Simply put, the second episode of “The Last Dance” on ESPN, which highlights the infamous 1997-1998 season for the Chicago Bulls, stands out as “The Scottie Pippen Episode.”
And, as the Bulls legend said during a post-1997 NBA Finals press conference, “My day will come.”
Well, Pippen’s time came in a big way, both in his playing career, and his opportunity to speak about it all in this documentary, headlined by his animosity towards then-Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.
“I knew it was the end of the journey, and I never saw it ending like that,” Pippen said. “Jerry Krause made everything real murky when he said this is Phil’s last year.”
Heading into “The Last Dance,” Pippen ranked second on the Bulls in points, rebounds, and minutes, and first in assists and steals. But, he was only the team’s sixth-highest paid player, and the 122nd in term’s of salaries across the league.
Plus, he had the respect of his greatest peer, the man who ranked first in many of the team’s and league’s statistical categories.
“Helped me so much in the way I approached the game,” Michael Jordan said. “Whenever they speak of Michael Jordan, they should speak of Scottie Pippen.”
“I didn’t win without Scottie Pippen. That’s why I consider him my best teammate of all time.”
The hour-long feature dove into a lot of detail on Pippen’s path to the NBA, but, just like in the first episode, a few things stood out.
- Pippen’s childhood in Hamburg, Arkansas, was less than perfect, but turned him into the man that changed the face of the Bulls’ franchise.
- He grew up in a household with two people in wheelchairs, and said, “Basketball gave me an opportunity to get out of the house, didn’t need anybody to play with.”
- Childhood friend Ronnie Martin said “He always knew he’d make it to the NBA,” but when asked about believing that statement, Martin had a simple answer: “Not really.”
- Pippen only got a scholarship because of the failed academic status of some other players, but turned into one of the nation’s top prospects during his time at Central Arkansas. “He was the best player in his division in America,” former Arkansas governor and the 42nd United States President Bill Clinton said.
- His relationship with Jordan started as a rookie, even as Pippen told teammates he would be better than “His Airness,” even in his first year in the league.
- Pippen’s comments caught the eye of Charles Oakley, who would bully Pippen as a rookie. “I recognized that instantly, you’re not the top guy on the basketball team day one,” Pippen said.
- Even as Jordan stood out to Pippen as “a superstar in the game of basketball” and “bigger than any superstar any sport had ever had,” Jordan gave Pippen a gift as a rookie: a pair of golf clubs. “He was trying to lure me in so he could take all of my money,” Pippen joked
- While he was pivotal to the Bulls’ success, his financial status created some tension.
- Pippen signed a seven-year, $18 million deal in 1991, a contract that even the team’s owner felt was longer than he thought was smart for Pippen.
- “I felt like I couldn’t afford to gamble myself getting injured and not being able to provide,” Pippen said. “I needed to make sure people in my corner were taken care of.”
- The deal was undervalued quickly, as NBA revenues and salaries went way up. Then-Bulls head coach Phil Jackson called it “embarrassing, because he was maybe the #2 player in the NBA. His value was immense.”
- “There was a lot of anger from Scottie,” Steve Kerr said. “He had done so much for the Bulls, so his frustration bubbled over.”
- Pippen’s foot surgery around the start of the 1997-1998 season drew the ire of upper management, and even his Bulls teammates.
- “I don’t want to f— my summer up for a season where they’re not looking forward to having me.”
- “Scottie was wrong in that scenario,” Jordan said. “What Scottie was trying to do was force management to change his contract, and Jerry wasn’t going to do that. Now I’ve got to start the season knowing Scottie wasn’t going to be around, but we need to find a way to win.”
- In Pippen’s absence, the Bulls suffered some bad losses, including a two-point defeat against the Hawks and a 21-point loss against the Cavaliers. ““One loss feels like five,” Kerr said. “You’re expected to win, you’re supposed to win. It felt like trouble.”
- “Scottie was out, my voice had to be the loudest,” Jordan said, recalling times where he had to yell at players at practice. “Every day that Scottie wasn’t playing gave someone else confidence that they could beat us.”
