No Longer MJ's Sidekick
Issue 7, Volume 112
By Krish Gupta
Chances are, the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the name Scottie Pippen is Michael Jordan. During the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty of the ‘90s, Pippen was the Robin to Jordan’s Batman––the G.O.A.T.’s de facto number two.
One year after ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance,” which follows the Bulls’ 1997-1998 season, Pippen released his autobiography, “Unguarded,” to share his own story. Pippen penned this book alongside co-writer Michael Arkush. In his book, instead of glorifying America’s favorite duo on the court, Pippen airs his grievances about Jordan and the Bulls organization, presenting a new side to the legendary lineup. In the prologue, Pippen sets the tone: “Michael and I aren’t close and never have been,” he writes. He explains how their interactions were mainly on the court, not off of it. They were not best friends, but rather business partners.
Pippen frequently revisits how he was viewed as simply a sidekick to Jordan. He notes that he felt underpaid throughout his years with the Bulls, despite being a key part of their run to six championships in eight years. This belief led to him demanding to be traded and nearly being dealt out of Chicago on several occasions, which he was criticized for by fans, the organization, and the media.
Pippen has a number of problems with ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” some of which are justified and some uncalled for. Pippen opposes how Jordan would often berate teammates for poor performances, writing, “We didn’t win six championships because [Jordan] got on guys. We won in spite of [it]. I was a much better teammate than [Jordan] ever was.” Throughout the autobiography, Pippen seems to be trying to prove his value—and perhaps diminish the value of Jordan. By taking this stance, Pippen is simply continuing to feed into the narrative that he is Jordan’s number two, not eliminating it.
Learning about Pippen’s life before the NBA, however, shows how different the two truly are. Pippen, born and raised in Hamburg, Arkansas, was the youngest of 12 children. Rather than being recruited to a blue blood school like Jordan was recruited by the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, Pippen didn’t draw interest from any recruiters and never even played Division 1 college basketball. Pippen attended Central Arkansas, with games that drew no NBA scouts. However, American sports scout Jerry Krause noticed Pippen, and the rising star was traded to the Bulls after he was snatched up by the Seattle SuperSonics with the fifth overall pick in the draft. The rest is history, as Pippen and Jordan led the franchise to six world titles, transforming the game of basketball in the process.
In his book, Pippen weighs in on basketball’s G.O.A.T. debate. The author makes it abundantly clear that LeBron James is the sport’s unequivocal G.O.A.T., not Jordan. Pippen actually argues that Jordan ruined the game of basketball with his offensive focus. All of the kids wanted to be “Like Mike,” creating a generation of scorers first, defenders second. It is perfectly reasonable for Pippen to say that James surpassed Jordan’s legacy, but saying that Jordan ruined the game is petty. Without MJ, basketball’s popularity would be significantly lower, and many NBA players likely never would have become such influential figures.
“Unguarded” is a captivating read that gives a unique and overlooked take on one of America’s most celebrated sports dynasties. It is admirable that Pippen doesn’t ignore or shy away from the low points of his career. Throughout the book, he responds to his various controversies and low points over the years: the boos at the United Center after he requested a trade; the infamous “1.8 seconds” drama when Phil Jackson assigned Toni Kukoč, not Pippen, to take the winning shot; and more. “Unguarded” lives up to its title and portrays a basketball legend in a way not many others have done. However, as expected, it isn’t particularly artfully written and could benefit from a more intimate look into Pippen’s personal life.
Reviews for the book are mixed. One headline from the Chicago Sun Times declares, “Scottie Pippen sells books, but hurts his reputation.” Another from the New York Post reads, “Scottie Pippen will never get over being in Michael Jordan’s shadow.”
Former teammate and NBA legend Charles Barkley had perhaps the most brutal take, saying, “Talking to my NBA family it’s kind of like, ‘Yo man will you all please buy this dude’s book so he can shut the hell up?’”
Others were more forgiving. Yahoo! lauded the book, noting, “Pippen hopes to remind fans basketball is a team sport.” Many see Pippen’s unflinching writing as a way to drum up controversy just to sell more books, while others appreciate the blunt honesty.
At the end of the day, Pippen still hasn’t separated from MJ’s large shadow. He may be a mainstay on the NBA 50 and now NBA 75 lists, but he will forever be remembered for being by Jordan’s side. The blurb of the book makes Pip’s view on his own value explicit: “Simply put, without Pippen, there are no championship banners––let alone six––hanging from the United Center rafters.” They may not agree on much, but there would be no Jordan as we know him without Pippen.
Remember his name.