‘Eye of the Storm,’ Sports Illustrated, June 14, 1993

 

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

by Jack McCallum

What New York Knick coach Pat Riley might call a “defining moment” occurred for Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls in the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Chicago Stadium on May 29. Pippen dribbled downcourt in his signature full-throttle glide, leaped high and unleashed a ferocious tomahawk dunk over Knick guard John Starks, who stumbled and fell to the floor. As Pippen trotted back upcourt, he glanced at Starks ever so briefly, with a wholly uninterested look, as if to say, “Oh, were you there? Didn’t see you, man.”

Pippen has long been capable of such supreme athleticism, as well as such supreme arrogance—after all, why shouldn’t a guy with a Roman nose carry himself like a Roman emperor? But in the series against the Knicks, both Pippen’s athleticism and his arrogance were backed by rugged resolution. Throughout the entertaining Eastern scrum, which ended last Friday night in Chicago with a 96-88 Bull victory in Game 6, Pippen and Michael Jordan were like pop-ups in an arcade game: Slam one down with a rubber hammer and the other springs up.

It was not surprising that Jordan was able to pick up Pippen, of course; such acts are part of Superman’s daily agenda. But it was intriguing to see Pippen step into the temporary vacuums left by the sometimes physically exhausted and mentally overburdened Jordan (page 13). For the first time in Chicago’s three successive marches into the NBA Finals, in fact, a Bull other than Jordan would have deserved to be named MVP in a playoff series, were such an honor awarded for a series other than the Finals.

The spotlight will inevitably be trained on Jordan and his superstar counterpart, Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns, in the 1993 NBA Finals, which began in Phoenix on Wednesday. But if Jordan’s shaky shooting continues—a career 52% shooter, he made only 40% of his shots against the Knicks—Pippen’s number will be called, again and again.

During the decisive Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, for example, it was not Jordan who made the big second-half shots but Pippen, he of the supposedly crumbling-cookie composure. When the Knicks, having almost eliminated a seven-point deficit, threatened to steal the game late in the fourth period, two Pippen jumpers with the shot clock almost at zero bailed out the Bulls. The first came from the deep right corner just after Pippen had flashed a smirk at Knick superfan Spike Lee, sitting at courtside. The second, a three-pointer from beyond the top of the key, was followed by Pippen’s raising his index finger and glancing at Starks with another Were you there? expression on his face. Boy, the Knicks must’ve felt like killing Pippen.

Then again, that was precisely their strategy as the series began. And it will most likely be the plan employed by the Suns, though not as overtly. Look for Phoenix guard Dan Majerle, among others, to bang Pippen around physically, and look for the Suns’ suddenly feisty point guard Kevin Johnson to get in Pippen’s face a time or two. “It’s no secret,” says Bull coach Phil Jackson. “So goes Scottie Pippen, so goes Chicago.” Nothing like a little pressure, eh, Pip?

The strategic rationale for getting tough, both physically and psychologically, with Pippen is this: Jordan must almost always be watched by two and, sometimes, three defenders. It is therefore impossible to double up on Pippen. But if one defender can shut him down, the Bulls might well go down too. But the underlying reason is this: Many teams still believe that when subjected to constant physical and mental duress, Pippen will crack like a walnut. So sure were the Knicks of this that soft-spoken forward Charles Smith, who was matched against Pippen much of the series, attempted to reinvent himself as a heavy—talking trash, throwing elbows, bumping chests, ignoring pregame handshakes and affecting a kind of sneer normally displayed only by teammate Anthony Mason. (Memo to Smith: Madonna could walk around in a nun’s habit, but that doesn’t mean we should call her Sister.) Smith’s posturing made it particularly delicious for Pippen when he blocked the final two of Smith’s four futile shots from point-blank range in the waning seconds of the Bulls’ 97-94 win in Game 5. That victory, in New York, took the home court edge from the Knicks and turned the series Chicago’s way.

