Ask any former Chicago Bulls teammate of Scottie Pippen, right down to the man whose NBA career he nearly destroyed before it started in Toni Kukoc, and they’ll tell you that he was unequivocally their favorite teammate. Pippen’s mix of all-around brilliance on both sides of the ball, coupled with his calm and steady on-court and practice court demeanor, make him the ideal leader. As a Bulls fan growing up outside Chicago at the time of Scottie’s run with the team, I’ve for years remarked that I would end games angrier with the play of Michael Jordan than Pippen by probably a 20-to-1 margin. Though his missteps were legendary, he otherwise seemed to do everything right.
To take him, on a hypothetical team in what would be the Greatest Draft Ever, over Michael Jordan? Weirdly, if compassionately, that’s what former Utah Jazz forward and fellow Hall of Famer Karl Malone says he would do (if not afforded the opportunity to select former Jazz teammate John Stockton, ‘natch).
In an interview with “The Dan Patrick Show” on Wednesday, hyping up the fabulous “Dream Team” documentary that premiered that night, Malone had a pretty cool (if, to these scoutin’ eyes, a little off) insight into why he’d go with No. 33 ahead of No. 23:
“I would have to start my team with Scottie Pippen,” he said. “This is why I would take Scottie: Do you remember the time that Michael retired? I watched Scottie Pippen when the Chicago Bulls weren’t really good and Scottie led that team in every statistical category, and I just remembered that. Plus, he’s a guy who could care less about scoring. He wants to stop the best player on the other team. That would have been pretty cool, to see Scottie guarding Michael.”
Yes, that would be cool. For years, fans have begged Team USA to release tapes of the Dream Team going back and forth in practice. For just as long, I’ve been begging Jerry Krause, Jerry Reinsdorf, or some mole at Deerfield, Illinois’ soon to be redundant Berto Center to release tapes of Pippen and Jordan going at it in Chicago’s closed practices. No player in NBA history was better suited to guard MJ than Scottie Pippen, and lucky for MJ Scottie actually played on Jordan’s team.
It was Jordan’s team, though. Even if Pippen ran the offense. He relayed direction from the bench, found the open man, found the man who hadn’t seen the ball in a while and desperately needed to feel the bumpy leather between his hands, and guarded the team’s best perimeter scorer nightly. He took endless amounts of charges before every bit of contact was designated a charge, throwing his back completely out of whack along the way. Also, his unanticipated “ability” to act as the game’s 122nd-highest paid player in 1997 and 1998 allowed Michael Jordan to make in upwards of $30 million per season during his last two years with Chicago.
So, yes: Scottie Pippen, quite the dude. And maybe Pippen, 15 years on, is still in Karl’s head.
Ahead of Jordan? Every bit of us wants to agree, because if we were to pick a player to return as in another lifetime it would be Scottie Pippen, but Patrick wasn’t asking about karmic retribution and/or reincarnation. He wanted to know who you wanted to your side, and hurry up. And Karl chose Pippen.
With Karl on that team? Perhaps. Overall? Eh, not so much.
In an era even with two-handed hand-checking just about legal, Jordan dominated the game offensively with an efficiency at his position that no other NBA player has been able to come close to (check the shooting percentages, Kobe-fiends). You’re making a deal with a nasty, brutish sort when you allow MJ to sign on your dotted line — you have to surround the man with men he respects, and men who aren’t going to back down when Jordan’s temper (and shot selection) gets the best of him — but that’s a wonderful luxury to have.
Either, with Pippen as the alternative, is a luxury to have. We’re just not convinced — as rosy as our recollections are of The Greatest Teammate Ever — that The Greatest Teammate Ever would be the teammate we’d choose above all.
We wouldn’t mind, in that hypothetical weirdness, a chance to build a team against Karl’s featuring two of the finest ever. And, as Malone pointed out, finally able to bash each other around as opponents, and not teammates.