Horace Grant, and suddenly a young Michael Jordan had the reinforcements he needed.
Pippen backed up veteran Brad Sellers for most of his rookie season, but was inserted in the starting lineup for the first time in the decisive Game 5 of a first round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jordan had yet to win a playoff series up to that point, and this would be the first sign of what he and Pippen could accomplish together. Pippen finished with 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals and the Bulls earned their first of three failed attempts to take out the Detroit Pistons.
Pippen grew into an All-Star by his third year, his first under Jackson, when he started to gain more ball handling responsibility and turned into a dominant defender. Pippen and Jordan became known as the "Dobermans" for their ability to lock down opposing wings, and Pippen started a run in which he averaged two or more steals per game for five out of six seasons.
The thing that jumps out about Pippen from this time is how his game would have translated to any era. His length, speed and basketball IQ would still be the ideal for a wing today. Throw him in the league at the turn of the '90s and it seemed like he was sent straight from the future. Put him on the team with Jordan and you have the foundation for the most dominant stretch in modern NBA history.
At this point, Jordan's mythology might as well be written into the league's DNA. Everything was a capitalized event -- The Shrug, The Flu Game, The Shot. You need to dig more with Pippen, but his best moments deserve to be sanctified all the same, especially in this city. Scottie, you know, could dunk from the free throw line, too.
Go to 1994, Pippen's lone season in his prime without Jordan, which was an absolute tour de force: third in MVP voting, first team All-NBA, All-Star Game MVP. He was top 10 in points per game, top 20 in assists per game, No. 2 in steals per game, No. 4 in PER, No. 2 in plus-minus. Oh yeah, he also put down the greatest dunk of all-time.
Go to Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, when Karl Malone went to the free throw line in a tie game with nine seconds left. Pippen whispered "The mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays", Malone missed both shots and Jordan would win the game with a buzzer-beater on the next possession. Days later, Jordan collapsed into Pippen's arms for one of the most iconic images in league history.
Go to 1998, and only the second time the Bulls found themselves in a seven-game series in the dynasty years. It was Pippen's defense against Mark Jackson that made all the difference, even as the Pacers were throwing "three or four picks" in the backcourt to get him free.
"The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game," Steve Kerr said after Game 1. "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."
"That was the first time that I have seen a player get up on a point guard and not really foul him but get his hands in there and dig the ball out," Pacers coach Larry Bird said.
It wasn't always neat with Pippen. While history proved Jordan to be vindictive, single-minded and borderline malicious, Pippen was emotional, vulnerable and more human.
There was the Game 7 migraine against Detroit, the 1.8 seconds fiasco in '94, the unfortunate long-term contract that made him only the sixth highest paid player on the final title team. No is one perfect and neither was Scottie, but at a certain point those incidents only served to underscore just how impressive it was for the Bulls to keep it together as long as they did.
Pippen overcame back surgery early in his career and toe surgery that cut halfway into his 1998 season to go on to a 17-year career that saw him age about as gracefully as a basketball player can. By the time Jordan returned and the Bulls were on their way to a second three-peat, he remade himself as a quality three-point shooter and wrecked havoc defensively as a freewheeling roamer. His athleticism never seemed to dwindle much and that historic reach always gave him an edge.
It all combined to make Pippen one of the most versatile stars in NBA history, one of the best teammates ever and the type of wing that would be just as effective right now as he was 25 years ago. It's become a popular refrain to say "there will never be another MJ" even as we try to anoint a new heir each decade, but it's just as accurate to say there will never be another Pippen, too.
He was Kawhi Leonard with point guard skills and Andre Iguodala on steroids, blessed with the defensive versatility of Draymond Green and the IQ of CP3. The way the league has adapted in recent years has only underlined just how ahead of his time Pippen was.
The dynasty years might always be remembered for Jordan first and foremost, but none of the Bulls' incredible accomplishments would have been possible had he not been lucky enough to play with this revolutionary, brilliant sidekick. Because we don't want to imagine what the '90s Bulls would have looked like with Olden Polynice, we remember Pippen this week.