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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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Preston's last nine years weren't good; the stroke robbed him of movement and coherent speech. "He had his mind," says Ethel Pippen, Scottie's mother, speaking from the comfortable house her son bought her in 1989. Preston never saw his son play as a pro, not in person, and he died during the 1990 playoffs. But in June 1987, Preston was sitting before the television set in his home in Hamburg, the smell of the mill wafting in through the windows, when his son was chosen fifth in the first round of the NBA draft by the Seattle SuperSonics and immediately traded to the Bulls. Ethel looked over at her husband. He had his mind, all right. Tears were pooling in his eyes.

It was quite a night. Shaq got tossed, Portland rolled 97-82, and Pippen—the man Lakers owner Jerry Buss declined to pursue because of his ballooning salary over the next three seasons—put together his usual all-around clinic against L.A. on Nov. 6. Aside from getting 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals, he did all the little things: deflected passes, held Glen Rice to 14 points, disrupted flow. Pippen slapped away Travis Knight's final shot of the first quarter, twice doubled up on Tyronn Lue to force him to lose the ball out-of-bounds, harassed Rick Fox so completely on one possession that Fox lost the ball once, then again and then had to heave a wild shot before the shot clock expired. Even Harper, Pippen's close friend and former Bulls teammate, wasn't immune: As Pippen smothered him just before the half, Harper was reduced to throwing an air ball.

Pippen has the sleek body lines of a Lear-jet. There's a tiny tattoo on his left biceps that reads PIP, and in case that's too subtle, a white wristband bearing the same three letters often rests just below his left elbow. Nobody plays the team game as well as Scot-tie Pippen, but because of his off-court pop-offs, few people acknowledge this.

"Everybody who talks about the Chicago Bulls talks about MJ first," Harper says, "but Pip had a more all-around game. Defense, offensive rebounds and defensive boards: Pip made the game easier for us to play. But he may not ever get his due, not until he brings that other championship ring home."

This is a technical analysis, a basketball purist's take, because in matters that can't be quantified but mean everything—heart, courage, response to pressure—Jordan was incomparable. But the fact is, Jordan never won a championship without Pippen, either, and for good reason. No one is more versatile than Pippen. "He's the best defender I've seen," Dunleavy says. "I put him in a class with Bobby Jones, Sidney Moncrief and certainly Jordan. But they're different. Jordan, at his position, may have been as good as there was. But Scottie could guard more positions than Michael. Scottie can handle more sizes."

Jackson wanted Pippen badly in L.A., but Buss never seriously considered going after him. "I thought it was meant to be," Jackson says. "I thought he was a godsend for us in L.A. For me to have to swallow it and move on was very difficult. On the Bulls he was probably the player most liked by the others. He mingled. He could bring out the best in the players and communicate the best. Leadership, real leadership, is one of his strengths. Everybody would say Michael is a great leader. He leads by example, by rebuke, by harsh words. Scottie's leadership was equally dominant, but it's a leadership of patting the back, support."

Or, as former Bull Joe Kleine puts it, "Michael was the father figure saying, 'You're grounded.' Pip was like Mom coming in to tell you everything's going to be all right."

At week's end the Trail Blazers were 15-4 and leading the Pacific Division. They had already handled contenders such as the Lakers and the Miami Heat—without the help of power forward Brian Grant, who returned from a knee injury on Nov. 17. Team president Bob Whitsitt gathered together this impressive bunch, dealing for Pippen and Smith and signing free agent Detlef Schrempf in the off-season, but Pippen is the one stitching the team together. "He wants another ring: That's why he's great and why he has six of them," Smith says. "He could just coast, but he won't. He still does the little things: He's here early, he defends. He still plays hard. He dislocated his finger and kept playing. A guy with six rings? You'd think he'd sit down. But he wants to win. No matter what it takes."

He wants to put it all behind him. Remember: This is what Pippen does best. "Pip made some crazy comments, but he has just brushed that to the side," says Stoudamire. "It's like tunnel vision. I envy that. He doesn't ever let anything distract him." Yes, Pippen knows he's made mistakes; looking back, he'll tell you that no one is more to blame for the Houston debacle than he. He should've known better, he says. He should never have gone there in the first place. And the 1.8 seconds? The inexplicable migraine? He'd take those back, too.

Go back further: Pippen was married once before, to a Central Arkansas student named Karen McCollum, but they were finished in 1990 after two years and a son named Antron. Then came more female trouble: In May 1995 Pippen's ex-fiancée Yvette DeLeone—the mother of his daughter, Sierra-accused him of grabbing her arm and pushing her. Pippen was arrested on a domestic battery charge, which was dropped when DeLeone declined to testify against him. Seven months later he settled a paternity suit and admitted having fathered twins by model Sonya Roby. One of the babies died nine days after birth. The survivor, a boy named Taylor, has no relationship with Pippen beyond the financial.

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