Dance partner: Why Scottie Pippen was more than Jordan’s sidekick

JR Isaga
Dance partner: Why Scottie Pippen was more than Jordan’s sidekick

AFP

Scottie Pippen was an MVP-caliber superstar at his peak, but he knew his place

 

 

MANILA, Philippines – Michael Jordan is undoubtedly the greatest basketball player of all time. There have been many contenders over the years, but “His Airness” is just a cut above the rest. 

But like many of the game’s greatest icons, Jordan rose to ranks of the greatest of all time with an equally great support system. 

There have been many superstars in NBA history who gladly took a back seat to an even greater player on their team, and more often than not, their sacrifice took them all the way to the top.

The Miami Heat had Dwyane Wade during LeBron James’ controversial tenure there from 2010-2014. The Boston Celtics had Kevin McHale dominate the competition alongside Larry Bird while the Los Angeles Lakers had “Big Game” James Worthy finishing plays for the “Showtime” mastermind, Magic Johnson. 

In time, it has been an inevitable trend for these secondary stars to get overlooked as fans remember more fondly those who came first in the pecking order of their heyday.

And perhaps, no superstar has been more overlooked and underrated over the years than Scottie Pippen, the Chicago Bulls’ second-best player in franchise history.

With that description alone, it’s easy to see why Pippen’s legend looked significantly smaller than his larger-than-life counterpart on the court.

Once Jordan’s name is mentioned, people immediately think of championship rings too many for one hand, signature sneakers and an image of a man suspended mid-air, legs spread and ready for a thunderous slam dunk.

On the other hand, the first mention of Pippen’s name merely brings people right back to Jordan, and all the images he brings along with him. 

To the younger or more casual fan base, Pippen looks like that player who easily rose to fame by riding the coattails of the greatest of all time.

However, that couldn’t be any farther from the truth.

 

Improving Jordan’s playoff record

Perhaps unknown to many NBA fans, Jordan was not the postseason dream-killer that many of his fellow superstars came to fear. At least not yet.

Thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks and Bird’s Celtics, the Bulls suffered 3 straight first-round exits from 1985 to 1987 despite Jordan’s record-setting playoff performances. 

To this day, Jordan’s 63-point explosion in the opening round of the 1986 postseason against the Celtics stands as the league’s 34-year-old single-game playoff scoring record.

At the time, Jordan was already in a league of his own as an individual, but the arrival of Pippen in the 1987 draft catapulted him to legendary status that eventually changed the landscape of the league and the Bulls franchise for years to come.

After 3 more years of coming up short in the playoffs, the Bulls finally won their first championship in franchise history as they defeated the Showtime Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals.

Incidentally, Pippen was also selected to his first of 7 All-Star appearances that season as he finished the year averaging an all-around line of 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.1 blocks.

Jordan and Pippen would then go on to cement their legacies shoulder-to-shoulder as the Bulls recorded two title three-peats in a span of 8 years. 

Jordan did everything humanly possible to take his team to the promised land on his own, but he ultimately needed a helping hand to finally start his hobby of collecting championship rings.

 

Popularizing the ‘point forward’ style 

As Jordan established himself as the league’s premier scorer, clutch performer and perimeter defender, Pippen also held up his own game very well. 

He was not known as the best scorer, rebounder nor passer, but he still did all of these things on an elite level.

On top of that, his long, 6-foot-8 frame helped him become even more fearsome than Jordan on the defensive end, as evidenced by his consistently high steal and block totals. 

Hall of Famer head coach Phil Jackson summed up his game best in a 1997 interview with The New York Times after the Bulls won their fifth championship at the expense of the Utah Jazz. 

“A lot of people watch who score and that’s wonderful. But Scottie Pippen’s defense is a one-man wrecking crew. He plays 48 feet at every position, both sides of court.” 

His “jack of all trades” activity on the court eventually paved the way in popularizing the “point forward” position not seen since Larry Bird revolutionized it in the 1980s.

New millennium stars like Lamar Odom, Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic all carved their respective niches as reliable point forwards in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but no one replicated Pippen as closely as LeBron James.

Using Pippen’s playstyle to full advantage, James won 3 championships off career averages of 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.6 steals.

Simply put, only a select few of the game’s most elite can claim they have a true all-around game, and Pippen was one of those few.

 

Proving he can carry a team on his own

Speaking of James, the four-time league MVP was able to showcase his maximum potential because he was given free rein as the undisputed number one option in every single team he has been on.

Although Pippen did not have the same luxury for the majority of his career, he was given a small window to prove that he too can lead a team as the primary option.

In 1993, the league was left in shock with Jordan’s infamous first retirement and subsequent transfer to Minor League Baseball shortly after the Bulls completed its first three-peat.

Instead of giving up their title aspirations, however, Chicago found renewed vigor with Pippen now leading the way as the undisputed alpha dog. 

No longer playing second fiddle to anyone, Pippen peaked that year with career-high averages of 22 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.9 steals plus a respectable norm of 5.2 assists.

The Bulls entered the 1994 playoffs with a record of 55-27, just two wins worse than the year before with Jordan still at the helm. 

Although Chicago would soon get eliminated in the conference semifinals by the eventual finalist New York Knicks, Pippen proved his peak year was no fluke. 

In the 1994-1995 season, even after Jordan returned for the Bulls’ final 17 games, Pippen still finished the year leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

That marked only the second time in NBA history that a player led a team in all 5 major statistical categories, the first since the Celtics’ Dave Cowens in 1978. 

This feat has since been replicated by Kevin Garnett in 2003, LeBron James in 2009 and most recently, Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2017.

In that illustrious group, all of them won a league MVP award at least once in their careers except for Pippen, which really tells a lot on where his skills are on par with.

 

‘You never just saw me’  

All in all, Pippen proved how raw talent paired with a steady work ethic and a sense of unselfishness can go a long way. 

As a secondary option for practically his entire career, he provided nothing but a different, yet fruitful perspective on how to uphold a winning culture.

For Pippen, it didn’t matter that the spotlight wasn’t on him for a major part of his 17-year career. What mattered most for him is that he provided whatever was needed out of him and that he kept winning under the fundamental concept of teamwork. 

He was an MVP-caliber superstar at his peak, but he knew his place. 

Of course, this did not go unnoticed by the man who benefitted most from Pippen’s sacrifice. 

In his highly anticipated Hall of Fame induction back in 2009, Jordan opened his speech with the best tribute he could possibly have made. 

“I told all my friends I was just gonna come up here and say ‘thank you’ and walk off. I can’t. There’s no way. I got too many people I can thank.”

“In all the videos, you never just saw me. You saw Scottie Pippen. Every championship I won.” 

That was the first and last mention of Pippen’s name that night. But really, there was nothing else left to be said. 

They say it takes two to tango, and the game’s greatest player had the best partner anyone could have ever asked for – up until the last dance. – Rappler.com

 

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