Excerpt from “How The GOAT Was Built: Six Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls” (Read the book here)
Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to push your limits — or to find peace and excellence within them
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
The championship Bulls don’t work without Scottie Pippen. So naturally the Bulls tried to trade him approximately a bajillion times between 1994 and 1998. In telling the story of the 1996 Bulls — and gleaning from that story wisdom for our own lives and pursuits — two abandoned Pippen trades stand out.
Incredibly, both failed because the OTHER team balked.
The first was between the Bulls and SuperSonics on the eve of the 1994 draft, the Pippen-for-Kemp deal that failed when Seattle got cold feet.
The second was in February 1995, when the Clippers tried to acquire Pippen at a time when he was dead set on leaving.
“I don’t want to be here (with the Bulls) the rest of the season,” Pippen said in early February. “I’m hoping teams are thinking about me. I’m still ready to get out of here. I’m looking for a different place, a different team, a different perspective on my career. I’ve got 18 days to go (to the February 23 trading deadline). The countdown is on. Just say I’m showcasing myself out here.”
The Clips put a helluva deal on the table: L.A.’s next two number one picks, along with the right to swap picks the following two seasons. That would have given the Bulls the #2 pick in 1995 (L.A. took Antonio McDyess; Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Kevin Garnett were the next three picks) plus L.A.’s top pick in 1996.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, Pippen was developing a bond with new Bull and ex-Clipper Ron Harper, who was only too eager to explain the shortcomings of both Clippers management and the fan base, a team he hated so much that he was suspended one game the season before for likening his time there to a jail stint.
The Clippers wanted assurances that Pippen would come to the team rather than hold out. He would make no such guarantee. The trade fell through.
Eight days later, Jordan quit baseball. So the Pippen non-trade to the Clippers was crucial because by the summer of 1995 Jordan was telling management he would not stay past the end of his contract in 1996 without Pippen.
As a Bulls fan obsessed with the title years, I’ve always made a point of referring to those teams not as “Jordan’s Bulls” but as “Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls.” This might seem sentimental, or flat-out wrong, but trust me: we don’t get six rings without both guys.
Or fine, don’t trust me. Trust him:
“I just don’t see how you would get equal value for a player like Scottie Pippen,” Jordan said after the 1995 loss to Orlando as rumors swirled about a possible Pippen trade. “Maybe for a Hakeem Olajuwon, and I’m not even sure you would want to do that.”
Pippen’s value strictly as a player was obvious: he was the league’s best perimeter defender and a 20-point scorer who in 1995 became the second player ever to lead his team in total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. (Dave Cowens did it in 1978, followed by Pip, KG in 2003, and LeBron in 2009.) Pippen finished in the top 3 in VORP in both 1994 and 1995 (only David Robinson did as well), and in 1995 led the league in defensive rating, the shortest player to do so between the NBA-ABA merger of 1976 and Kawhi Leonard in 2015.
Specifically for the ’96 Bulls though, and the whole second three-peat, Pippen’s value extended beyond the court. In a Q&A with the Tribune’s Sam Smith before the 1996 season, Jackson called Pippen “the most unselfish superstar in the game of basketball.”
Wrote Bill Wennington in his 2004 memoir “Bill Wennington’s Tales From the Bulls Hardwood”: “As a teammate, you could not ask for anyone better than Scottie, and that includes Michael.”
Wennington recalls one film session in which Jackson jumped on Wennington for committing a Bulls defensive sin: double-teaming in the post. Wennington was playing power forward next to Luc Longley, and Pippen — also on the court — told Wennington to double despite Jackson’s standing order to the contrary.
When Jackson let Wennington have it, Pippen told Phil that he, Scottie, gave Wennington the instruction.
“That sort of thing didn’t happen just once,” Wennington wrote. “It happened several times, and not just with me, but with all the players on the team. … He had taken the role of a leader on the floor, and he was defending his decisions to Phil in our film meeting.”
“Poor Scottie. I kept telling him it’s not easy being me.”
— Michael Jordan
More than talent, the Bulls were powered by strategy and work ethic — specifically from Jordan, who during the second three-peat played all 246 regular season games, all 59 postseason games, three All-Star games, and 23 of 24 preseason games, finally missing his sixth preseason game in 1998 with an ingrown toenail.