- As Pippen sat out, Jordan stepped up to take over the team. He put up 49 points in a double-overtime win against the Clippers, the worst team in the league. That win was Chicago’s first on the road during “The Last Dance.”
- “My inate personality is to win at all costs,” Jordan said. “If I have to win it myself, I’ll do it. Every time I step on that basketball court, my focus is to win the game. It drives me insane when i can’t. I don’t think I would be here without the lessons I learned at a very young age. That competitive in me started when I was really young as a kid.”
The difficulties provided the film crew to transition back to Jordan’s childhood, where the legend’s drive came to fruition as he battled with his brothers for attention and affection.
The most telling quote of the episode from a Jordan perspective came from Michael’s father, saying, “If you want to bring out the best in Michael, tell him he can’t do something.”
That mentality rang true throughout his days at the University of North Carolina, and continued after Jordan suffered his first major injury in the NBA: a broken foot in the 1985 season.
He missed 64 games, and decided to go back to UNC to train and scrimmage without the Bulls’ permission to heal his injured foot.
But, when he came back, the team tried to keep him off the court to avoid their star re-injuring himself, and, in Jordan’s mind, to allow the team a chance at a better draft pick.
“While I thought of the glass as half full, everybody thought of it as half empty,” Jordan said. “We should always try to go out and win.”
They made a compromise to play seven minutes each half, which still left Jordan disgruntled, and began some of the disconnect with upper management.
One reporter said Jordan believed management violated the most fundamental aspect of sport: You do it at the highest level and you do it to win all the time.
Instead, the Bulls qualified for the playoffs and earned a chance to play the top-seeded Celtics in the first round. A team that included the likes of Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton and Danny Ainge.
“That setting against that team, that’s what you play for” John Paxson said. “Michael had this supreme confidence about him, he loved the big stage.”
“This is showtime,” Jordan said. “They took all of the limitations off me. Unleashed me.”
Jordan put up 49 points in Game 1, and famously dropped 63 in Game 2, but the Bulls still lost both games, and eventually the series. In the end, however, Jordan stood out among the rest.
“That wasn’t Michael Jordan out there, that was God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Jordan said.
Players around the league noticed Jordan’s talent, and Jerry Krause, the team’s general manager, decided to get to work to build up a dynamic roster around Chicago’s star. Notoriously, Krause pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Charles Oakley to New York for Bill Cartwright.
“Things were in place for us to win when [Oakley] left,” Jordan said.
That trading mentality eventually got Krause into hot water with star players like Pippen, who ended up in trade discussions frequently.
“Scottie had problems with Jerry and it came out on several occasions,” Kerr said.
Eventually, Pippen made things personal with Krause on the team’s bus, and said during the documentary that he “Couldn’t tolerate him anymore, didn’t respect him.”
“Felt like it was time for me to go shopping,” Pippen said.
He demanded a trade, and wouldn’t play until he was shipped out of Chicago.
“I felt like Scottie was being selfish, worrying about himself rather than his word to the organization and his loyalty to the team,” Jordan said.
But, Pippen only had one thought in mind.
“I had to do what was best for me.”
The episode ends, with the stage set for some drama as business starts to pick up in “The Last Dance.”
Episode two picks up right where the first left off, whether you’re talking about the storyline itself or the intensity and pacing of the action.
In this case, the attention briefly turns to Pippen, highlighting his upbringing and everything that made him into the incredible basketball player he turned out to be.
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But, just like when he was in Chicago, the documentary’s second part focuses a lot on Jordan himself, highlighting his recovery from a broken foot and how that caused a crack in the relationship between the young star and the team’s higher-ups.
People are truly tuning in for the Jordan story, and getting the 1997-1998 timeline as a base and an added bonus. So, the content reflects that interest, whether it’s marketed as a Bulls documentary as a whole or not.
Either way, what ESPN and Netflix have created with all of the footage and interviews they compiled has been magical so far, and if they’re able to replicate it throughout the entire series, it could turn into their finest work yet from a storytelling perspective.