What Michael Jordan's documentary doesn't tell you about Scottie Pippen's refusal to check in vs. Knicks
It was 1994: Michael Jordan was playing baseball, and Pippen felt deeply insulted by Phil Jackson
Twenty-six years ago, with Michael Jordan playing baseball for the Birmingham Barons, Scottie Pippen played some of the best basketball of his life.
"Scottie was our prime motivator, initiator," then-Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson says in the seventh episode of "The Last Dance," the 10-part ESPN/Netflix documentary. "(He) organized the offense. He really stepped into that role."
Pippen averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks in 1993-94, leading the Bulls to a 55-27 record. It was a spectacular season. And then, in the second round of the playoffs, he tarnished it.
There were 1.8 seconds left in Game 3 against the New York Knicks at Chicago Stadium. The Bulls were down 2-0 in the second-round series, and the score was tied. In a timeout, Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc, who had hit three game-winners that season. Pippen, the designated inbounder, angrily refused to take the court.
"I felt like it was an insult coming from Phil," Pippen says in the documentary. "I was the most dangerous guy on our team, so why are you asking me to take the ball out?"
Jackson recalls approaching Pippen and asking if he was in or out. Pippen replied that he was out.
"I remember Phil said, 'F— him; Pete Myers, come on in,'" then-Chicago guard Steve Kerr says.
"It was like a 'Twilight Zone' moment," then-Bulls forward Horace Grant says. "Like, what the hell is going on?"
Pippen sulked on the bench as Myers lofted a pass to Kukoc at the top of the key. With bruiser Anthony Mason contesting the shot, the 6-foot-11 forward swished a turnaround jumper for the win.
It was not a typical celebration.
"I was obviously happy for making the shot," Kukoc says, "but the whole situation, even going towards the locker (room), you see everybody's pissed that things are not right."
Bill Cartwright, the team's co-captain, gave an emotional post-game speech. There were "tears coming down his face," Kerr says, "and he said, 'Scottie, I cannot believe that you quit on us like that.'" Pippen apologized to his teammates.
"The next day," Jackson says, "I get a call from Michael. He said, 'I don't know if Scottie is ever going to live this down.'"
"It's always going to come back to haunt him at some point in some conversation," Jordan says. "Pip knows better than that."
To this day, Pippen's perspective is, uh, confusing. "It's one of those incidents where I wish it never happened," he says, "but if I had a chance to do it over again I probably wouldn't change it."
Here's what "The Last Dance" doesn't tell you about Pippen's decision and the context in which it took place:
The crunch-time issue
The Bulls led by 22 points late in the third quarter and went scoreless for more than five minutes at the start of the fourth, allowing New York to come all the way back. Before Kukoc's shot, Patrick Ewing's 14 fourth-quarter points were more than Chicago had managed as a team. This was particularly disturbing because it had blown leads down the stretch of the previous two games.
"We were fortunate to bail ourselves out of that game," Jackson said, via the Chicago Tribune. "Whatever is happening in the first nine of 12 quarters has worked consistently well. Then in the fourth quarter, we are not up to par."
Through three games, the Bulls were outscored 87-49 in the final frame. They avoided such lopsided margins later in the series, but their offense once again went cold late in their Game 7 loss, which inevitably brought the absence of Jordan's crunch-time prowess back into the conversation.
"I always felt that Michael was ordained to do things, especially in the fourth quarter," then-Chicago assistant coach John Bach said after the team was eliminated, via the Associated Press. "He attacked the basket with a destructive urge that everybody — his teammates, opponents, even the refs — had to respect. He was inspired in ways other players hardly ever are. I'm convinced that's why he was rewarded with such unusual success late in so many games."
The forgotten possession
While a previous episode of "The Last Dance" covered how Kukoc wound up in the middle of Pippen's feud with Jerry Krause, the documentary skipped the more immediate source of tension between the two. The Bulls' previous offensive possession ended with an awful shot from Pippen, after which he was clearly miffed with Kukoc for hanging him out to dry:
Here is how Jackson sets up the "are you in or out?" bit in "Sacred Hoops," his 1996 book:
Breaking out of the huddle, I heard Scottie grumble "bullshit." He was already angry at Kukoc for creating a traffic jam on the previous play and forcing him to take a bad shot. Now Toni was getting a chance to be "The Man."
I told Scottie what had happened on the previous play didn't matter anymore. "You had an opportunity to score, and it didn't work," I said. "Now we're going to do something else." Then I turned around, assuming the problem had been solved. But a few seconds later I glanced over my shoulder and saw Scottie hunched over at the far end of the bench, glowering.
