Discover more from The Sports Column
A DELUSIONAL SOURPUSS, PIPPEN SHOULD APOLOGIZE TO JORDAN
Rather than acknowledge how his Hall of Fame career was enhanced by his partnership with basketball’s G.O.A.T., a bitter man attacks Jordan in a memoir that isn’t worth 1.8 seconds of your time
The Jordan Tax, I call it. It’s a rough assessment, all for farts and giggles, that should be levied on those associated with The Michael Jordan Experience — teammates, coaches, executives, sportswriters — commensurate with how he enriched the totality of their lives.
The winner, or loser, is Steve Kerr. When he arrived in Chicago, he was an NBA drifter, a driveway jumpshooter rejected by Orlando, all but begging the Bulls for a tryout and living next door during training camp at a Residence Inn. It was his last chance … until he made the team and still was around when Jordan returned from his absurdist minor-league baseball journey. A season later, in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals, he looked at Kerr in the huddle and said, “This is your chance.’’
“I sh-t my pants,’’ Kerr said.
When Jordan passed him the ball, as promised, Kerr hit the jumper that extended the dynasty and turned his life to gold. Thus launched a charmed existence that will lead to the Basketball Hall of Fame, with a resume including three championship rings as a coach, five as a player and stops as a team executive and accomplished TV analyst. And he’s the first to agree he’d owe the highest Jordan Tax.
But Scottie Pippen isn’t far behind. If not for Michael Jordan, Pippen wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame and wouldn’t have appeared on a recent list of the NBA’s 75 greatest players. In truth, I wonder if he’d have been traded four or five times and ended up in jail. Just as the evil bastard in Jordan riled up Kerr by punching him in practice, he maximized Pippen’s wondrous skills and brought out his competitive fury, tapping into the anger of a small-town Arkansas kid. There wasn’t as much difference in their talent tank levels as people think, but Jordan was maniacal in his pursuits. He knew what he wanted, and he conquered the spheres of basketball, sports, entertainment and popular culture. He was the machine behind the creation of a monster.
Rather than savor the thrills and count his blessings, Pippen allowed an ugly grudge to fester. He did so even after struggling with the burden of carrying the Bulls in Jordan’s absence. He played well, but they fell short of another title and he was disastrous as a leader who cracked under the pressure. He was arrested when police found a handgun, loaded with seven .380-caliber bullets, in his illegally parked Range Rover outside a Gold Coast bar. One day, unprompted, he referred to Chicago fans as racists. Then came the night he quit on his team, sitting out the final 1.8 seconds in a deep sulk when Phil Jackson didn’t call his name for the last shot of a playoff game. Never mind that Toni Kukoc plunged the dagger that beat the Knicks. Pippen now was confirmed as a me-first, team-second guy when, later on, Jordan would have no problem passing to Kerr with a trophy at stake.
All of which could be excused as sideshow drama that somehow was navigated in a six-championship joyride. But Pippen can’t let go of his animus. It bubbled up last year, during “The Last Dance’’ documentary series that glorified Jordan and reminded younger generations that he, indeed, was a much bigger sensation than LeBron James. And why wouldn’t the ESPN production celebrate Mike — he was the executive producer, after all, making the final call on content and paid handsomely for his interview time and film-vault approval? Here is where Pippen should have accepted he was part of an unprecedented extravaganza, playing an essential role but more as a supporting actor.
Instead, he lost his mind. And wrote a book, a 274-page memoir called “Unguarded.’’ He should have called it “Unhinged.’’ If it was Pippen’s aim to emphasize that basketball is a team sport and Jordan did have teammates, he looks delusional in not at least acknowledging the extenuating circumstance in the room: this team was led by the greatest basketball player and most prominent sports figure of all time.
“How dare Michael treat us that way after everything we did for him and his precious brand,’’ Pippen writes. “Michael Jordan would never have been Michael Jordan without me, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Bill Cartwright, Ron Harper, B.J. Armstrong, Luc Longley, Will Perdue, and Bill Wennington. I apologize to anyone I’ve left out.’’
He writes: “I was a much better teammate than Michael ever was.’’
He writes: “It was almost as if Michael felt the need to put me down to lift himself up.’’
He writes: “Each episode was the same: Michael on a pedestal, his teammates secondary, smaller, the message no different from when he referred to us back then as his ‘supporting cast.’ From one season to the next, we received little or no credit whenever we won but the bulk of the criticism when we lost. Michael could shoot 6 for 24 from the field, commit 5 turnovers, and he was still, in the minds of the adoring press and public, the Errorless Jordan. Now here I was, in my mid-fifties, seventeen years since my final game, watching us being demeaned once again. Living through it the first time was insulting enough.’’
He writes: “Michael was wrong. We didn’t win six championships because he got on guys. We won in spite of his getting on guys. … In the doc, Michael attempted to justify the occasions in which he berated a teammate in front of the group. He felt these guys needed to develop the toughness to get past the NBA's more physical teams. Seeing again how poorly Michael treated his teammates, I cringed, as I did back then.’’
Where Pippen, the author, fails spectacularly is in not explaining how Jordan helped Pippen’s Hall of Fame brand … and kept Rodman out of the gutter … and made a rich man of Grant … and turned Paxson into a civic hero … and made an eventual legend of Kerr. Without Michael Jordan, would Jackson — described as “a racist’’ by Pippen — have wandered into the outback as a failed minor-league coach rather than win 11 rings with the Bulls and Lakers? Why is Pippen the only one complaining about a life made better by Jordan? An apology is in order, but the suggestion of which probably is the only thing that would make Pippen laugh and stop brooding.
If Jordan was such a megalomaniacal lout, would he have reached out to Pippen in a text after hearing of his disenchantment with the docu-series? “What’s up dude?’’ Jordan wrote. “I’m getting word that you’re upset with me. Love to talk about it if you have time.’’
They talked, but not enough to rub out the massive chip on Pippen’s shoulder. Most likely, they’ll never speak again, which is monumentally sad, given all they accomplished together.
They should be celebrating the 30-year anniversary of their first title, followed by another party next year, then another the year after — and, after two pauses, three more. Alas, there is a better chance of Scottie Pippen opening his mail, seeing the envelope containing his Jordan tax bill, and doing anything but shredding it to pieces and cursing out the Greatest Athlete Ever as the devil incarnate. That will take about 1.8 seconds, too.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.