Friday, December 09, 2005

Retired Numbers, Part 3

Yeah, I know—first I skip a day, and now I'm going to talk about retired numbers AGAIN. At least this time it won't be about the Celtics. But before I do that, I have to post this one link to the greatest NBA blog ever. I present to you, Flea.

Tonight, at halftime of the Bulls/Laker game, Scottie Pippen will see his No. 33 raised to the United Center rafters, joining Jerry Sloan's 4, Bob Love's 10 and, of course, Michael Jordan's 23. Jordan himself is supposed to be on hand, as will Phil Jackson (because, you know, he sort of coaches the Lakers now). It will be interesting to see which other teammates show up—Horace Grant, who was a fellow rookie in '87 is expected, as is (maybe) the mercurial Dennis Rodman.

There was a time in the '90s when Pippen, not Jordan, was my favorite Bull. It was some combination of his tenacity on the defensive end and his ferociousness on offense; his uncanny ability to bury a pull-up three whenever it seemed the Bulls most needed a bucket. It also had something to do with Jordan's superhuman fame—which, while deserved, seemed to push Pip into the background more than he deserved.

Pippen was his own worst enemy for a while—constantly whining about his below-average long-term contract (which he had, of course, signed), those ill-timed migraines against the Pistons, that horrible 1.8 seconds when he refused to be a decoy and was yelled at on the bench by Bill Cartwright (then had to watch Toni Kukoc sink the game winner). Scottie seemed to feel—and rightly so, at times—that he wasn't recognized enough.

But any true Bulls fan can tell you that his perception was wrong. Just as Pippen was elevated by playing next to Jordan, the opposite also held true. They drove each other to new heights in practice, and Pippen often took the opposing team's best scorer to enable Jordan to use most of his energy on offense. How many charges did he draw? How many clutch baskets did he hit? How much time did he spend in the weight room, transforming himself from a skinny rookie to one of the most cut guys in the L? How often did he defer his own considerable talents to the greatest player to ever play the game?

Let's not forget, when Jordan retired the first time, the Bulls didn't exactly fall off the face of the earth. In '93-94 they started 4-6, but still finished the season with 55 wins, sweeping the Cavs in the first round before falling to the Knicks in 7. The following season they won 47 games, before falling in the second round again, this time to the Magic (and with Jordan, who had returned for 17 games of the regular season). Pippen was the All-Star MVP in 1994, his game eclipsing even his garish all-red Nikes as he went for 29 points (including five threes) and 11 boards. His ferocious baseline dunk on Patrick Ewing in the '94 Playoffs (with a stunned Derek Harper looking on) remains one of the L's most indelible images.

And maybe that's what made Pippen my favorite. When Jordan left the game to play baseball, Scottie shouldered the load he left behind. And while he wasn't able to single-handedly lead the Bulls to another title on his own, he DID lead. And when Jordan returned from his year-and-a-half cojourn to the field of dreams, Pippen once again quietly stepped back, retaking his prior role of "sidekick" (which was always an offensive term). After that embarassing loss to the Magic, Michael rebuilt his game and reaffirmed his superiority to the tune of another threepeat. But it's worth remembering that through it all, Scottie Pippen never left.

In the end he did, of course, as Jordan's second retirement sent all parties outward, leaving the Bulls in rebuilding hell. Scottie got his big contract and found himself in Houston, joining a Dream Team lineup of Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon. Only they were all too old, with too many miles on the clock. And Pippen was his old irascible self—I went to Houston to write a feature on him for SLAM, and he basically didn't talk to me for three days straight. Only a voluble Sir Charles saved that trip.

Pip moved on to Portland, joining a massively talented but massively flawed team. They had the talent to hang with anyone, but not the temperament. They suffered one of the worst collapses in NBA history in 2000—up 15 in the fourth quarter of Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals, they collapsed down the stretch. Pippen wouldn't play in another Finals.

His career ended where it started—in Chicago, in the house he half-built. As he neared 40, Pippen became a mentor to the young Bulls, essentially serving as a coach as he struggled through 20-something games. He's been more forthcoming of late, doing some announcing, and helping out Phil Jackson in Los Angeles. Tonight he receives a tremendous honor, one which he has long deserved. HIS night. And his alone.

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