Does Pippen, a Dream Teamer and a three-time All-Star, still warrant this no-respect approach? One of the first questions he was asked following his superb performance (24 points, seven assists, six rebounds) in Game 6 was this: “Scottie, do you think this was the series when you finally proved yourself?” Pippen took a deep, resigned breath and said, “I have two [championship] rings. I don’t think I have anything to prove.”

Whether he likes it or not, the yardstick against which Pippen will always be measured is Jordan, and in most cases, Pippen will be found wanting. His dilemma is nothing new, of course. Christopher Marlowe wrote some pretty good plays, but it was that Shakespeare fellow who got most of the attention in Elizabethan England. Closer to home was the situation of the Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale—no matter what he did, no matter how he did it, he could not be Larry Bird.

The difference betwen McHale and Pippen, though, is that the loquacious McHale seemed to enjoy his status. He was quite comfortable extolling his teammate’s virtues, to the point of playing oral hagiographer, reciting the accomplishments of St. Larry to an eager press and public. That’s not Pippen. There are many occasions, when the subject is Jordan, on which Pippen’s pique rises suddenly to the surface. On Jan. 16, for example, when Pippen was asked about Jordan’s 64-point explosion in a 128-124 overtime loss that night to the Orlando Magic in Chicago, he just pointed to this stat: Jordan, 49 shots. After Jordan’s 54-point gem in Game 4 of the Eastern finals, Pippen said, “Michael had a hot hand, but when that happens, there’s a lot of isolation, and it allowed New York to get back into the game. It’s not that we don’t want him to get his points, but it makes it tough for others to step up when they need to.”

It doesn’t matter that Pippen happens to be correct. Such sentiments come out sounding like a bad brew of sour grapes. That feeling is further fueled by the fact that Jordan is sparse in praise of Pippen and, privately, has often expressed reservations about Pippen’s toughness. Perhaps if Zeus overpraised his subjects, he wouldn’t be Zeus.

Pippen and good buddy Horace Grant, the Bulls’ starter at power forward, used to be united in their feelings about their subservient roles as planets revolving around the Jordan sun. But their friendship has diminished somewhat over the years, and it was severely tested when an article featuring the begoggled Grant in the April issue of Inside Sports included this tasty nugget from Grant: “To be honest, Scottie has become arrogant and cocky, but that’s to be expected of people who can’t handle fame and fortune.” Whew! Grant’s utterances were made during the preseason, when he was extremely upset over what he perceived to be preferential treatment given to Jordan and Pippen after their triumphant Olympic summer in Barcelona. His anger subsided as the season progressed. But that doesn’t mean the comments didn’t wound Pippen.

“Horace told me he said that stuff a long time before,” says Pippen. “And I said, ‘Yeah, but you still said it, so evidently you meant it.’ It hurt. I won’t say it didn’t. I think it was a combination of a lot of things—frustration, maybe misinterpreting me a little bit and confusion over our friendship changing. Things aren’t the same as when we were young and it was Scottie and Horace, Horace and Scottie. We’ve outgrown that, and we both had to realize it. The important thing is that we’re still good friends and that we play well together.”

The two have also continued a miniritual before the start of each game. Grant walks to the basket nearest the Bull bench, and Pippen follows a few seconds later. They grip each other’s arms and trade inspirational clichés about “playing hard” and “getting it going right away,” and then they break. It’s touching in its simplicity.

In reality the Bulls, as all championship teams must, have reached the point where they are not only able to overcome personal off-the-court distractions but also to thrive on them. (The tempest created last week by the book Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction…My Cry for Help! is only the latest example.) No one knows to what extent the green-eyed monster bothers Pippen when he puts his head down at night, but on the court it bothers him not a whit. Not anymore. There are times when Jordan and Pippen seem to be playing alone out there, slinking into the passing lanes, tipping the ball to each other, running, dunking, gliding in an athletic pas de deux somewhere in the rafters.

