Arjun Khanna and Chinmay Menon, Undergraduate Batch of 2023 Battle of Los Angeles One of the
Scottie Pippen was perhaps more than a sidekick
by Payoja Ahluwalia
ESPN’s docu-series The Last Dance, released on Netflix in April 2020. Since its release, it has received several accolades, hoots-and-hurrahs and widespread attention from officials in the NBA, basketball players, celebrities, worldwide fans of the sport, the Bulls and more. It’s the quintessential Michael Jordan story, albeit a few detours, one of it being Scottie Pippen. Now, Scottie Pippen played for the Chicago Bulls for 12 seasons with a solid average of 16 points per game but there is a lot more to his story than what was depicted in the documentary.
Through the ups and downs of managing his role as a defender for the team, The Last Dance refers to him as the Robin to Jordan’s Batman. But was Scottie Pippen, the former captain for the Bulls for two years, really just a sidekick to Jordan’s larger than life persona? Those of us, who’ve closely followed the Bulls era in their prime, contest this statement as complete disfavour to Pippen’s contributions to Bulls through his 12-year long journey with them. Dennis Rodman, who recently jumped on to this bandwagon, even went a step further to claim that “when Michael left, Scottie took over, and the next thing you know he was the best player in the world and people don’t know that”.
Now, there is no denying that Michael Jordan was the GOAT. The man did all he could for the team’s growth and was the leading figure and guiding force for the Bulls’ double three-peat feat. He was a unique player who was polyvalent enough to cover all five positions and drastically redefined what it meant to be a forward, and at a larger level, what it meant to be a basketball player in the 1980s.
However, the single-track focus on Michael as the ‘greatest ever’, combined with the ownership group dead set against renegotiating a deal that validated Scottie’s value as a player, put Pippen in the group as one of the most underpaid and underappreciated superstars in NBA history.
As Jordan’s right-hand man during the Bull’s golden era, Pippen was, and is, often considered in the context of MJ’s greatness. However, what most of us forget is that Pippen wasn’t just some random teammate. His stats were almost as impressive as Jordan’s were.
Pippen played for 12 seasons, averaging six rebounds and a sturdy five assists per game. Alongside his infamous six NBA championship rings, he also made a fantastical Olympic appearance with the Dream Team and went to win a gold medal. Viewed independently, his achievements are the stuff of legends. On top of that, Pippen was the first-ever Bull to score 100 three-pointers in a season, play in 200 playoff games and he and Jordan routinely matched each other for 30 points or more per game during their playoff appearances.
If statistics weren’t enough, a peak at Pippen’s ability to act as the adhesive binding the team together in times of conflict, on and off the court, speaks volumes for his contribution as a player and teammate for the Bulls.
The Last Dance refers to the infamous ‘1.8 seconds’ incident when Pippen refused to play for the team because of which he was at the receiving end of public backlash for months after. However, that polarizing moment, when it seemed that Pippen had failed at separating himself from the nuances of the larger game, actually represents the part of Scottie’s personality that enabled him to become perhaps the most unexpected star in NBA history.
Pippen talks about the incident in the documentary saying; “It was one of those incidents where I wish it never happened.”
But in typical Pippen fashion, he also goes on to say:
“But if I had a chance to do it over again I probably wouldn’t change it.”
The nail in the head, this is the type of response that puts Scottie in a different class of players. As unexpected as Pippen’s snake-like reach on defense and gliding balletic offensive strides toward the basket were, so were his responses to adversity and accusation. This armor against public scrutiny made his contributions to the Bulls most vital; he regularly stepped in to serve as a shield against the barbs and bites of life and media attacks towards his game and his teammates.
This tenacity also shone through when he survived getting a concussion in the opening minute of Game 6 of the 1989 conference finals and then the migraine headache in Game 7 of the 1990 conference finals. Scottie Pippen knew how to focus on the greater good of the game while also making sure he was making a fine example of himself for years to come.
To come back in the clinching Game 4 in 1991 even after Dennis Rodman’s vicious attack and play a game high in minutes and record 23 points, 10 assists and three steals in a game shows that Pippen was ready to absorb the blows (literally, in this game) and still hit the ground running.
Ultimately, there are endless tales of why Pippen was so important to the Bulls, but his demeanor might be one of the most underrated aspects. As Chris Mullen, who has played against him on both ends of the floor, puts it, Scottie “did everything on the basketball court to perfection — defense, offense, rebounding, assists, scoring. He was an incredible athlete.” His skill set was unique, and even today we haven’t seen many players who are so gifted and versatile in every aspect of the game.
The Last Dance has told us plenty of stories of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, yet the part that goes missing was how Scottie was the perfect balance to Michael’s incessant intensity, how he was deemed a superstar by all his teammates and how he was unmatched in his defense statistics during his prime. Scottie Pippen played for most of his career on the Bulls but always as second fiddle to Jordan. So, it’s not surprising that the documentary focused on the multitude of stories surrounding Jordan and not enough about Scottie. However, as Jordan himself puts it crisply in the documentary, “There is no Michael Jordan without Scottie Pippen”. This only goes to show that perhaps it is high time we rethink the golden era of Chicago Bulls from the perspective of Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan as a duo and a not star-sidekick couplet. Then, perhaps, we would truly recognize that Scottie Pippen was much more than just a sidekick and he was truly the Superman to Jordan’s Batman, not the Robin.