August 13, 2010
Here's my five, and we're going to beat you.
I'm running Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan in the backcourt, Bill Walton in the pivot, and Bill Russell with Larry Bird at the forwards. There are better players at possibly four of the positions I've stocked around Jordan, but I don't care. This is my five, and we will beat yours.
And Scottie Pippen starts. Hell, Scottie Pippen brings the ball across half court. And Scottie Pippen is going to be the guy that holds it all together, on his way toward beating whatever hypothetical starting five you want to throw at this lot.
If this column gets too personal, well, this is something you're just going to have to tolerate. Because I've spent a lifetime watching this man play basketball, and I can't imagine another person I'd rather play ball alongside. Ask his teammates, far and wide. They hated life without him.
The awards, the rings, the statistics? They don't matter, with a guy like Scottie Pippen. The 1.8-second sit-out? That's part of the package when you do everything right for little payoff for so long. Kind of like those Amish kids who are allowed a fortnight to go inhale narcotics and chase down women with unnecessary vowels in their first names before submitting to a lifetime of quiet obedience to their respective makers.
Pippen's personal maker was this game, the game that I've chosen to cover and obsess over, and the one that brought him out of crippling poverty in rural Arkansas. His personal upbringing and formative years allowed him to see the game from all angles -- scrub to superstar, unheralded game-changer to too-precious franchise saver -- and nobody, I'm convinced, sees this game better than Scottie Pippen.
This doesn't mean he should run a team, coach a team or run the point-forward slot for the 2003-04 Chicago Bulls. This just means that, in the context of a game and how it flows and where it should go, Scottie Pippen was often left constantly disappointed. Not in the same way that Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant(notes) toss those too-obvious glares when you muck it all up after they deign to pass it to your lowly butt, but in a way that presumes you'll know what to do with the ball and where to cut and how to end it four moves following the entry pass I'm about to throw you.
Because, for someone who missed as many shots as he did and made as many mistakes as he did, Scottie Pippen was always the smartest guy on the court. He saw things that no other player did.
This isn't even a reaction to his finer years, warming these jowls to the thought of this breathtaking athlete loping up and down the court with the Bulls during their championship years. If anything, my most recent memories of Pippen are sprouting up. Those years with Portland, spent among lunkheads who didn't know anything else beyond isolation or pick-and-roll basketball. That one year in Houston, terribly mismatched on a team that would post up one old Hall of Famer on the low left block, while four guys in ugly pinstripes watched from the weak side. Or that last year with the Bulls. Awful.
You'd just see what Pippen was on about, if you were paying attention. A quick pass to someone who wasn't expecting it, while Pippen expected a give-and-go that would result in him getting the ball back and then dumping it off to someone else on the fly as he drove. Two, three steps ahead. And yet, nothing. To call him a man out of time would be to demean the concept of the timing he so brilliantly excelled at.
He was just a team player, in every sense of the term. He led the league in non-assists. He turned the crank on the best play that never was. He set the screen for the guy who wasn't even aware that he could do what Scottie Pippen thought him capable of. Scottie Pippen was a basketball genius, and in nearly 13 years of covering this league in written form, I don't think I've ever used the phrase "basketball genius" in any way that wasn't the opposite of sincerity.
Scottie couldn't articulate it. He probably couldn't draw it up for you, because how can you approximate momentum and attack and improvisation with a dry-erase board and pen? He couldn't tell the teammate where to go in the next dead ball, because the "where to go" and "what to do" don't matter when you're not stopping or working in a set position. You can try to run, mistake activity for achievement, but you can't hide from what's inside of you. You don't know, like Scottie knows. You don't see what Scottie sees.
There's no point in pretending that I'm on the same level as Pippen. I just saw enough of his good and bad to understand when things were to his liking, and when he was let down. What I did see, with those Bulls, was the end result of Scottie's on-the-fly machinations. So much so that when they didn't happen in Houston and Portland (often with better teammates), I could sense the disappointment. Anyone could.
And that's not getting into defense. I've never seen anyone do it, all of it, better. Never. Chase the point guard curling off the screen in order to deny the 3-pointer while your teammate catches up, then slunk back into position on your man, only to help and block the shot of the big man who just picked up the pass from the point guard whom you just denied an open 3-pointer. And anytime I get spitting mad at the thought that millions of people have to listen to Mark Jackson help "call" this league's biggest games, I just pull up tapes of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, to watch Scottie make him his absolute creature. Mama, there goes that chump.
You can't work your way into this. This is unique to Pippen, and outside of maybe Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, this just isn't something you see very often. It's created because of the context. Watching games as a team manager allows for the hunger to make it one seat over with a uniform all your own. Playing games as a scrub guard allows for your development as a playmaker. Running things at 6-foot-7 with wingspan as a star allows for the touch and the taste and the hunger to influence the knowledge that tells you that stars are different.
Being a part of each of these worlds allows you to know how to deal with every teammate you've ever come across. No matter the age, the upbringing, the contract, or the points-per-game average. Tugging on your shorts at the free-throw line, gasping for air and wondering where it's all going, there's nobody you want to talk to more than Scottie Pippen.
That's why he starts, for me. I could invite you into my living room and pull up the DVDs and point until I'm blue in the face and in the manner of speaking, but it wouldn't be enough. As it is with Scottie, you have to live it. You have to see it, as it unfolds. You had to be there. You really did.