It doesn't matter that Pippen happens to be correct. Such sentiments come out sounding like a bad brew of sour grapes. That feeling is further fueled by the fact that Jordan is sparse in praise of Pippen and, privately, has often expressed reservations about Pippen's toughness. Perhaps if Zeus overpraised his subjects, he wouldn't be Zeus.
Pippen and good buddy Horace Grant, the Bulls' starter at power forward, used to be united in their feelings about their subservient roles as planets revolving around the Jordan sun. But their friendship has diminished somewhat over the years, and it was severely tested when an article featuring the begoggled Grant in the April issue of Inside Sports included this tasty nugget from Grant: "To be honest, Scottie has become arrogant and cocky, but that's to be expected of people who can't handle fame and fortune." Whew! Grant's utterances were made during the preseason, when he was extremely upset over what he perceived to be preferential treatment given to Jordan and Pippen after their triumphant Olympic summer in Barcelona. His anger subsided as the season progressed. But that doesn't mean the comments didn't wound Pippen.
"Horace told me he said that stuff a long time before," says Pippen. "And I said, 'Yeah, but you still said it, so evidently you meant it.' It hurt. I won't say it didn't. I think it was a combination of a lot of things—frustration, maybe misinterpreting me a little bit and confusion over our friendship changing. Things aren't the same as when we were young and it was Scottie and Horace, Horace and Scottie. We've outgrown that, and we both had to realize it. The important thing is that we're still good friends and that we play well together."
The two have also continued a miniritual before the start of each game. Grant walks to the basket nearest the Bull bench, and Pippen follows a few seconds later. They grip each other's arms and trade inspirational clichés about "playing hard" and "getting it going right away," and then they break. It's touching in its simplicity.
In reality the Bulls, as all championship teams must, have reached the point where they are not only able to overcome personal off-the-court distractions but also to thrive on them. (The tempest created last week by the book Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction...My Cry for Help! is only the latest example.) No one knows to what extent the green-eyed monster bothers Pippen when he puts his head down at night, but on the court it bothers him not a whit. Not anymore. There are times when Jordan and Pippen seem to be playing alone out there, slinking into the passing lanes, tipping the ball to each other, running, dunking, gliding in an athletic pas de deux somewhere in the rafters.
Yes, Jordan still comes out far ahead of Pippen as a player, and any attempt to flip-flop their importance to the Bulls is absurd. Pippen is a fine perimeter shooter with as pure a ball rotation as anyone in the game, but Jordan is a great shooter because of his indomitable will to score. Pippen, long of both arm and leg, is a terrific on-the-ball defender, but Jordan is as good a defensive player as anyone who has ever played the game. Pippen's passing gets steadily better, but he does not see the floor nearly as well as Jordan, who dishes almost as well as he drives.
But Pippen's steadiness against the Knicks' pressure defense demands that he be recognized for fulfilling his ball-handling duties, which are far more numerous than Jordan's. Remember the discussion a few years ago about Jordan's having to play point guard because the Bulls did not have a penetrator at that position? It turned out that a true point man was there all the time, but Pippen's talents were hidden by his lack of confidence. "Nobody knows how hard I worked alone on dribbling and just feeling the ball in my hands," says Pippen. Only when Pippen finally proved he could orchestrate both the half-court offense and the fast break did the Bulls become champions.
On Saturday, Pippen talked at length about playing the role of Garfunkel to Jordan's Simon. Perhaps his feelings were colored by the joy of the previous night's victory and the personal satisfaction he got from sticking it to the Knicks. But the evidence suggests that Pippen has come to terms with playing in the shadow of Chicago's guiding light.
"I honestly don't know whether I could function as a player away from Michael now," said Pippen. (Most of Pippen's critics would agree with that, but it was, nevertheless, surprising to hear him say it.) "What Michael has brought us, every night, every game, is the spotlight and the pressure that would've been directed elsewhere. All of us—Horace, Pax [John Paxson], B.J. [Armstrong]—had to respond to it, or else we would've died as a team. Eventually, we did respond, and it made us stronger.
"I wanted more [recognition and shots] early in my career; sure, I did. It was hard always being compared to Michael, because it seemed that no one else was under that same microscope. You never heard about [Los Angeles Laker forward] James Worthy being criticized because he didn't do enough to help Magic Johnson when the Lakers lost, for example. But with the Bulls, it was always, Well, Michael held up his end as usual, but Scottie didn't do enough. I just came to realize that it was a unique situation with Michael because of how truly great he is.