Pipe Down, Pippen
Was it really just a few weeks ago that Bull forward Scottie Pippen was king of the NBA mountain? He had assumed the mantle of leadership in Chicago—from the retired Michael Jordan—so deftly that he was rising fast in the Most Valuable Player race, and he had capped a brilliant first half of the season by winning the All-Star Game MVP award. But since then, things have gone sour for the Bulls in general and Pippen in particular.
Through Sunday, Chicago had lost eight of its last 11 games, including four in a row at home, dropping its record to 37-21. The ugliest of the recent losses was an 89-81 defeat at home by the Cavaliers in which Bull coach Phil Jackson started Toni Kukoc in Pippen's regular small forward spot and moved Pippen to shooting guard. Kukoc missed all nine of his shots, Pippen didn't much appreciate having to chase smaller, quicker guards on defense, and Jackson acknowledged that the experiment had "failed miserably."
Part of the Chicago Stadium crowd apparently agreed, because they booed the Bulls on occasion. The reaction didn't seem particularly directed at Pippen, but he took it personally. "I have been here seven years, and I have never seen a white guy get booed in the Stadium," he said after the game, apparently forgetting the harsh treatment white teammate Will Perdue has received from time to time. "It seems to be that when things go bad, and the ball is in your hands and you don't score, then the fans take over. But Toni was 0 for whatever tonight, and I never heard one fan get on him." After cooling off for a day, Pippen didn't exactly back away from his comments. "I pretty much apologize for it, to some extent." he said.
Pippen's outburst was just the latest example of what appears to be his resentment of Kukoc. Pippen has said that he will understand if Chicago management makes forward Horace Grant the highest-paid member of the team in order to keep Grant when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season; but Pippen has also made it clear that he'll be one unhappy Bull if Kukoc, who can become a restricted free agent after the season, winds up with a bigger salary than his as well. "I think I deserve to be the highest-paid Bull," says Pippen, who under his current contract will make $3 million this season (tops on the team) and $2.1 million next year.
He's right, but his timing is terrible. Just when the Bulls should be focusing on their battle with the Hawks (41-16 at week's end) and the Knicks (38-19) for the best record in the Eastern Conference and home court advantage in the playoffs, Pippen, their leader, is causing unnecessary distractions. Jackson admits that the Bulls' chemistry is "touchy" right now. It's Pippen's job to alleviate that problem, not contribute to it. He would be wise to listen to the words of a certain struggling outfielder for the Chicago White Sox. "That's what other teams want to see," Jordan says, "because they think you're weakening. Other teams are thinking, O.K., they're coming unraveled. It's nearing the stretch run, and other teams are looking for that crack. He got some things off his chest, now go back to playing solid basketball."
The Timberwolves are headed yet again for the lottery, where they have ended up each of the previous four years of their existence. But that's the least of what Minnesota fans are talking about these days. The questions of the moment are, Who will leave town first: Christian Laettner or Chuck Person? Or will the team go all at once?
Laettner, the Wolves' second-year forward and best player, has had a string of run-ins with his coaches and teammates, the most recent of which involved his cursing at assistant Bob Weinhauer, which earned him a one-game suspension. Laettner, however, isn't the only Timber-wolf with a temper. Rookie Isaiah Rider got into the act last week, spitting on the court in Atlanta and knocking a cup of water off the scorer's table onto the floor because he was upset at being forced to the bench with two quick fouls in the opening minutes of the first quarter. Rider took his time heading to the bench, where he got an earful from coach Sidney Lowe. "As a rookie," Lowe said afterward, "you don't have the right to do that."
Laettner's name was tossed around before the trading deadline last month, but he and Rider are likely to be with the Timberwolves far longer than Person, who's unhappy with his playing time. "They might as well tie my hands behind my back, leave me on the side of the road and feed me to the crows," Person told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "There's got to be a change. Someone's got to go."