Yes, Jordan still comes out far ahead of Pippen as a player, and any attempt to flip-flop their importance to the Bulls is absurd. Pippen is a fine perimeter shooter with as pure a ball rotation as anyone in the game, but Jordan is a great shooter because of his indomitable will to score. Pippen, long of both arm and leg, is a terrific on-the-ball defender, but Jordan is as good a defensive player as anyone who has ever played the game. Pippen’s passing gets steadily better, but he does not see the floor nearly as well as Jordan, who dishes almost as well as he drives.

But Pippen’s steadiness against the Knicks’ pressure defense demands that he be recognized for fulfilling his ball-handling duties, which are far more numerous than Jordan’s. Remember the discussion a few years ago about Jordan’s having to play point guard because the Bulls did not have a penetrator at that position? It turned out that a true point man was there all the time, but Pippen’s talents were hidden by his lack of confidence. “Nobody knows how hard I worked alone on dribbling and just feeling the ball in my hands,” says Pippen. Only when Pippen finally proved he could orchestrate both the half-court offense and the fast break did the Bulls become champions.

On Saturday, Pippen talked at length about playing the role of Garfunkel to Jordan’s Simon. Perhaps his feelings were colored by the joy of the previous night’s victory and the personal satisfaction he got from sticking it to the Knicks. But the evidence suggests that Pippen has come to terms with playing in the shadow of Chicago’s guiding light.

“I honestly don’t know whether I could function as a player away from Michael now,” said Pippen. (Most of Pippen’s critics would agree with that, but it was, nevertheless, surprising to hear him say it.) “What Michael has brought us, every night, every game, is the spotlight and the pressure that would’ve been directed elsewhere. All of us—Horace, Pax [John Paxson], B.J. [Armstrong]—had to respond to it, or else we would’ve died as a team. Eventually, we did respond, and it made us stronger.

“I wanted more [recognition and shots] early in my career; sure, I did. It was hard always being compared to Michael, because it seemed that no one else was under that same microscope. You never heard about [Los Angeles Laker forward] James Worthy being criticized because he didn’t do enough to help Magic Johnson when the Lakers lost, for example. But with the Bulls, it was always, Well, Michael held up his end as usual, but Scottie didn’t do enough. I just came to realize that it was a unique situation with Michael because of how truly great he is.

“It doesn’t surprise me that teams come after me because they feel they can’t get to Michael. I love that challenge; I loved it when the Knicks said they were coming after me. I hope Phoenix does the same thing. During the Knick series I felt really healthy for the first time all season [Pippen had been slowed for a year by a badly sprained left ankle; a cortisone shot he received about a month ago helped], and when I’m healthy, there isn’t a challenge in the world I can’t meet.

“I’ve come to terms with my role on this team, and that is to do the things I can do. I’ll never be the scorer Michael is. I couldn’t put up those numbers even if I tried. And you know what? I hope he leads the league in scoring [as Jordan has for seven straight seasons] for the rest of his career. And when it’s all over, I’ll be able to say, ‘I helped him do it. And I played with the greatest player ever.’ “

Funny, but that sounds a lot like Kevin McHale.

‘Nice & Smooth,’ Slam Magazine, May 1995

Photo Credit: Slam

by Scoop Jackson

I grew up in the same neighborhood with Timmy Hardaway. We lived about three blocks away from each other, in an area not known for legendary hoopers. Ekersall Park on Chicago’s southside was our spot. A couple of years before Tim went to high school, I broke ankles off there. Too small to do the NCAA thing, I went the black college route.

Upon returning home in the summertime, I found out that my legacy on the court was gone. Some had even forgotten who I was. “I got skillz,” was left painted on the concrete I used to call home. Man, but Timmy went beyond breaking ankles; he broke hearts.

