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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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The waiter leans over the table: The Mercedes lady is in the lobby; should he send her over? This is not quite the service most people get from their auto repair shops, but it's clear that having an unhappy Scottie Pippen tooling around Portland in a Honda loaner doesn't sit well at the dealership. It actually qualifies, in certain zip codes, as a crisis. The Mercedes lady rushes up, sits and smiles in an attempt to soften the situation. "What kind of car did you bring me?" Pippen says. His eyebrows have shot up in the universal don't-say-what-I-don't-want-to-hear expression.

"CLK Cabriolet," she says. Pippen gives her the half grin but says nothing, waiting.

"I wanted to apologize for what happened," she begins. She explains that she is the "S-Class specialist and service adviser," that there was some kind of breakdown in communication. "They should've referred you to me," she says. "I wouldn't have let you leave in that way. Normally I'd give you your S-Class demo...." Pippen keeps grinning, not being mean, exactly, but letting the attractive, well-dressed young woman natter on, letting her dangle just enough so that this kind of thing never, ever happens again. It is one of those moments to which he has grown so accustomed that it feels right, feels exactly like what life should be. After 12 years in the NBA and so many millions, there's nothing remarkable to Pippen about sitting over breakfast in a four-star hotel while a stranger from Mercedes-Benz begs his forgiveness.

"All right," Pippen says finally. "I appreciate it. O.K."

But it is still something of a miracle, a weird confluence of timing and talent that has carried Pippen from utter obscurity to fame and fortune. His life is a cliché—the American dream, no less—and nothing critics say about his still having something to prove can diminish what Pippen already holds in his grasp. Forget that he hasn't won a title without Jordan, forget what Barkley thinks. This is gravy time. Pippen came from nothing and created himself. His greatest accomplishment may have been that he looked around his shabby house as a boy, the youngest of 12 kids, and decided his life wouldn't always be that way. "Believe it or not, I used to dream big," Pippen says. "I always felt I would be rich, I would be successful. That's the only way you can handle it when it becomes reality."

In truth, all that dreaming was less a plan than vivid imagining, because Pippen had no role model. No one rich and famous had ever come out of Hamburg, Ark. (pop. 3,100), and if you stayed there long enough, you'd most likely find yourself working at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill, like Scot-tie's father, Preston, happy to have a job and enduring the long hours. Scottie's happiest memory of his father has nothing to do with sports or Christmas; it was the waiting. Every day Scottie would look out the window and wait for his father to trudge up to the house, tired and bent by arthritis. Scottie sometimes thinks of that now, and of the mill's chemical stench, the stink of pulp filling the air—"a smell," he says, "you know you don't want to be smelling the rest of your life."

The six Pippen boys all played ball down at the Pine Street Courts, "grew up playing in the dust," says Carl Pippen, Scottie's closest brother. All Scottie knew was that he didn't want to be trapped in Hamburg, that he had to get out and see all the cities and countries he'd heard about. But the family had no money, and by the time Scottie started high school, Preston had been paralyzed on one side of his body by a stroke. When Scottie graduated from high school at 17, he was a frighteningly skinny 6' 1½", and no college offered him a scholarship. His high school coach persuaded the coach at Central Arkansas, Don Dyer, to pull Scot-tie into the program as a manager. When other players dropped out, Pippen got his chance. He began growing as soon as he arrived on campus, and by Halloween of his freshman year Dyer had gotten him a full ride. By midseason Pippen was a starter.

In the summers Pippen would stay on campus in Conway, working the night shift as a welder at the Virco furniture factory, getting off at 7 a.m. and then working out before going to sleep. He'd get up at 5 p.m., drive 35 minutes into Little Rock and play summer-league games, then get back in time for his 11 p.m. shift. "I did that once in a while, but I couldn't go on," says Ronnie Martin, Pippen's oldest friend and a teammate at Central Arkansas. "Scottie did it daily. He played every game, and then he'd play more ball on the weekend. He loved the game. We'd set a goal in junior high: One of us was going to make the NBA."

By the end of his sophomore year Pippen had played every position at Central Arkansas. He had a point guard's mind in a frame that grew to 6'7". Anytime he'd ease up in practice, Dyer would yell, "There are 5,000 other guys who want what you want!" Some Arkansas alumni contacted Pippen, trying to get him to transfer to the state's premier school, and it was tempting. Here was his first glimmer of the big time, a stroke for the ego at last. But Pippen stayed in Conway, one of the smartest moves he ever made. Instead of being pigeonholed into one position with the Razorbacks, he continued to hone the all-around game that would give him his pro career. At the time, however, it seemed like a gamble he was destined to lose: Had he blown it? Would anyone bother with an NAIA player? Would he get out of Hamburg?

Not long before his senior season Pippen suffered a hairline fracture in his right femur. One doctor told him he was done for the year. Another told him to try to play, and Pippen taped himself up, never missed a game or practice. He averaged 23.6 points and 10 rebounds and was named NAIA All-America for the second year in a row, but he still had no idea whether anyone knew who he was. In his final game, against Harding, with a spot in the national tournament on the line, Pippen scored 39 points only to watch in horror as Harding won on a three-pointer. "That devastated Scottie," Dyer says. "He was sure now nobody [in the pros] would get a chance to see him. He thought it was all over, and he just knelt down on the floor and cried."

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