Jackson wrote in "Sacred Hoops" that, as he walked off the court, he wasn't sure if Pippen's teammates or the media would ever forgive him. Both did, but initially he took a beating in the press. Here's Jay Mariotti in the Chicago Sun-Times:
In one obscene, dysfunctional convergence, a playoff game in the Stadium produced everything that is wrong with sport, everything that is egomanical and stupid and no longer fit for youth's eyes. Tell me, when your kid walks up to you today and pops the question – "Why did Scottie take himself out of the game?" – how are you going to say his hero is a crybaby?
In the Orlando Sentinel, Brian Schmitz railed against Pippen's "inflated ego," calling the incident an "unpardonable sin," a "mutinous act" and an "unconscionable moment of stupidity and arrogance and defiance."
In the Washington Post, Michael Wilbon wrote that some players around the league called Pippen a punk, and it was "hard to disagree" after watching him "basically tell his teammates to go to hell" and commit "about the biggest act of insubordination imaginable."
On a recent podcast with ESPN's Zach Lowe, Wilbon said that he apologized to Pippen years later.
"I think I know him well enough to know that these things did hurt him and they were unnecessary and they were wrong," Wilbon told Lowe. "They were wrong. I mean, who wants to be judged on their worst moment?"
At the time, however, such a reconciliation was not promised. Neither was Pippen's redemption in the eyes of the public.
"You think of Bill Buckner, who had a Hall of Fame-type of career, and he's known for one blunder," then-Bulls big man Scott Williams told ESPN's Ian O'Connor recently. "I was afraid that would happen to Pippen."
'It really answered a lot of questions'
It is difficult to overstate the doubts Pippen and the Bulls faced after the best player in the world retired. "Without Jordan, this team looks very ordinary," reads the Associated Press' season preview. Jackson made sure they knew what people thought about them, via Lacy J. Banks of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Las Vegas oddsmakers suggested how far the Bulls had fallen by dropping them from 5-3 favorites with Jordan to 25-1 underdogs without him.
As one way of inspiring the Bulls, coach Phil Jackson reportedly wrote those numbers on the chalkboard before the pre-season opener. He was showing his Bulls the world didn't believe in them anymore, that everybody was writing them off. He wanted to remind them this was their chance to prove they are better than people believe.
Pippen responded to those doubts forcefully. He won MVP of the All-Star Game, finished third in MVP voting and made his first appearance on the All-NBA First Team.
Jeff Van Gundy, then a Knicks assistant coach, recently told ESPN that none of Jackson's teams ran the triangle offense better than that team, with Pippen as the focal point.
"Scottie was the heart and soul of that team," said Bill Wennington. "He put that team on his shoulders and was taking all the big shots."
B.J. Armstrong agreed, saying, "He was just incredible. He was running around and doing things, really getting a chance to explore every aspect of his game. I think it really answered a lot of questions in the back of his mind."
"He was just unbelievable," said Pete Myers, friends with Pippen dating back to their college days in Arkansas. "He did everything for us. He rebounded the ball; defensively, he guarded the perimeter; he just did everything imaginable, which made everyone else's job easier."
"It was one of my greatest seasons," said Pippen, now an executive with the team. "It wasn't quite as successful of a season as we wanted, but I enjoyed the team and I loved my teammates. I enjoyed my growth and development as a player, as well as the leadership role that I had. It was the first time for me to be the clear cut star."
For so long, Pippen had been in Jordan's shadow. This was finally his time, and he felt he had earned more than Jackson was giving him.
Pippen eventually clarified his gripe
Pippen wasn't just mad that he didn't get to take the last shot. He was mad that he wouldn't even be a decoy, he told Melissa Isaacson, then of the Chicago Tribune.
"What was going through my mind is that I wanted to be there," Pippen said in "Transition Game," Isaacson's book about that season. "Not to take the last shot, necessarily, but just to be an option.
"All game long I'm being utilized offensively, and now we're taking a last-second shot and you're going to tell me to take the ball out."
The implication is that, were he asked to play a different role, he might not have protested, even with Kukoc being the first option to take the shot. This is interesting, although this line of thinking completely devalues the role of the inbounder. (The pass Myers made was not easy.)
I suspect that this won't make many people more sympathetic to Pippen's point of view, but it's also worth mentioning Jordan's perspective at the time: When Jackie MacMullan, then of the Boston Globe, talked to him a couple of days after Game 3, he wondered what in the world Jackson was thinking.
"Phil knew how much that would piss Scottie off," Jordan told MacMullan, via ESPN. "I wonder why he did it?"
