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In A League bloated with eight-figure celebrity lightweights who haven't won anything, Scottie Pippen is an anachronism: a player with six championship rings who still feels he has something to prove. You have to go back to Bill Russell to find anyone as well-fed and hungry. "People are going to say, 'Let's see if he can win a championship without Michael,' " says Houston swingman Eddie Johnson. "But I don't know what they're talking about. Michael couldn't win without Scottie, either."
With the dramatic signing of Pippen (five years, $67.2 million), the Rockets now resemble a jazz band at Preservation Hall: They know how to swing, but they play with a bit of a hitch. Pippen is 33 and underwent back surgery last July; Charles Barkley turns 35 this month and also has a bad back; Hakeem Ola-juwon is 35 and has an ailing knee; and Olajuwon's backup, Antoine Carr, is 37. As a counterpoint, they're surrounded by a batch of players in their early 20s, including rookie guard Michael Dickerson from Arizona, a promising scorer. "I've got guys on this team, I could be their daddy," says Johnson, 39. "You need the type of energy they bring around you, their silliness." Now he sounds as if he's talking about grandchildren.
"The balance in our personnel has got to be one of our strengths," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "It's just like a family, where the older members have to help out the younger members."
Their rivals hope that the Rockets will be too exhausted to re-create their title runs of 1993-94 and '94-95. "Everybody's saying we're too old," says Johnson. "Well, name me a young team that's won an NBA championship."
Touché. Fully one quarter of the reigning Olympic gold medalists will play for Houston this season. One of them, Olajuwon, rebuilt his legs during the lockout with the help of Bahamian triple jumper Frank Rutherford, an Olympic bronze medalist in 1992. "Frank helped me not just with my knee but also with my whole mentality," says Olajuwon, who never recovered his strength last season after surgery on his left knee forced him to miss 33 games. "The goal was not to extend my career but to improve the quality of the years I have left."
Pippen should help there. Roaming the half-court as gracefully as Muhammad Ali worked the ring, he'll give Olajuwon more freedom on offense. They'll also make a devastating pair defensively. "Over the last couple of years I've been thinking about coming to play here," says Pippen. "I've always wanted the opportunity to play with a great center."
In Pippen and Olajuwon, the Rockets have two of the few tried-and-true NBA champions still at work. Someday the next generation is going to take over, but for now it looks as if the old folks have pooled their resources in Houston for one last run.
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