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Pippen retires as one of game's best, not one of its most loved

Updated: Wednesday October 6, 2004 10:31AM
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Glen Rice; Scottie Pippen
Known for his all-around offensive skills, Scottie Pippen also may have been one of the most gifted defensive small forwards ever.
Craig Jones/Getty Images

He had a body straight out of an NBA laboratory and a face like a Peruvian sun god. He was a versatile Swiss Army Knife who could shoot, pass and run the floor. He was a defensive ace, a long-armed octopus who was voted first-team all-defense eight straight times. He won six NBA titles and two Olympic gold medals.

So why do so many NBA fans heap scorn on Scottie Pippen?

Ask hoop heads outside Chicago what they think of Pippen, who retired Tuesday, and you're liable to hear as much about 1.8 seconds and migraine headaches as you are shutting down Magic Johnson and playing through back pain that would have crippled most of today's NBA divas. Want to start an argument in a Boston bar? Just declare loudly that Pippen is one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Might as well say the Minutemen were a bunch of tea-drinking prissies.

But here's the thing about Pippen. He was a superb all-around talent. He didn't mind being in the shadow of Michael Jordan. And he played hard nearly all of the time.

Many NBA fans will remember Pippen's highlight reel dunks (his straddle over a prone Patrick Ewing is an all-time classic) or his defensive wizardry (hounding Magic in the '91 Finals), but countless less-heralded moments showed his competitive nature in even starker terms. For example, in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series against the Bullets during the '97 season, Pippen disregarded a painful back injury and drove in hard for a game-winning dunk that left him lying in agony on his back. Already up 2-0 in the best-of-five series, with Game 5 at home if necessary, Pippen easily could have tried a jump shot in that situation. But like Jordan, he had a warrior's mentality.

Is Pippen one of the Game's 50 Greatest? No doubt -- at least for a few more years. (After all, the next 50 Greatest list will have to make room for a new batch of faces.) And it's hard to argue with six rings and the distinction of being perhaps the best defensive small forward ever to play the game.

Did he benefit from playing alongside Jordan? Of course. But the Lone Ranger wouldn't have rounded up all those bad guys without Tonto, either. It was Pippen's defensive lockdown on Magic in the '91 Finals that enabled MJ to focus his energy on offense. It was also Pippen's willingness to play through another case of severe back pain in Utah that set up MJ's photo finish in the '98 Finals.

Pippen came up big for the Bulls more times than many of his critics will admit, and in their last two title runs he was arguably Chicago's best overall player. And make no mistake; Pippen was an MVP-caliber talent in his own right. For evidence, look no further than the '93-94 season. That was the year Jordan retired the first time. Most experts predicted a Bulls collapse. Pippen instead led Chicago to an incredible 55 wins and got them to within a whisker of another Finals trip. He averaged 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists while shooting a robust 49.1 percent. He also took home All-Star MVP honors.

Unfortunately, he made a silly mistake that season that permanently marred his reputation. In a fit of pique over not having the final play called for him, he refused to take the floor for the final 1.8 seconds of a playoff game against the Knicks. Toni Kukoc wound up making a buzzer-beater to give Chicago a 104-102 victory.

Pippen's critics love to offer the 1.8 fiasco as proof that he was overrated. Or they point to his lack of success in his later years with Houston and Portland, when he could no longer ride MJ's vapor trails. Clearly, Pippen wasn't the savviest guy in the world (he also had minor brushes with the law over guns and women), and he couldn't perform the same way at age 34 he did at 27 (not with all that playoff mileage on his legs). But in his heyday he was a spectacular player.

Yet Pippen is one of the league's least-loved players. My guess is that it has more to do with Jordan. His Airness was so great and so likeable that even opposing fans had to respect him. So they took out their anger on his sidekick, which is unfortunate.

Despite his foibles, Pippen was known throughout his career as an exceptional teammate. How many times could he be seen directing traffic on the floor, talking on defense, giving advice to younger players? Bulls GM John Paxson said Monday that Pippen was one of the best teammates he ever had. In a me-first culture, Pippen was that rare superstar talent who was willing to play second fiddle and sacrifice individual glory for the sake of his team. It's a lesson many of today's NBA stars could stand to learn. It's also why Pippen deserves to be respected -- if not loved -- in the bars of Boston, L.A. and all the other NBA cities where smart fans appreciate the game.

Marty Burns covers pro basketball for SI.com.