The significance of Cartwright's speech
"The Last Dance" highlights Cartwright's role in getting the team back on track, but "Sacred Hoops," Jackson's book, more effectively illustrates how it affected the veteran and what it meant for the team to see him break down:
All these thoughts were buzzing around in my mind as I stood over a sink in the shower room, taking out my contact lenses and preparing to talk to the team. Just then I heard Cartwright grasping for air in the showers. He was so overcome with emotion he could barely breathe.
"What's wrong, Bill" I asked.
"I can't believe what Scottie did," he said in a faint whisper. "I've got to say something."[…]
After I made a few remarks, Bill took over. "Look, Scottie," he said, staring at Pippen, "that was bullshit. After all we've been through on this team. This is our chance to do it on our own, without Michael, and you blow it with your selfishness. I've never been so disappointed in my whole life."
When he finished, tears were streaming down his cheeks. The room was silent. Bill is a proud, stoic man who commanded the highest respect because of his ability to endure punishment and not back down. None of us had ever seen him show the slightest hint of vulnerability. In fact, his wife, Sheri, later told June that in fifteen years of marriage, she had never seen Bill cry. For him to break down like that in front of his teammates was significant, and Pippen knew that as well as anyone.
Cartwright clearly deserves credit for the way he handled a delicate situation. Jackson, too, for stepping aside, letting the players talk and moving on. The season could have fallen apart otherwise.
"The Last Dance" covers the trade rumors involving Pippen, but it doesn't directly connect them to this incident. In "Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey," Roland Lazenby does:
Krause was furious with Pippen and immediately began planning to trade him, leading to the many heartaches and frustrations and disagreements that would follow. There had long been an undercurrent of discontent with the Bulls, of dislikes and difficulties. But this was the incident that loosed a putrefaction upon the organization, bringing a flare-up in long-simmering hostilities between Krause and Pippen, which in turn would finally prompt Jackson to rebel against his mentor.
There is no telling how the rest of the 90s would have played out had Chicago traded Pippen. In 2008, Jordan told J.A. Adande of ESPN that he probably wouldn't have come back to play for the Bulls in 1995 if Pippen were not on the team.
There was a completely separate fiasco in Game 3: a bench-clearing brawl that spilled into the stands, right in front of horrified then-commissioner David Stern.
It started with the Knicks' Derek Harper and the Bulls' Jo Jo English exchanging words. That escalated to some bumping and pushing, then Harper threw a punch and the two got tangled up until Harper threw English to the floor near the courtside seats.
Seventeen years later, Harper told the New York Post's Fred Kerber that English was "talking prior to the incident and then he came downcourt and said he would kick my you-know-what and walked towards me. At that point, it's a reaction more than anything. He walked towards me, my goofy instincts took over."
Harper was suspended for two games, English for one. Knicks president Dave Checketts complained that security guards taunted New York's players during and after the fight.
Is this where I should mention that this absolutely bonkers game was played on Friday the 13th?
The Hue Hollins debacle
I understand that, even with 10 episodes, "The Last Dance" is trying to cover an absurd amount of material. I was still stunned, however, that the other controversial finish in this series went unmentioned.
In Game 5, Chicago led 86-85 with 7.6 seconds left. The Knicks' John Starks ran a pick-and-roll with Ewing, then dished to Hubert Davis for an open jumper. Pippen lunged at him, trying to contest the shot, and referee Hue Hollins called him for a foul. The Bulls were incensed — yes, there was contact, but it was well after the release and Davis had kicked his leg out. Davis made both free throws and New York won by a single point.
"There's a lot of pain for a lot of us inside this locker room right now," Pippen told reporters afterward, his first public comments since the firestorm that followed Game 3.
Hollins and fellow referee Darrell Garretson initially defended the call. Months later, though, when Garretson, who had become the NBA's chief of officiating, visited the Bulls during training camp, he admitted the crew had bungled it.
"All I can say is that it was a terrible call," Garretson said, via the Chicago Tribune. He added that those types of calls are "an official's nightmare," the ones "we're paid not to miss."
When Pippen made the Hall Of Fame in 2010, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf told the New York Times' Harvey Araton that this one moment might have changed how Pippen and Jordan would be remembered.
"If we had won that game and then the series and gone on to win the title that year, the whole legacy of Michael would have been different," Reinsdorf said. "But because Michael had left and came back and then we won again, he was given all the credit, and sometimes it was unfair, especially to Scottie.
Jackson had a different takeaway in "Sacred Hoops." They might have won their fourth straight championship if not for the call, but, in his view, this was the basketball gods getting their revenge.
"The law of basketball karma, it seems, finally caught up with Scottie and ultimately the Bulls," Jackson wrote.