Latrell Sprewell isn’t from Chicago. He’s from Milwaukee. And I have no idea who he outplayed on the neighborhood courts before he became “Michael Jordan with small hands,” but I’m pretty sure there’s another having his legendary status eclipsed by a real ball player.

Golden State. Storm City. Floods, flood watches and flood warnings. Ugly weather. Roseanne Barr ugly. The Golden State Warriors were in the middle of a storm. Yeah, an ugly one. The weather outside couldn’t come close to the havoc inside Coach Nelson’s camp. In a little under two months, his team has gone from heaven to hell. Sugar to shit. Kinda like the difference between John Starks in Game 6 and Game 7. Injuries, trades, accusations, trades, disarray, mayhem, trades and losses were weighing heavy on the team that everybody thought was going to compete with the Houston Rockets instead of the L.A. Clippers. Forget the light at the end of the tunnel; this was a bottomless-pitwatchin’, quicksand-sinkin’ team on the verge of getting a lottery pick. Oh, what a tangled Webb they weave.

The departure of Chris Webber was big, there’s no denying that – there’s no other way to put it. Check the Warriors media office: Life-size framed poster of Webb flushing one with Mark Jackson’s face on his jock. Ugly.

Chris Webber was supposed to be the new franchise, the future, the H.N.I.C. It didn’t happen, too bad the NBA is sometimes more about business than it is about basketball. Coach Nellie has to deal with too much, shall we say, “pressure.” His team is drowning in a flood, and two of his players are on TV commercials wanting their NBA LIVE ’95 game-system back: “Don bring it back, Don bring it back…” A haunting cry.

Gasp, cough, gasp. No Mullin, no Marciulonis, no Owens, no Tyrone Hill, no Mitch Richmond. Somebody help, they’re going down. Underwater – gasp – one organization under the groove. I see Shelly Winters, a Poseidon Adventure flashback. It’s dark. Where’s Gilligan and Skipper? It’s over. One last gasp. Wait…the NBA All-Star Game is approaching. Timmy Hardaway is healthy and Latrell Sprewell is going off. Then…relief! The Warriors win some games, the rain stops.

Shake. Dunk. Crossover. Three. Steal. Dish. Rebound.

Spree and T have formed what has to be considered one of the best backcourts in League history. Yes, they still have to prove it, and, yes, Penny and Nick in Orlando are nice, but this is scary.

“Next to Michael Jordan, [Sprewell] has got to be the quickest two-guard with the ball that I’ve ever played against,” Thank you, Reggie Miller.

“As long as Tim has that crossover, he’s the king because it can’t be stopped.” Word, Magic Johnson.

During the flood/storm, Timmy and Latrell sat down and discussed the importance of being the best; trades; sneaker contracts; and, most importantly, saving a drowning team.

SLAM: There have been a lot of good guard tandems in the league over the years, but this is different. It’s very hard to argue that the two of you aren’t the best. How important is that to you both?

TIM HARDAWAY: Personally, deep down, it’s important. I want to be the best guard in the league.

LATRELL SPREWELL: Before the season started, I told some friends of mine that we should be the best, and right now, I think it’s working out that way. If teams aren’t solid defensively, we can hurt ’em.

TH: Yeah, they know they have to stick us and try to control us, and we know they can’t do it (laugh).

SLAM: Individually?

LS: Back in the day, before I even came into the league, when Timmy was doing those commercials with Spike Lee, he was really rollin’ then. I mean, he’s just so strong with the ball. That crossover is just…lemme put it this way: I’ve seen him leave somebody a good five feet away from him in the other direction. He’s deadly.

TH: [Spree] has the same game as Mike. If Latrell had big hands, he’d be just like Jordan. He’d dunk on anybody.

SLAM: Yeah. Spree how do you feel about the Jordan comparison?

LS: It’s nice. When somebody says that about me I feel good inside, but nobody is going to be like Mike. It’s nice to be compared, but even with large hands, I don’t know. I can only be Latrell Sprewell and see how far that goes.