“(Jordan’s) competitive spirit ignites that ‘We will not lose’ attitude that he’s always brought to the game,” Jackson said on Chicago Tonight on the eve of the 1996 season. “But I think sharing it with Pippen every day in kind of a co-leadership role has elevated Scottie into even a greater player than he’s ever been.”
“The best thing for Scottie was when I left,” Jordan said in 1996. “He understands what I’ve gone through and what he’s going through. It’s not an easy task. It’s a tough responsibility. And for years I was able to take some of that light away from him. When I walked away, he saw that light in a better situation including with himself. And it’s helped him grow.”
Pippen’s 1994 is, perhaps, best remembered for his refusal to play the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the team’s playoff series with New York because Jackson asked Pippen to inbound the ball to Kukoc rather than take the shot.
“Poor Scottie,” the baseball-playing Jordan told reporters in Birmingham afterward. “I kept telling him it’s not easy being me. Now he knows.”
“Toni was bawling like a kid and I didn’t even know him that well,” Jordan said. “In that one instance, I wish I could have played, just so I could have taught him and helped him learn the game.”
That task fell to Pippen. From watching both games and practices, Jordan thought Pippen was harsh.
“Playing with Toni, I would have been more sympathetic, with all the things he had to adjust to, than Scottie was,” Jordan told Isaacson. “Scottie was a little bit impatient. As much as he was trying to help him, the public perception of him during games was the yelling. No one wants to be yelled at on the court.”
(And here I’ll just add that I could literally quote this entire chapter in Isaacson’s book — it’s that good — but I won’t to save time. You should really seek it out.)
Anyhow, take from that what you will from Jordan, a notorious motivational-berater of teammates, but MJ’s other observation about Kukoc also applied to everything that played out in those 1.8 seconds.
“One thing I did see in (Kukoc) was that he was the only guy out there with the confidence to take the game-winning shot,” Jordan told Isaacson. “He didn’t worry about the pros and cons. He felt, ‘If I miss it, so what?’ He had that confidence. And to take those shots, that’s how you’ve got to think.”
Earlier in the season, Kukoc hit a game-winning three-pointer against the Pacers — on the exact same play as the 1.8 seconds shot against the Knicks, complete with an enthusiastic Pippen inbounding the ball.
When the 1.8 seconds against the Knicks went down, Jordan was in uniform with the Barons for a game in Orlando. He was in the bathroom, with someone outside yelling to him the play-by-play. The Bulls were tied with 1.8 seconds to go, Jordan was told.
“I told them, ‘You don’t have to tell me. Kukoc is going to take the shot and they’re going to win,’” Jordan said. “I predicted the whole scenario.”
Afterward, it was Jordan who, better than anyone, immediately empathized with Pippen and intuited the blowback to come.
“All your greater players have that desire to want the last shot,” he told Isaacson. “But if that’s what he felt, that was certainly not the most opportune time to do that. You wait until after the game.”
If the play didn’t work, Jordan said, Pippen’s credibility would be restored by the press, which would pick apart the coaching decision.
“Scottie didn’t understand that and I didn’t have the chance to teach him,” Jordan said. “He jumped the gun and you can’t do that, especially not in a playoff game. And unfortunately, he’s going to be criticized the rest of his life for that. That’s the kind of situation that sticks with you.”
And it did — just not with teammates and coaches. They quickly moved past the error, with many expressing sympathy for Pippen in his moment of need. Jackson’s explanation for the team’s failure to win a championship in 1994 wasn’t Pippen’s leadership, but that “we didn’t have a Scottie Pippen behind a Michael Jordan,” adding that “Scottie had no one like himself to step up behind his effort.”
The lasting emotions toward Pippen from his 1994 teammates were gratitude and respect.
“He had a phenomenal year,” John Paxson told ESPN in 2010. “To those of us who were teammates, (1994) showed what kind of teammate he was. He wasn’t out there to try to prove to people that he could score 30. For Scottie, it was about winning.”
“I want you to know you will always be in my heart.”
— Scottie Pippen
Chuck Daly once described Pippen as a “fill in the blanks” player, a trait he employed in 1996 both on the floor and in the locker room. Pippen was the entry point into the team’s three-pointed leadership structure that he shared with Jackson and Jordan, the bridge who helped the superstar relate to the journeymen and the journeymen relate to the superstar.
