Michael Jordan himself said it. The exact quote comes from “The Last Dance”, the ESPN documentary on the Chicago Bulls dynasty that was all the buzz on Sunday night. Right from the start of the ten-part series, Jordan said, “Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen.” Pippen was there for all six rings. He averaged a touch under 18 points per game and shot 48 percent from the floor in his 12 seasons with Chicago.
He was also perhaps the most interesting character from the first two episodes of the series.
Pippen’s father and brother were both in wheelchairs. He grew up with 11 siblings and had to originally go to the University of Central Arkansas as an equipment manager, practicing with the team before a scholarship finally opened up for him. Pippen was a rising star, drafted fifth overall by the Seattle Supersonics before being traded to Chicago to be the Robin to Jordan’s Batman. After a shaky rookie season, Pippen stepped up in year two, averaging double digits in scoring as he would for the remaining ten years in his first stint with the Bulls. Even with Jordan putting up numbers that were absolutely bonkers, it was Pippen staying steady as his number two. He averaged 21 points per game in the playoffs during the Bulls’ first three finals runs. Lebron needed Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, then Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Steph Curry has Klay Thompson. Kobe Bryant had Shaq.
Jordan needed Pippen.
Then there is, of course, the contract. The 7 years, $18 million deal Pippen signed that made him the sixth highest-paid player on the Bulls in 1997 and the 122nd highest player in the entire league. Even when his agent advised against signing the contract, Pippen did it anyways. He had a family to take care of. People watching the documentary at home laughed, but Pippen needed to make sure his family was secure even if he was injured. As he said, “Going to the league isn’t just about me. I have people to take care of.” So when he refused to get an ankle surgery until the season started in 1997, I can not blame him. The franchise that he had given everything to for 11 years would not pay him. The franchise that he had a large part of at that point making a five-time champion.
It is not to say Jordan would not have been in the conversation as the greatest ever without Pippen. But when the 1997 season started without Pippen, Jordan said, “Every day that Scottie didn’t play, that gave teams the confidence they could beat us.”
Jordan was the heartbeat of those 1990s Bulls teams. There is no denying that. He was the best player in the world, many argue the best to ever touch a basketball. A global superstar and icon. Jordan was a god-like figure, and hearing from him almost does not feel real. But Pippen was right there by his side, ranking second on the Bulls in every single offensive category, besides steals and assists where he ranked first. Maybe he was selfish at some points like Jordan said. The thing that Jordan may not have understood was how badly Pippen needed the game too. He needed to provide for his family back home. On and off the court, Scottie Pippen is one of the most interesting basketball players to ever do it, and that became apparent in the first two episodes that aired last Sunday.
“I didn’t win without him, that’s why I considered him my best teammate of all time.”