Just after his team had defeated the Utah Jazz in the opening game of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Scottie Pippen stood at mid-court in the United Center waiting for Michael Jordan to finish an interview with NBC. While Jordan was recounting his game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell, Pippen pumped his fists and celebrated along with the crowd of cheering Chicago Bulls fans. Only after Jordan was finished did Pippen step in front of the camera.
For the better part of 10 years in Chicago, picking up four NBA championship rings and two Olympic gold medals along the way, Pippen has played the role of Jordan's sidekick. And though Jordan's basket knocked another outstanding effort by Pippen out of the headlines, Pippen's performance on Sunday certified that he—as much as Jordan—has been the Bulls' MVP throughout the postseason.
Despite playing with a sore left foot that had him grimacing at times and despite being distracted by trade rumors that last week had him going to the Philadelphia 76ers, Pippen had 27 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots and three steals against Utah. The soft tissue injury to his left foot, which he aggravated in the Eastern Conference-championship-clinching win over the Miami Heat on May 28, forced him to miss three days of practice last week, but he nevertheless played 43 minutes in Game 1, two more minutes than Jordan played and 10 more than any other Chicago player.
In many ways Pippen has been the Bulls' most consistent performer this postseason, averaging 18.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists through Sunday while causing havoc on the defensive end. It was Pippen who made the dunk that beat the Washington Bullets in Game 3 of their first-round series, and it was Pippen who shut down Heat forward Jamal Mashburn in the Bulls' five-game series victory. "He has been unbelievable," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "He's hit some big shots. He makes things easier on Michael."
Last year Pippen helped the Bulls to their fourth title in six years while playing with a sore back, neck and foot, and last week he spent hours undergoing treatment for his injured foot. "During his therapy you could see he was in a lot of pain," says Chicago forward Jud Buechler. "We had no idea before the game if he could play at all, let alone as much as he did. But that's Scottie."
Pippen has been similarly unaffected by the trade rumors. With the possibility that Jordan and coach Phil Jackson might not be back next season, Pippen could be dealt if Bulls management embarks on a full-scale rebuilding plan. The latest report had Pippen, who is making a relatively paltry $2.38 million this season and has one year left on his contract, going to Philadelphia for guard Jerry Stackhouse and the No. 2 overall pick in the June 25 draft. "I've heard the report, but I'm not thinking about that." says Pippen, who turns 32 in September. "I'm just concentrating on winning a championship."
After Sunday's 84-82 victory he cracked up the media in the interview room with a line straight out of Charles Barkley's book. Asked if he had said anything to Jazz forward Karl Malone before Malone missed two foul shots with 9.2 seconds left and the score tied at 82, Pippen replied, "Not really. I just kind of whispered in his ear that the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday."
Later, as he glided down a United Center hallway looking relaxed and refreshed, Pippen said he's secure with his game and his place in NBA history. "I don't let the trade rumors or the critics or anything bother me," he said. "I know who I am, and I know what I can do."