Jordan’s attitude toward teammates was considerably more welcoming during the second three-peat than the first, yet he would still reprimand them in practice or during games, challenging their ability and work ethic in hopes of helping them reach hoops enlightenment. In “Second Coming,” Smith writes about Jordan in the ‘95 playoffs driving for an inside bucket instead of passing to open teammates on the wings. Jackson told him to pass next time.
“You don’t see what I’m looking at,” Jordan told him.
The inherent challenge of being Michael Jordan’s teammate was that Jordan was the game’s best player AND the smartest AND the most demanding. Wennington remembers Jordan telling his new teammates during training camp of the ‘96 season to “Jump on the cape and hold on tight because I am going to try to buck you off.”
The challenge wasn’t just that Jordan did not tolerate behavior he deemed lazy. It was that he could not comprehend its cause or accept its legitimacy. Wennington recalled a game when Jordan did not pass to Luc Longley, despite the natural flow of the triangle offense dictating that the pass be made.
Jackson called timeout and told Jordan to pass to Longley. He refused, saying Longley already missed two of his passes. At a meeting in practice the next day, Jackson reiterated.
“Michael,” Wennington recalls Longley saying, “I am trying my hardest.”
“Luc, you are not,” Jordan said. “You are not catching the ball. If I pass you the ball, you have to catch the ball.”
This exchange shines a different light on MJ’s famous creed, “I can’t accept not trying.” To Jordan, “trying” equaled executing. Failure to execute WAS the failure, NOT failure to try. Even during Jordan’s calmer days during the second three-peat, the collective force of his drive, will, bluntness, fame, and myth challenged teammates to get better or get out.
“With Michael, there’s no forgiveness when you miss,” Steve Kerr told Sam Smith for Smith’s 2014 oral history of Jordan, “There Is No Next.” “That was the intimidating part. Scottie was the exact opposite. If he passed to you and you missed, he would pat you on the head and say, ‘That’s alright. I’m gonna pass it to you again next time.’ Whereas Michael would look at you like: ‘You gotta make the fucking shot.’”
If instead of Pippen, it was Jordan who had told Wennington to double the post, and Jackson was then killing Wennington in the film session, “(Jordan) would let you burn under the coach’s examination and grilling and see what you would say in your own defense,” Wennington wrote. “For Michael, it was a test of our willingness to stand up for ourselves. … Scottie didn’t test us the same way.”
Pippen’s game epitomized Jackson’s philosophy for players to “always be in the offense.” Yes, he initially expressed excitement when Jordan retired, with Isaacson relaying a story of Pippen in the locker room in late October 1993 announcing to no one, “Michael, I love you, but I’m glad to see you go.”
Two years later, carrying both the strength and the scars from being The Man, he told ESPN that having Jordan back made him “comfortable.”
“Everyone enjoys the spotlight — being the leader, being the go-to guy,” Pippen said. “But it’s a lot of fun when you’ve got a good group of thoroughbreds you can go to as well, and then you can pick your places.”
Asked if he wanted to “be like Mike,” his response was telling: “No. I want to be like Scottie,” he said. “That’s all I can be and that’s all I ever want to be.”
Today, MJ’s 2009 Hall of Fame speech is exceptionally well known, not just because it launched the “Crying Jordan” meme but because he used the moment to settle scores and re-coat layers of time-cracked trash talk.
Less memorable but equally insightful was Pippen’s Hall of Fame speech one year later, in which he asked his former teammates in the audience to stand, “so that I can recognize you.” Seven of them stood, including five from 1996-1998 and one more, Pete Myers, from 1994. Pippen looked lovingly at the players to whom Jordan always called “my supporting cast.”
“I really appreciate playing with you guys,” Pippen told them, a smile beaming from his face that was returned by his smitten teammates. “I want you to know you will always be in my heart.”
Next chapter: “Lesson 3: Surround yourself with humble talent for a unified mission” AKA “The Other 10: How Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause rebuilt the totem pole and created a new champion”
Want more on Scottie’s amazing 1994 season? Read “Moving On — The Tale of Scottie Pippen’s 1994 Chicago Bulls”