Usually, the Chicago Bulls loved Scottie Pippen for his selflessness. This time, though, the Bulls became disappointed in Pippen’s selfishness.
In Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls and New York Knicks were tied with 1.8 seconds left. Though the Bulls had often relied on Pippen’s scoring, passing and defense following Michael Jordan’s retirement, they also relied on Toni Kukoc to make varying game-winning shots. So coach Phil Jackson drew up a play for Pippen to inbound the ball to Kukoc.
Pippen refused to enter the game, and suggested nearly 26 years later that he would have done the same thing.
“It’s one of those incidents that I wish had never happened,” Pippen said in Episode 7 of “The Last Dance” documentary Sunday. “But if I had a chance to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”
Why wouldn’t he change his reaction to an incident that sparked team-wide criticism?
“I felt like it was an insult coming from Phil,” Pippen said. “I was the most dangerous guy on our team. So why are you asking me to take the ball out?”
When the Bulls took the floor following the timeout, Pippen stayed on the bench. Assistant coach Jim Cleamons informed Jackson that Pippen refused to enter the game. Jackson approached Pippen and recalled asking him, “Are you in or are you out?”
“I’m out,” Pippen said.
Jackson subbed in Pete Myers to inbound the ball. Myers found Kukoc at the top of the key, and Kukoc drained the shot to win the game and cut the Knicks’ series lead to 2-1.
“I was obviously happy for making the shot. But there was the whole situation,” Kukoc said. “Everyone was going to the locker and everyone was pissed that things are not right.”
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That was because the Bulls struggled to comprehend Pippen’s actions.
“Scottie is one of our favorite teammates and favorite people in the world,” said guard Steve Kerr, now the Golden State Warriors’ head coach. “He quit on us. We couldn’t believe that happened. It was devastating.”
Afterwards, the Bulls shared their disappointment with Pippen.
First, Jackson addressed the team and expressed his displeasure with Pippen both for undermining his authority and offending his teammates. Then Bulls center Bill Cartwright spoke. He already had talked sternly with Pippen on the bench. This time, Cartwright shared his thoughts in front of the team while fighting back tears.
Said Cartwright: “We had come too far with that team to go out like that.”
Pippen apologized to his teammates. They appreciated the gesture. Jordan anticipated, though, that might not be enough. Jordan called Jackson the following day and said, “I don’t know if Scottie is ever going to live this down.”
“It’s always going to come back to haunt him at some point in some conversation,” Jordan said. “Pip knows better than that.”
Pippen might remain adamant about his actions. Either way, that usually did not capture Pippen’s character.
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The Bulls liked him for his positional versatility on both offense and defense. They thought he mastered the triangle offense that Jackson taught with assistant coach Tex Winter. When Jordan played, the Bulls liked how Pippen complemented his dominant play and personality. During Jordan’s first retirement, the Bulls liked how Pippen empowered teammates with his superior passing and encouragement.
Therefore, it was not surprising Pippen responded in the Bulls’ Game 4 win over New York with 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals. At the end of Game 3, though, the Bulls still remember how Pippen’s late-game flareup left them feeling disappointed.
“The worst part is we knew it was not Scottie’s character,” Kerr said.”We knew that wasn’t him. And we knew it was going to be a stain on his reputation.”