Yet Jordan had never been branded a traitor, a quitter or a bratty adolescent. Because of his self-centered action, Pippen had become the poster child for the spoiled athlete who needs everything his own way, and who takes his ball and goes home if he doesn't get it. The national outrage stunned Pippen and added to his sense that he was suffocating. His quitting was to become a moment of infamy almost every sports pundit predicted Pippen would never live down.

As Jordan points out, Pippen's versatility is unparalleled.

photo by John W. McDonough

In the face of the mounting criticism, he withdrew further. "I apologized to the team and to Phil Jackson," a contrite Pippen said days later. "I don't think I have to apologize to anyone else."

He came back in Game 4 with 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists, but the Bulls lost the series in seven games—and Pippen lost all his credibility. Furthermore, his simmering jealousy of Kukoc, whom Krause courted while Pippen was trying to renegotiate his contract with the Bulls, was now an ugly subplot. "It was a devastating thing," Kerr said. "Scottie never could have judged the magnitude of his actions. I felt so badly for him."

Over the month following the incident Pippen regained his composure. "I don't think you can call me a quitter," he said. "I think you can look at it and say I made a stupid mistake. That's pretty much it. I haven't been a quitter. I think I go out and approach the game as hard as anyone. I play smart, I play hard, and I play as a team player."

But what Pippen desperately needed was to play again on a team with Jordan. When Pippen is alongside Jordan, he is the second-best player in the league. Without Jordan, Pippen is still an All-Star, but one who lacks deadly clout. That's why Jordan's decision to return to basketball late in the 1994-95 season helped salvage Pippen's reputation. It may also have saved his career.

As Jordan reassumed the scoring duties, Pippen was free to become an offensive creator and a gambler on defense. When the Bulls came up short in the 1995 playoffs, nobody was wondering what effect Pippen had on the series: Everyone was too busy debating whether Jordan had lost a step.

Fast-forward to the 1996-97 campaign. Jordan was in top form, causing those who had predicted his demise to backpedal furiously. Pippen, meanwhile, was happy playing second fiddle. "Michael and I have a sense that when the other isn't going well that it's time to step up," Pippen said. "When he's going well, I want the ball in his hands. I know sooner or later that he will create chances for others." In fact, Pippen's early-season play was so superb that Jordan immediately embarked on a Pippen-for-MVP campaign. "This is the most fun I've had in basketball," Pippen declared in January, with Chicago in the midst of dominating another season. "I think I'm playing my best ball."

As the Bulls marched toward their fifth championship in seven years, Jordan was showered with the usual accolades. Yet it was Pippen who, despite a soft-tissue injury on the sole of his left foot, set the tone for the series against Utah with a monster Game 1, scoring 27 points and grabbing nine boards, with three steals and four blocks. The Jazz coaching staff marveled aloud at the most well-rounded player in the NBA, a multiposition talent who can score, defend, run the floor, dish the ball and make the big play. In the heart-stopping Game 5, Pippen carried the Bulls' load when the ill Jordan couldn't, scoring 17 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. "We ham-and-egg it pretty good," said Jordan of his sidekick after Game 1. "Whenever I'm not on my game, he's there to pick me up. He's been a big help to my success."

Pippen's talents and his faith in the team concept did the unthinkable: all but erase his shameful act in the 1994 playoffs from the NBA's memory bank. "It was a long time ago," said Pippen. "I was a different player and a different person. I don't even think about it anymore."

Nor do his teammates. "Scottie has grown up," says Ron Harper. "It was unfortunate for him that his growing pains had to be on national television. But he's come through it just fine."

It is with this added maturity that Pippen faces the possibility of losing Jordan again. Michael says he is seriously considering retiring, if not this summer, then in 1998, and Pippen has said that he is prepared to assume control of the Bulls once more, only this time with the benefit of the proper seasoning he has received.

Whether Pippen will be afforded that opportunity is another matter. He will become a free agent in 1998, and his asking price will be hefty. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf must consider all his options, including trading his hybrid forward. Reinsdorf said Pippen's unsuccessful solo run in 1993-94 will not be a factor in determining whether he is given that leadership role again. "The first time, he wasn't ready," Reinsdorf said. "But now Scottie is the complete package. Everybody has bad offensive games here and there, but Scottie almost always has a good defensive game, and that's what wins championships."

Still, Pippen's future remains unclear. Reinsdorf has not yet committed to re-signing him, and—particularly if Jordan does retire—Pippen could be his best trade bait to help begin the rebuilding process. Reinsdorf concedes, however, that he's intrigued with the idea of keeping Pippen around.

"This time, Kukoc will be a much bigger help," Reinsdorf says. "As for the other stuff, Scottie has learned a lot from Michael Jordan. You don't read any more dumb comments from him, no more gun incidents, no more girlfriend problems."

For his part Pippen says he would like to stay in Chicago, but he realizes his worth. "I'm one of the best players in the NBA, and it doesn't matter to me that Jerry or Mr. Reinsdorf or anyone shops me around," he says. "I know what my value is in this game. Obviously I would like to stay here. I don't know what Michael, Dennis and Phil's careers hold, but I would love to finish my career here."

Jordan has assumed the role of Pippen's publicist, and he reminds Chicago fans and Bulls management that Pippen is a unique talent whose versatility is unparalleled in the league. "I can't imagine why anyone would trade Scottie," Jordan said during the Finals.

For all Pippen's talent, however, questions about him linger. If Jordan goes and Pippen stays, Scottie will be in the media glare, both as a player and as a leader. "Scottie understands that," said Harper. "Give him credit for watching and learning. He understands now exactly what his strengths are and how best to use them. Over the last two seasons I've watched him learn to read situations, then attack them. That's something he didn't do very well when he first came into the league."

When the 1997-98 season starts, Scottie Pippen will be 32 years old. He will have five championship rings, two Olympic gold medals, seven All-Star appearances and the knowledge that all those accomplishments, save his 1994 and 1995 All-Star appearances, were reached with Jordan by his side.

Can he be a superstar independently of his celebrated teammate? Does he have the personality and the savvy to carry a team on his shoulders, both physically and spiritually? Has he truly obliterated from history the darkest day of his NBA career?

"I think he has, and you know what? It's pretty amazing," said Kerr. "I think everyone has come to realize that what happened with Scottie in 1994 is the exception rather than the rule."

Kerr added that Pippen's attitude about succeeding Jordan has been altered drastically. "He realizes now there's no need to try to fill Michael Jordan's shoes because it's impossible, for him or for anyone else," said Kerr. "I hope he's realized that being Scottie Pippen isn't such a bad deal."