For two straight years, that had been in doubt. He was good, but he seemed too...what? Soft? The seasons had ended with stacks of newspaper clips questioning his motivation. How much did he want to win? How hard was he willing to play?
Two incidents seemed to define the problem. In 1989, one minute into the sixth—and, ultimately, final—game of the Eastern Conference championships against the Detroit Pistons, Pippen left after he was knocked out by a blow to the head from the elbow of Bill Laimbeer. Pippen did not return to the court. The Bulls lost. In the 1990 Eastern finals, same teams involved, Pippen came down with a now famous migraine headache in the seventh game. The Bulls lost again. The pictures the next morning showed Pippen with a large ice bag on his head and a towel over that. The captions indicated that he had scored two points on one-for-10 shooting and had collected only four rebounds. What gives? One year might be curious happenstance. Two years? Two curious happenstances? At the same ultimate moment?
"At the end of both games I felt the same way," Pippen says. "I wanted to say, 'Can we stop everything? Can we play that game over again? Right now?' Of course, you can't do that. How do you explain the things that happen? The time against Laimbeer, I wanted to go back. I asked and asked to go back. The doctor and Jerry Krause wouldn't let me. The headache? I'd never had a migraine headache before. It's very hard to tell people what you feel like in that situation. If I were on the other side, it would be very hard to tell me. And once you get people on your back, it's hard to get them off. I think I've grown up a lot because of this."
"The thing that bothered me was that people questioned Scottie's guts," Krause says. "There's never been any question about Scottie's guts. I rushed down to the locker room after Laimbeer hit him. I heard Scottie begging to go back in. The doctor wouldn't let him go. He said to me, 'It's your decision. You can let him play if you want, but I'm going out the door if you do, and I'm never coming back.' What am I going to do? Go against the doctor?"
The first change Pippen made after the migraine game was obvious. He added the wire-rim glasses. Not for the court, but for the other parts of the waking day. The doctors determined that strained eyes might have been the reason for the sudden migraine. No migraines followed. The second change was inside. What does a player have to do to reach that next level? How does he have to live, as well as play? Pippen decided to listen to some of the older voices—Erving's, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's—that he always had heard but never followed. He changed his diet, his schedule, his approach. The game, for a young man, begins when he ties his sneakers at the gym. The game, for the mature man, is the focal point of the entire day.
"I do a lot of things different now," Pippen says. "I eat my breakfast, then I don't cat again until after the game. I make sure I get my sleep. I take a nap in the afternoon on the day of the game. Not a nap, really. I lie on the bed. I visualize the game. I think about who I am guarding, the things he likes to do. I think it helps."
Some real-life situations off the court—back surgery after his rookie season, the death of his father during the playoffs in his third season, a divorce after a short marriage to a college girlfriend, one child, now four years old—also have helped him to mature. Who is he? What does he want to be? The character of the adult sometimes is only glimpsed through the mists of youth. The mists lift. The adult stands there in the clear. The adult here wears a championship ring.
"It's amazing how far he's come," his agent, Jimmy Sexton, says. "You think about where he started, this quiet kid from Arkansas who nobody ever heard of. I was just down at Oklahoma State, and one of the assistant coaches, a guy named Russ Pennell, came up to me and said he was in college with Scottie. He was a senior when Scottie was a freshman. Russ said he was watching a game the other night on television and Scottie was just doing everything, and all Russ could think was, Scottie Pippen. I remember when he was handing me my gym shorts and socks."
Gym shorts? Socks?
The often-told story is almost a piece of endearing juvenile fiction from the shelves of the nearest public library. The Manager Who Became a Superstar. Who can read it enough? Who can hear it one more time without one more pleasant smile at the end? Youngest of 12 children from small town in southern Arkansas. Father works in nearby paper mill that sends smells toward town on certain days. Mother raises the kids. Boy wants to be basketball star but does not grow big enough. Starts for high school team only in senior year. Has no college offers but finally is given grant at small Arkansas school to act as manager. Manager! Boy starts to grow. Becomes member of team early in freshman season, star by end. Grows more. Bigger star. Grows more. Bigger. Gets little notice from pros during senior season but goes to one NBA tryout camp and plays well. Another camp. Better. Another. Best. Drafted fifth in entire country. Becomes teammate of Michael Jordan. Becomes rich.