Pippen will go down in history as Jordan’s sidekick, but he was a high-wattage star in his own right. Any doubts about that should have been erased by Monday’s announcement of his election to the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. “When you’re recognized as one of the greatest, it says a lot,” said Pippen. “This is something I never dreamed would happen to me as a walk-on at Central Arkansas.”
When Bulls general manager Jerry Krause scouted Pippen at the obscure college, it was love at first sight.
“He came out and I said, ‘That’s the kid!’” Krause remembered.“He had the longest arms I’d ever seen. That night, I got very excited.” But soon enough, the secret was out. By draft day, 1987, Krause was convinced that Pippen would not be available when the Bulls selected eighth in the first round. He engineered a trade with the Seattle SuperSonics that enabled him to move up three slots and get Pippen with the fifth pick in the first round.
Krause never regretted it. Nor did he regret taking power forward Horace Grant with the tenth pick in the same draft. Pippen and Grant became fast friends off the court, and they teamed up on the court as an exceptionally athletic, rangy, and tenacious forward tandem that assistant coach Johnny Bach called the “Dobermans.” For Pippen, comparison to a greyhound might have been more apt. His loose limbs and long, loping strides allowed him to start and finish fast breaks with the best of them.
With Pippen and Grant on board to complement Jordan, it was only a matter of time until the Bulls won the world championship. This they did in 1991, and again in 1992 and 1993.
While Jordan was off playing baseball in 1993-94, Pippen emerged as unquestionably the Bulls’ leader and earned at least a share of the recognition he was due. He finished third in the Most Valuable Player balloting as the Bulls won 55 games, only two fewer than the year before. The Bulls swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first playoff series, then lost the conference semifinal series to the New York Knicks four games to three. If not for a phantom foul call on Pippen by referee Hue Hollins that all but decided the seventh game, the Bulls might well have advanced to the conference finals and beyond.
The series against the Knicks also featured the infamous 1.8 seconds that Pippen would like to have back. In Game 3, he refused to return to the floor after a timeout because the play called for Toni Kukoc, rather than Pippen himself, to take the last-second shot. Thankfully, Kukoc made the shot and the Bulls won; otherwise Pippen might never have lived it down. “He understood he made a mistake and let his emotions get the better of him,” said teammate Bill Wennington, “and he told us. Then it was over.”
After Jordan returned and Krause obtained Dennis Rodman to replace Grant, the Bulls won another three championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998, compiling a regular-season record of 203-43 (.825) and a playoff record of 45-13 (.776) in the process. In 1996, Pippen joined Jordan among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History who were selected to celebrate the league’s 50th anniversary.
Following the second “three-peat,” Jordan and head coach Phil Jackson retired (both eventually resurfaced elsewhere), Rodman was released, and Pippen was traded, clearing the way for Krause to embark on an ill-fated rebuilding plan.
Pippen played one year for the Portland Trail Blazers and four for the Houston Rockets before finishing up with the Bulls in 2004. By the time he was through, Pippen had played in seven All-Star games, been named first-team All-NBA three times, and been named first-team All-Defensive team eight times. “The dunks were nice,” Krause said, “but I’ll always remember the defense. He could guard anybody.”