SLAM: Did either of you expect to get this far or be this good? I mean, both of you were somewhat unknown coming into the league; underrated. Now look at you. Timmy. In the neighborhood we kind of knew you were going to make it, but not like this.

TH: Honestly, I never really thought I’d get to where I am as fast as I did. But all of the hard work paid off. It’s great. But I really didn’t think I’d make it here this quickly.

LS: Well, I’d say it’s not surprising. You know, anytime you work hard and you put a lot of confidence in yourself and you can do…So I don’t think I was surprised.

SLAM: Hold up, you mean that you knew you were going to be All-NBA first team in your second year?

LS: No, I didn’t expect any of that. I was only surprised that some of these things happened so early in my career.

SLAM: Although both of you have excelled in the NBA, is there a big difference between the competition now and the comp you had to face growing up in the ’hood?

TH: Back then, it was hard. A lot of people kept telling you that “You can’t do this,” or “You’re too short, you won’t be able to play defense, you won’t be able to shoot over guys.” Then you’d have to bust that ass (laugh)! That stuff just motivated me to get better and better everytime I went out there. Everyday was a challenge for me. I knew I could play the game, but those dudes [in Chicago] made me come out and play harder. You [want to] prove them wrong.

LS: I don’t think it’s any different. Especially if you don’t have a name. Me, myself, nobody knew who I was here, it was the same way on the playgrounds. You know, you really don’t know who you are playing with until you get out there and play, and show people what you can do and then I’ll say, “Well, I got him” and “I choose him.” But up until then, you’re just standing on the sidelines trying to get next. But now, I’m sure if I got out there, somebody would see me and they’d be like, “Well, okay, we got him” you know? But back in the day you had to earn that spot.

SLAM: So what was the turning point that made you realize that you could get that spot, that point where you kinda knew your game was butter?

LS: I really didn’t have a turning point. I just think once I got the opportunity to play, I just wanted to make the most of it. So it really wasn’t one game or one day where I just knew I could fit in and do well. I’ve always been confident, it was just a matter of getting the opportunity.

TH: The turning point in my career came when I went to the NABC tournament game in 1989. I turned it out, got MVP, and from then everybody started recognizing me. That’s when my confidence really, really, really skyrocketed. From there, I was like, “Yeah, I’m in now. Just keep playing well through the whole season, get drafted…I’ll be alright.

SLAM: Everybody at the crib thought it was the game you played against Chris Jackson and LSU on national TV during the NCAA tournament. We were hyped. When you out played him, we knew you were there.

TH: Now, a lot of people thought that, but I knew [before then] after the All-Star game.

LS: Yeah, sometimes it’s more of a situation. You know injuries last year gave me a chance to start. I was forced to grow. All of a sudden I was the go-to-guy. I just kinda fell into the role and that just helped me grow.

SLAM: Both of you have killer weapons. Tim you have the wicked [crossover] and Spree, you’ve got a thousand moves outside of the ultimate first step to create your own shot. Are these the biggest assets to your game?

LS: Yeah, the step is one of them, besides defense. There are a lot of ways to create shots, but you’ve got to be smart on the court. Yeah, I do think I have a little quickness, a little first step; it’s the major reason I’m able to get open and get some easy scores.

TH: Oh yeah, the crossover is legendary [loud laugh]. Nick Van Exel has a nice one too. It’s my weapon. I use mine to do the things I need to do, to create.

SLAM: Is it overrated?

TH: Naw, I really think it’s underrated (laugh).

SLAM: Transition. There are so many aspects to pro ball that have nothing to do with playing. They always say that decisions are made for the betterment of the team and the organization. You all have had to go through a couple of tough ones: Mitch Richmond for you, Timmy and Chris Webber for you, Latrell. How have these trades affected the both of you?

