Pippen, Malone are indisputable first-ballot Hall of Famers
Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend
Pippen played in Michael Jordan's shadow, while Malone never won a title
But in their primes, the two were always near the top, and that says a lot
Owing to our belief that there can be only three true recent NBA icons -- the almighty, all-enduring troika of Michael, Magic and Larry -- you can be sure there will be whispers about the shortcomings of Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone as they enter the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame together this week.
In the case of Pippen, of course, the giant shadow of Jordan looms large. Would Scottie have ever won anything without Jordan? As for Malone, well, we all know what club he's in: the Great Players Who Never Won a Championship Club, no matter that it includes such luminaries as Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson, as well as Malone's Hall of Fame teammate, John Stockton.
So let's get it out of the way right now as the Hall honors Pippen and Malone, both singly and as part of the Dream Team, which enters en masse: They weren't perfect players. But they were very, very good, indisputable first-ballot honorees. (The fact that another Dream Teamer, Chris Mullin, should be going in on his own is the only injustice of this weekend.)
Pippen and Malone were country boys in a city game. Pippen grew up as the youngest of 12 in a poor family in Arkansas, Malone as the eighth of nine from a poor family in Louisiana. They were late bloomers, too, Malone a self-described "scrawny kid" who didn't get his Mr. Olympic body until he whipped it into shape later in life, Pippen an underrated high school player who didn't even earn a scholarship at Central Arkansas until he was a sophomore.
On the court, though, they were a study in contrasts. Pippen achieved his greatness with versatility, by doing a lot of things very, very well. Malone built his rep on endless repetition. He can be compared most easily to a tight end, a possession receiver who game after game, year after year, converted Stockton's half-court pick-and-roll passes and fast-break dishes into points. The Mailman finished with 36,928 career points, second all time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Karl had the best hands I've ever seen," Stockton has said on numerous occasions.
They were judged by different barometers, too. There was no one in the game like the multitalented, 6-foot-7 Pippen -- a crack defender, shooter, playmaker, rebounder -- so he was compared most often to his more celebrated teammate. And we know how that has worked out for so many players.
Malone, on the other hand, had a natural foil in Charles Barkley. They were the power forwards of their time, and it sometimes served Malone poorly that Barkley, a roiling cyclone of entertainment, was more popular in the public imagination, not to mention a better one-on-one player. In his opus, The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons takes eight pages to discuss Barkley and Malone together, finally ranking them as, respectively, the 19th and 18th best players ever, Malone's slight edge being built partly on defense and durability. It's a fair assessment.
I watched Pippen and Malone grow up in the spotlight, the former's process of maturity being the more painful because it took place in the lit-by-a-1,000-suns universe surrounding Jordan. Early on, Michael treated Scottie (who had a boy's name and was two years Jordan's junior) rather like a little brother. I remember being in a locker room before a Chicago Bulls game in Philadelphia and trying to draw Pippen out on the subject of his superb athleticism. In his heart, Pippen must've believed he was a better athlete than Jordan (I said athlete, not basketball player), but he wouldn't do it. And Jordan, as usual, controlled the conversation, finally allowing that Scottie could probably beat him in a straight-ahead race, but that was about it.
Pippen always claimed that he was comfortable in the spotlight, that he always believed that, as he told me not long ago, "I was a really good player." But it took quite a while for him to grow into his role. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it came in Game 6 of the 1992 Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, when, at the beginning of the fourth period and the Bulls trailing 79-64, Phil Jackson put Pippen on the floor with four subs, keeping Jordan on the bench. With more ice than fire, for that was Pippen's style, he orchestrated a relentless comeback, which, after Jordan was reinserted, resulted in a 97-93 series-clinching victory.
It was later that summer that the world really saw how good Pippen was. With the Dream Teamers practicing and playing together for the better part of six weeks, culminating with the gold medal in Barcelona, a couple of things became clear. First, Jordan was twice as good as anyone else. Second, Barkley was a force of nature so large that he sometimes obscured even Jordan. Third, Pippen was the second-best all-around player in the world. True, Magic and Bird were near the end of their careers, but that doesn't change the reality of Pippen's jaw-dropping versatility.
