Why do I find myself still thinking so often of Scottie Pippen, who retired from professional basketball in 2004 after a disappointing return to his franchise of former glory the Chicago Bulls, the franchise from which he had departed in 1998 for a disappointing season in Houston and then, in 1999, a very promising but ultimately still disappointing few seasons in Portland?
Why do I imagine Pippen grabbing a rebound and launching a cross-court pass, something I think he rarely actually did, at minimum once a day?
Why Scottie Pippen? Is it because his awkwardness turned to grace, his jangles sharpened into teeth, slashing lanes and skewering foes? Is it because he survived the likes of Rodman (who would later become an ally), Laimbeer, Ewing, Starks, and fiercest of all, his mentor, Jordan?
Why Pippen, whom my buddy Tom’s sister called “Scottie Pimpin’”?
Why Pippen and not Jordan or Bird? Wasn’t it Bird I first idolized for mysterious, possibly mildly racist pre-adolescent-boy reasons, and wasn’t it Jordan who truly made the Bulls great through my adolescent and teen years? Isn’t it widely understood that Jordan and Bird share that pathologically strong-willed, cocky winners’ psyche nearly ubiquitous in top-of-the-top, best-of-the-best athletes? What does it say about us as sports fans, as Americans, that we prize what we call a “killer instinct” and gather in arenas and around television sets to seek out and celebrate it?
Why do I on some level insist that Pippen possessed this killer instinct as a pro baller, yet on some other level feel relieved that maybe he didn’t, or at least not all the time?
Why Pippen, who was probably in his third professional season when I wrote my first poem, this ridiculous thing titled “Life in the NBA” that might as well have been an advertisement for the league and next to which I drew the NBA logo, that white Jerry West silhouette bouncing a ball between red and blue planes stretching to a rectangle’s edges? Why did I tear the sheet of paper up poem, logo, and all after my babysitter’s visiting friend read it out loud? Why did I assume she was making fun of me when in retrospect she was probably just curious and probably even thought it was cute or something?
Why was Pippen doubted by fans and management alike after Jordan went to learn humility from baseball in ’93, this same Pippen who then took the Bulls on his back and preserved franchise pride, proving himself still the second-best player in the league (only Hakeem Olajuwon was better in ’93–’94) and emerging from the obliterating presence of the mentor a full-fledged force in his own right?
Why am I so concerned about the legacy of Pippen, who is not to be confused with the musical Pippin or the Irish bar, Pippin’s?
Why do so many, those who claim “Pippen couldn’t lead” for example, forget that B. J. Armstrong (on whose windshield my babysitter once left a note, after having followed his car around with a friend in her mom’s car because they’d caught a glimpse of his boyish face somewhere downtown and couldn’t resist, or so she later told me) was voted a starting all-star during the ’93–’94 season? Would Jordan ever have allowed B. J. to blossom so naturally, so quickly? Don’t leaders make those around them better?
Why is it that Pippen never won defensive player of the year? Isn’t that basically a no-brainer? Don’t I sort of drift off in a kind of reverie when I consider YouTube clips of Pippen basically devouring Charles Barkley in ’95, or taking a charge from big barreling Karl Malone in ’98, or almost insouciantly blocking a John Starks circa ’94 potential three-pointer from behind the man’s head?
Why expend so much mental energy on Scottie Pippen, a humble Arkansan who is in no way responsible for the atomic bomb, although maybe in some “who is not guilty cast the first stone” sort of way he is? (But by that logic isn’t everyone?) Is it because Pippen’s dunk on Patrick Ewing in the ’94 semi-finals, followed by his talking of trash to a livid, front-row Spike Lee, was so total in its devastation?
Why is it important to me to mention that I never once doubted Pippen in ’93–’94, ’94 being the year I got my permit and struggled mightily with the stubborn clutch of the blue Honda Civic hatchback that I in fact crashed into the driveway basketball hoop at something slower than 5 m.p.h., which nevertheless generated enough momentum to bend the poor post from a 90- to a 45-degree angle with the lawn? Why wasn’t my mom, who was sitting next to me when it happened and who took the opportunity to tell me calmly that it was a good lesson in just how powerful even a slow-moving car can be, more angry, or angry really at all?
Why do I run so often through the groove in my mind called Pippen? Is it because circa ’96, roughly the same time I was reading Great Expectations, he had “Pip” tattooed to his bicep, though he should not be confused with Philip Pirrip? In a way, though, isn’t Pip’s (Scottie’s) rise from obscure rural southern poverty to stunning wealth and fame in a major urban center kind of Dickensian?
Why has no one, to my knowledge, noted this historical parallel: Phil Jackson coached Scottie Pippen after Jordan left the Bulls (the first time) and he coached Kobe Bryant after Shaq left the Lakers? Is it because examining this parallel makes clear, contra the agenda of the superstar-manufacturing hype of contemporary sports, that Scottie’s team mentality and all-around game were vastly superior to Kobe’s petulant showboating, and that even though Kobe finally redeemed himself, it took him like four seasons and a barely dodged rape charge to figure out that basketball is a team game?
Why do Scottie P. doubters still mention the infamous 1.8 seconds of the ’94 Eastern Conference semis, when Pippen asked out of the final play because the last shot was drawn up for Kukoc (Krause’s (i.e., management’s) hand-picked successor to Jordan)? To them I say, take any superstar you can think of—Jordan, Bird, Kobe—and ask him not to take the last shot with the game on the line; now take any one of those superstars and have him play his best season with management publicly doubting him; any one of those superstars would have fucked up a lot more: Scottie’s only real basketball mistake of the 1990s lasted 1.8 seconds. And isn’t it worth remembering that greatness isn’t perfect?