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No Babe in the Woods
S.L. Price
December 13, 1999
New Trail Blazer Scottie Pippen is happy in piney Portland, but he is still dogged by questions about past missteps
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December 13, 1999

No Babe In The Woods

New Trail Blazer Scottie Pippen is happy in piney Portland, but he is still dogged by questions about past missteps

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Beautiful morning, cool and dry, sunlight crashing down on the street outside. A waiter rushes forward every six minutes to check on water and coffee, and anything else, sir? Everyone here in Portland's oppressively quiet Heath man Hotel gives off that fresh scent of boutique soap and the rustle of expensive fibers. Everyone here has money to burn. Scottie Pippen sits over his breakfast by a window. A thin wire snakes down from his left ear, a wire that, near his mouth, expands into a tiny microchipped mouthpiece. There is no annoying chirp or ring; Pippen halts a conversation in mid-sentence and starts talking to some voice in his ear, and if there were no wire snaking down, you would think he was a babbling madman instead of what he is: wealthy, accessorized, constantly in demand. He watches the cars speed past the window, watches blankly as packs of kids stop and gawk at him. "All right," he says. "O.K." Just as abruptly, he turns his eyes back to the table.

"I dropped my car off at the Mercedes place to get it fixed, and they gave me this little-ass car, a Honda Accord," Pippen says to his breakfast companion. "That was the serviceman calling me back, and he was pissed, too, at what they gave me. I told the girl when I left, 'Man, what a damn tradeoff: I give you a 2000 Mercedes, a $100,000 car, and you give me a $20,000 car to use?' "

Pippen shrugs oh-so-slightly. He has delivered all this with the sly, oddly timed grin to which basketball fans have been treated for the past 12 years, and the same monotone that has left so many listeners underwhelmed. "People don't see him as an intelligent person, maybe because he doesn't always make intelligent choices," says Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Pippen's former coach with the Chicago Bulls. "But there's actually this intelligence that can astound you. His level of awareness on the court is very high."

Pippen returns to the subject at hand: his joy over going from the Houston Rockets to the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 2 in a blockbuster trade; his happiness with his new teammates' unselfish ways; his satisfaction—even though he had asked Houston to trade him to the Lakers—at playing in the piney, small-town ambience of Portland. Again he abruptly cocks his head to look out the window. "Hey, Dave," he says. Twenty seconds pass in silence. "What are you saying? List it for a million four?"

He is hardly suffering; this you can plainly say. Even after one of the worst offensive seasons of his career (14.5 points per game), even after his toxic depiction of former Rockets teammate Charles Barkley as a lazy, overweight loser, Pippen seems at ease. This is strange. Last season was the NBA's first in the post-Jordan era, and no one embodied the league's struggle to move on better than Pippen. While the league contended with its bitter lockout, its amputee season and the lowest-rated Finals in the 1990s, the Rockets' ill-conceived attempt to concoct championship chemistry by adding Pippen to superstars Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon degenerated into finger-pointing, strained friendships and a first-round exit from the '99 playoffs. No one this decade had gained more from life with Jordan than Pippen, and despite Pippen's acknowledged greatness, no one had suffered more from that association: Scottie couldn't win without Michael, it had been said before, during and after Jordan's first retirement, from October 1993 to April '95, and in Houston, it seemed, there was more proof.

"I miss playing with him," Pippen says of Jordan. "I miss our body language out on the court, things we developed together. I miss that we had one another, that intimidation factor that we'd bring to the game. I miss winning."

But no, he insists, even with his reputation at such a low ebb, Pippen feels no need to prove himself without Jordan. Already, the Pippen-led Trail Blazers have established themselves as one of the NBA's Western powers, a talent-rich team playing stingy defense and unselfish, fluid offense, Scottie's kind of basketball. Everyone seems happy. Coach Mike Dunleavy calls Pippen "the glue" that holds the Blazers together, the model for what Portland wants to be.

"He brought that star quality, he brought that aura of winning, that demeanor," says Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire. "I can just see it in him. When he goes by, I look at him on the sly, see how he walks and what he does. Because he has been there."

That is Pippen's ultimate answer to all criticism, and one that gives him license to feel as good about himself as he likes. He has won six championships—"Six f———rings!" says Portland shooting guard Steve Smith—and, at 34, he knows this gives him an authority that one twisted season can't erase. Jordan was his role model, the one who taught him about winning: what it took, how it should be handled, when to know it is over. Jordan taught him how to pause professorially before answering a question, how never to appear half naked before the cameras, what kind of earring to dangle from his left lobe. Jordan showed him the little things that go into acting like a success, and Pippen absorbed them like a thirsty child. Now a man who was once poor has a 74-foot yacht and a contract that pays him at least $14.75 million a year for the next three years and a wife so beautiful that she seems molded out of plastic. Younger players look to him for guidance, and few (if any) of his peers can teach him a thing.

That is why, before home games, Pippen rarely tries to read his opponents during warmups or watch a teammate to see how he carries himself. No, before every game in Portland's Rose Garden, Pippen only has eyes for one. He'll let his gaze drift over to the courtside seat occupied by Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and owner of both the Trail Blazers and the Seattle Seahawks, a man with a personal net worth of $40 billion. Pippen looks at his employer's geeky exterior and wonders, much as he wondered about Michael, How does he do it? Make no mistake: After a year adrift, Pippen has himself a new role model.

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