TH: I miss Mitch, of course. I think everybody does. The fans, the organization. But you know, Coach makes some deals that always help the team out, you know, and you gotta go with it. You can’t be mad at him eve though [at times] you probably want to be mad at him. You can’t say nothin’, because if you say something, it’s probably wrong. So it’s just best to leave it alone, just go with it. It was hard to deal with [Mitch being traded] at first, especially going to a team that wasn’t winning and shit. It was hurting us seeing him losing. But now I’m happy to see them winning and playing well, and he’s getting his (props) now.

LS: Chris’ trade was big. That’s why so much is being made of it. It was a big thing. Do I miss him? Yeah. I miss him as a friend and I miss playing with him. He and Billy (Owens). It was nice having them here.

SLAM: Tim…

TH: No, I’m not sayin’ nuthin’ about the Chris Webber situation. I’m going to leave myself out of it and let them handle it. I’m handling my own stuff and trying to get my own thing together. Let that be between him the coaches and the organization and I’ll just handle my thing on the court.

SLAM: What about the transition? Doesn’t it fell like you two have to stop this squad from drowning?

TH: We definitely have to overcome a lot of things, but when are we going to do it I don’t know. I guess when we start beating good teams like Seattle, Houston, Portland and teams like that, then I think we’ll get over the hump. But until then, things are going to be hard.

LS: If I had to look at the outcome of this team right now, I’d have to say that it’s not looking that good for us, but there’s still time for us to turn it around. I mean, we’re right there, you know. Hopefully now that we have Mullin back, we can get over the hump.

SLAM: Although you all hoop for a living, is it hard to still be a fan of the game?

LS: Oh no! Coming up everybody loved Magic, Michael, Bird, Isiah. But guys that make me say, “Damn,” are people like Shaq. Key match ups like Anfernee Hardaway, John Starks. All kind of players – Kendall Gill, Dan Majerle, Nick Anderson. [Notice all of the Orlando players mentioned.] I can go on and on. The talent level is that great. Every night out you gotta be on the top of your game or else one of these guys is going to get the best of you.

TH: I like Nick Van Exel’s game. And Jason Kidd, when he gets his shot down, he’s going to be nice, real nice. Terrell Brandon, Dana Barros – the way he’s playing, man. There’s a lot of guys out there.

LS: That’s just the way the league is. You never know how you’re going to play. That’s the thing about it, you just gotta get a feel for the game and see what’s out there, because you’re not going to have a good game every night…

TH: I am. (laugh)

LS: It depends on how you feel, how your body feels and stuff like that…The thing with me is that I want to go out and play as hard as I can every night. That’s my thing. I don’t ever want to come off of that floor and say, “Damn, I could have played that last five minutes a little harder.”

SLAM: But that takes work and dedication to get that in your psyche, to learn to think like that. Do you all feel that a lot of these young boys coming into the league have that type of min/work ethic?

TH: No. I don’t think so. You know sometimes I look at guys who need to work on their game, [but who] leave as soon as practice is over. Then they wonder, “How come I don’t get to run,” or “How come coach is always on me.” Stuff like that. When I was coming up, shit, I was always in the gym. Played, played, played. I had a ball in my hand – always! Now the shit is like foul. You know, some dudes act like they just don’t give a fuck.

LS: I think a lot of it depends on, or can be blamed on, the program they come from. Some coaches work their guys hard, like Bobby Knight, Pitino, guys like that. They really get after their players and try to get the most out of them. That just builds a work ethic. Other coaches may not have a work ethic like that, so it’s reflected in their play when they get there. I think that’s part of it, and another part of it is the person within themselves and whether they want to work hard. I think it’s a combination of both.

SLAM: A’ight, on the real, both of you came into the league wearing different sneaks than you are with now. Why did both of you switch?

LS: [from Nike to Converse] Well, Converse was more concerned about making me a main guy. I don’t think Nike had those type of intentions. They weren’t looking out for my best interests and I think Converse is.

TH: [from Adidas to Nike] The money, baby. Period.