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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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Three days later Pippen was officially gone, traded to Portland for forwards Walt Williams, Stacey Augmon and Carlos Rogers, center Kelvin Cato and guards Ed Gray and Brian Shaw. But his departure brought little peace; he and Barkley continue to snipe. Barkley vowed that Pippen would regret what he said—though when the Blazers and Rockets met for the first time this season, on Nov. 26, there was no incident—and declared that Pippen had broken an unwritten law by attacking a fellow athlete. Pippen calls that a joke. "He's been calling Oliver Miller fat since he's been in the league, and they played together," Pippen says. "He's always put his teammates down."

If anything, Pippen says, Barkley broke a trust when he declared that Pippen hadn't told him personally that he wanted to be traded. "He turned around and lied and said I didn't tell him, when I had spent a week in Hawaii with him," Pippen says. "Other NBA guys, like Jason Kidd, were there. We all went out to play golf one day, and I spoke to Charles about it. Then he gets back to Houston and starts saying that he'd spent a week with me and I hadn't said anything. I had." (Kidd confirms Pippen's account.)

This is not a battle Pippen can win. Though his game is as selfless as can be, though he routinely takes the toughest defensive assignment and sacrifices points to get his teammates involved, he is still perceived as selfish. Yet every eruption of his dark side takes his teammates by surprise. His breast-beating about paltry contracts in Chicago, his ripping of Barkley, his refusal to play at the end of Game 3—all of it hits like a garbage can hurled into a piano recital.

"He may not be the greatest go-to guy in the world," Dunleavy says of Pippen. "If I'm going to start a team and pick one guy, there are a lot of other guys I'd pick. But he has the ability to make all your guys go-to guys. He makes everybody better." Nevertheless, at heart, Pippen has the look-at-me neediness of a gunner. Though shooting and scoring are where he is least valuable, though he is smart enough to know that his selflessness is what makes him great, he still aches for the stroking given to those who rack up the big numbers. When Jordan took his hiatus to play baseball, Pippen took Jordan's locker. "Which was a statement," Bach says. Pippen wants to get what Jordan got. He wants to be like Mike.

The odd thing is that Pippen is closer than even he suspects. He was named to the NBA's alltime top 50 list in 1996, and he deserved it because he is in the same echelon as his idols Larry Bird and Magic Johnson—more like them than like Jordan, in fact, in his instinct to keep everyone involved in the game. Pippen's problem has always been a lack of sophistication; he transmits none of Johnson's joy or Bird's simplicity (never mind that Magic was never as lighthearted nor Bird as uncomplicated as they seemed), and when set against someone of Barkley's savvy and wit, Pippen hardly stands a chance.

There was a time in the early '90s when Barkley somehow got elevated to the status of Bird, Magic and Jordan, even though he had never won a title, even though no one would argue that he made anyone around him better. Much of this was due to Barkley's undeniable personal appeal. He is a natural star, and in this contretemps with Pippen he has read the situation and shrewdly reduced the issue to terms easily understood by the common fan. "I don't care what your psyche is," Barkley says of Pippen. "When you're getting paid $14 million a year, you've got to play. When you're getting paid that type of money, you have to perform—no ifs, ands or buts. It was a shock to him last year. He got a lot of negative publicity, and I think it affected him. But I stuck by him through all that."

Let's be serious: Barkley's stature has been shrinking for years, and for good reason. This is his final season, he says, and unless something radical happens, he will end his playing days revealed as a star who couldn't win. "Everybody knows Charles Barkley is a great guy," says Lakers guard Ron Harper, "but every year he's talking about winning a championship, and then he comes to training camp out of shape. That shows what kind of guy he is. Pip wants to win. If you aren't doing what you should be doing, he's going to let you know."

When Pippen spoke about Barkley's lack of commitment, he was echoing only what Jordan said in his retirement press conference: Charles has never dedicated himself to winning. "I guess I had to experience it for myself," Pippen says. No one in Houston claims that Pippen was the poison that killed the Rockets' championship chances, and without him this season the team has gone south. "He gets a lot of criticism because he wanted to be traded, almost like, Hate him because he wants to be a winner," says Pippen's wife, Larsa. "That's the part most people don't get. The [Houston] team was sorry. None of them wanted to work hard, and then they wanted to win."

Still, even if Pippen is right about the Rockets, it doesn't mean much. He didn't hide his dissatisfaction last season, and he came off as a whiner. He remains a champion with little idea of how to be a star. He has been saved from his own worst impulses only by a remarkable incapacity to feel guilt. Each time he has said or done something dumb, he has come back to perform brilliantly. After his shocking refusal to play at the end of Game 3 in '94, Pippen got 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Game 4. This is one of his greatest talents: He has always convinced himself that he carries no baggage. "Sometimes Scottie just wants to be in that position where he forces an issue or tells it like it is with an honesty that may not serve him best, and then has to come back and regroup," Jackson says. "And he does it. That's the remarkable thing: He's able to come out of that dark space. He doesn't bury himself."

As for Barkley, Pippen doesn't regret a thing he said. "I'm my own man," Pippen says. "I make my own decisions. If they're right or wrong, I have to live with them. It's not up to Charles to try and guide me. Who is he to be a mentor to me?"

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