Back in the fall of 2005, the Chicago Bulls decided to honor their former All-Star forward Scottie Pippen by retiring the six-time champion's jersey number. As time moved along -- and as Pippen's role in the Bulls organization increased -- the franchise eventually decided this wasn't enough. So on Thursday night, at halftime of a heated contest between the Bulls and the Boston Celtics, Chicago unveiled a sculpture of Pippen that will be on display in the United Center for every one of the stadium's events.
The Bulls have done this before, unveiling a giant statue of Michael Jordan outside the arena back in 1994 when it opened (and when the team retired Jordan's number for the, uh, first time), while also paying tribute to late former coach and broadcaster Johnny "Red" Kerr with a statue of his own two years ago.
Pippen, who has come back to Chicago in 2010-11 to act as "team ambassador," got a more colorful tribute, literally. The statue doesn't just bronze the Basketball Hall of Famer -- it also gave color to his hair and his blood-red Bulls jersey.
At a halftime ceremony unveiling the work, Pippen was typically smooth, articulate and gracious. Posing with his wife Larsa and his four children, he thanked the sold-out crowd effusively while ranking the honor "at the top" of the many achievements (two gold medals, six NBA championships, seven All-Star game appearances, a jersey retirement and last summer's Hall of Fame induction) he has received in his basketball career.
It's hard to imagine such a ceremony taking place this time back in 1999, just two months after the Bulls signed and traded Pippen after a rancorous end to his initial run with the franchise. Pippen had long clashed with former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who had scouted and drafted the unheralded forward in 1987, and Pippen (ranked 122nd among NBA players in yearly salary after signing a penny-wise, but pound-foolish long contract years before) demanded a trade as Chicago attempted to defend its title in December 1997.
Literally demanded it. As in shouting, "Why don't you trade me! Trade me!" from the back of a team bus at Krause as the team drove to the airport following a road game.
Pippen got his wish following the 1998 championship season, as Chicago put together a package to actually make Pippen more money in a trade with the Houston Rockets, rather than letting him walk outright. But the rest of Pippen's career included nothing but frustration and failed attempts at recreating what he had in Chicago.
Pippen never meshed with Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, and was traded to the already stacked Portland Trail Blazers the year after. Though Pippen's all-around gifts helped the Blazers on their way to a seventh game in the Western Conference finals, he was never the smooth type of scorer who could take over a game late, and Portland fell short to the Lakers. The Blazers' brains fell short in the years following, and in the summer of 2003 Pippen found himself a soon-to-be 38-year-old free agent.
Krause had left the Bulls at that point after a pair of failed rebuilding attempts of his own. Former Bulls teammate John Paxson, however, was now running the team, and he surprisingly lured Pippen back to Chicago to provide veteran leadership on a team rife with young players. Though Chicago was picked by some to end a five-year drought and make the playoffs that season, Pippen's body failed him and the youngsters played up to their age. Pippen retired after the 2003-04 season.
Paxson made a point to keep Pippen around, though. Pippen sat in on several local TV broadcasts with the team in 2004-05. His number was retired the next season, and when Pippen's financial troubles became public knowledge a few years later, Paxson and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired Pippen in an ambassador capacity.
Scottie has been a fixture on the team's sideline throughout 2010-11 with courtside season tickets. He also works with the team in practice, makes dozens of public appearances and will be in the broadcast booth when the top-seeded Bulls take to the postseason later this month.
And with Jordan's statue looming large outside the United Center, the team decided to take the next step and give him an honor that moves beyond the retired jerseys given to Jordan, Jerry Sloan and Bob Love. The celebration came on a good night, as well. The defending Eastern Conference champions were in town and the new-look Bulls trounced the veteran Celtics, 97-81.
Unlike Jordan's statue, which sits for free view in the United Center parking lot, you will have to pay a ticket to take in Scottie's bronzed and beaming visage. But should things keep up, and the Bulls keep winning, why look at a sculpture in the arena's hallways when you can spy the real deal in the front row? Something tells us that Scottie is going to stick around this time.
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