Can Scottie Pippen, the second-best player in the league, succeed without the first-best player in the league?

by Jackie MacMullan

Chicago veteran Steve Kerr figured he had read Scottie Pippen's lips wrong. What other answer could there be? He recalls staring at his visibly distressed teammate, who was cursing at coach Phil Jackson, and waiting for the strange, distorted picture to right itself. Instead, Kerr watched incredulously as Pippen threw up his hands, threw down his towel and took a seat at the end of the Bulls' bench.

Pippen has removed the stain of his '94 playoff episode and raised his stature.

photo by John Biever

It was playoff time, 1994, and a basketball game was hanging in the balance. These were the moments Kerr and Pippen had discussed at length since Michael Jordan had retired and signed with the Chicago White Sox to play minor league baseball. Pippen understood it was his job now to lead the Bulls in these critical times. Everyone else in the league—not to mention his teammates—expected it. Again and again, Pippen had insisted he was up to the task.

And yet, with 1.8 seconds remaining in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, a tie ball game against the Knicks, Pippen was ... taking himself out?

"I was shocked," Kerr admits now. "The only way to describe it was total disbelief. Here was a guy who had done so much for our team, who had been our leader all year long. He was, and still is, one of the greatest teammates I've ever had. But on that day, I think all the pressure and frustration of our season caught up with him, and he snapped."

The pressure was easily identifiable: the effort to become heir Jordan, successor to the greatest player in the history of basketball. At the time of Michael Jordan's emotional decision to leave the sport in October 1993, Pippen was itching to prove to the world that he could stand on his own, without his superstar teammate to lift him to greatness. He vowed that he would emerge from the shadow of his legendary friend and lead the Bulls to another title.

Statistically, Pippen lived up to his billing. He led the Bulls in scoring (22.0) and assists (5.6) in 1993-94 as Chicago won 55 regular-season games. Yet the sheer love of basketball with which Jordan inspired his teammates was missing. Pippen, a quiet, subdued man off the court, simply could not fill the leadership void left by Michael's departure. The pressure inflicted by the fans and the media was stifling, yet the self-induced pressure Pippen felt was the most crippling.

He struggled with his duties as team leader. He feuded with general manager Jerry Krause, publicly called him a liar and asked to be traded. At one point during the season, Jackson observed, "We've asked Scottie to take on too much. We've got to find other people to help shoulder the load."

Chicago's second-best player has a knack for getting into—and out of—tight spots.

photo by David Liam Kyle

Maybe that's why on May 13, 1994, with the scoreboard reading 102-102, Jackson called his team into the huddle and diagrammed the final shot, which forward Toni Kukoc would take. Pippen, who wanted the chance to win the game himself, was shocked—and furious—to learn that he was going to be relegated to inbounding the ball. He swore at his coach, stomped out of the huddle and stormed down to the end of the bench, leaving his team in the lurch for the most important moment of the game—and perhaps of the Bulls' season.

Kukoc went out and hit the game-winner, a fallaway 23-footer. Still, Jackson, a coach known for protecting his players at all costs, didn't even try to conceal his feelings of betrayal. As he walked into the interview room he announced, unprovoked, "Scottie asked out of the play."

Days later Jordan, hundreds of miles away in Birmingham, shook his head sadly. "Poor Scottie," he said. "I kept telling him it's not easy being me. Now he knows."