By the time Pippen hung it up early in the 2003-04 season, I felt that Pippen was comfortable in his own skin, accepting of his role as Sundance to Jordan's Butch Cassidy, content in the knowledge that, yes, he needed Jordan, but Jordan needed him, too.
In one respect, Malone had it easier than Pippen. The Mailman's running mate, Stockton, was the anti-Jordan, a man who considered it a good day when no one noticed him, which was often the case. And if Pippen played in the Second City, how far down does one have to go to get to Salt Lake? Malone did make a little noise from time to time, pounded his chest about being underappreciated, and, for that matter, pounded an opponent or two, as when he opened up a 40-stitch gash on the forehead of a hated opponent, Isiah Thomas.
At the same time, though, quiet, conservative Salt Lake was the perfect place for a country guy, even an African-American guy in a city that is more than 90 percent white. In a Sports Illustrated story I wrote about Malone in April 1992, a couple of months before his Dream Team experience began, Malone took great pleasure in leaving his minivan unlocked when he pulled into his favorite lunch spot in downtown Salt Lake. (I never saw an NBA player leave anything unlocked.) As our lunch was ending, a middle-aged couple approached the table and said to Malone, "We think you're the greatest. You've had a positive effect on our children." I jokingly told Malone that he must've prearranged their entrance, so perfect did it fit into the portrait of Salt Lake as a slice of small-city paradise. I spent much of the next two days in Salt Lake hearing Malone talk about his new tractor-trailer, much as I would watch a new father bill and coo about his newborn.
The Mailman loved the fact that basketball superstardom gave him the independence to pursue his true loves of trucking, farming, timbering, cattle breeding, pro wrestling (surely you remember his 1998 "Bash at the Beach" against Hulk Hogan) and heaven knows what else. But say this for him: When it came time to say, It's not about the money, Malone could say it and mean it ... at least for one season. Malone doesn't deserve a Medal of Honor or anything like that, but in the summer of 2003 as a free agent, he did take an $18 million pay cut to play for the veteran's minimum of $1.5 million with the Lakers, trying desperately to earn that ring that would give him, as he knew, ultimate acceptance. I flew from his offseason home in Arkansas to Los Angeles with him for the press conference that would introduce him and Gary Payton, and I saw his excitement and, yes, his apprehension, even though he was almost 40 and heading into his 19th NBA season.
Ultimately, though, that press conference got overshadowed, for it transpired days after Kobe Bryant's trouble in Colorado came to light. It was the harbinger of what turned out to be a deeply frustrating season that ended in a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals. I remember talking to Malone after that final loss at the Palace of Auburn Hills. "You know what?" he said. "I think I'm done." I didn't believe him because I thought he would want to hang around to break Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record. But he didn't. He walked away, never a champion, but proud nevertheless.
Remember that Pippen's career ended in frustration, too. He truly believed that he could win a championship with the Trail Blazers, show the world that he didn't need Jordan to do it. But in 2000, Portland's best chance at a title in Pippen's four-year tenure, the Lakers rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals en route to a three-peat. After an abbreviated and ill-advised 23-game comeback with the Bulls, Pippen hung it up, frustrated not to have won anything after management broke up the Bulls in '98.
But, look, it ends that way for almost everyone. Bird, racked with back pain, played for six title-less seasons after his Celtics won in '86. Magic was frustrated that he could never find his basketball mojo after the Dream Team experience. And, lest we forget, the last image (not the most enduring but the last) we have of Jordan is his struggling through two seasons as a Washington Wizard.
So as Scottie and the Mailman go into the Hall, let's think of what they meant to the game. For in what is recognized as a golden age of the NBA, the decade from the early '80s to the late '90s, the names of Pippen and Malone are near the top. Not as high as Jordan, Magic or Bird. But near the top ... and that is saying a lot.
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