Friday, August 20, 2010

Basket Case

Scottie Pippen now has a rightful place alongside the best players ever. But in the run-up to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, it seemingly was a must to bring up the 1.8 seconds.

Pippen infamously refused to come back onto the court after Phil Jackson drew up the winning shot for Toni Kukoc in the Chicago Bulls’ 104-102 victory over the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. The incident has been used to darken Pippen’s reputation as a selfish player. Somehow it also cemented the idea in some people’s minds that Pippen didn’t know how to handle being the locus of attention on a team.

The 1.8 seconds, of course, are merely a blip on Pippen’s remarkable road from abject poverty to team manager at Central Arkansas to one of the greatest NBA players of all time. But that shot should have been Pippen’s, and it is a good surmise that if Phil Jackson had to do it over again, Pete Myers would have been lobbing the ball in for No. 33.

Pippen momentarily lost his mind. It was a childish decision, to be sure, but it was a split-second response to a highly emotional situation. It helps Pippen’s side of the argument to get the full back story.

There was already the emotionally fraught dynamic between Pippen and Kukoc. This was also Pippen’s first year playing in the NBA without Michael Jordan, and the running theme of the season was whether Pippen could truly be a top dog.

Then there were the Knicks. Pat Riley’s teams had tried to scrap and pull and grab their way past the Bulls for years, often targeting Pippen for the most physicality. With Jordan off on his baseball sabbatical, the Knicks sensed a window of opportunity and were going to do whatever it took to knock the Bulls aside.

Pippen was often frustrated by the physical play. In this series, he had five fouls in Game 1 and fouled out of Game 2. It didn’t take long for the Knicks to go hard at Pippen in Game 3. Charles Smith checked into the game with eight minutes left in the first period and was involved in two shoving matches with Pippen in the span of 60 seconds.

All the grappling spilled over in the second quarter, when Bulls reserve Jo Jo English and Knicks guard Derek Harper touched off a brawl that spilled in the stands at Chicago Stadium just a few feet from the watchful eyes of NBA Commissioner David Stern.

So emotions were definitely running high in this game. Pippen was in the middle of the scrum but was mostly acting as a peacemaker. This was his team, the Bulls needed him on the court, and he took his job very seriously. He set the tone defensively, as always, guarding Harper on the ball, chasing sharpshooter Hubert Davis on the perimeter and bumping with Anthony Mason on the blocks. Pippen also got on teammate Luc Longley for being too passive and got in the ear of Scott Williams for being too reactive.

Pippen was also in the groove offensively. He had 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting at halftime. He pushed the tempo of the game as the Bulls upped the lead to 22 points at one point in the third quarter. Stupid fouls and mental mistakes by the Bulls let the Knicks back into game. Pippen scored his final basket to give him 25 points and the Bulls a 98-86 lead with just under five minutes remaining.

Pippen was obviously going full-tilt to get the Bulls past a hated rival. What was Kukoc doing? Not much. The rookie made a few nice passes, had some nifty post moves, but played only 13 minutes. Kukoc hadn’t been in on the court at all in the fourth quarter until checking in after the Knicks cut the lead to 102-100 in the final 30 seconds.

Pippen had his chance to the play the hero here but was caught with the ball as the shot clock was running out. He tried to make a one-on-one play but ran out of room on the wing because Kukoc was firmly planted in the corner. After Pippen’s wild three-pointer missed badly and the Knicks called timeout, he was seen yelling at Kukoc as the teams headed to their huddles.

So after Patrick Ewing’s runner tied the game, leaving those famous 1.8 seconds, and Jackson put the ball in Kukoc’s inexperienced hands, it was all too much for Pippen.

He melted down in an impossibly charged atmosphere. Who knows why “The Zenmaster” entrusted a rookie that was often criticized as being soft? Perhaps he knew that, with the Bulls inbounding on the right side, the left-handed Kukoc could field a lob pass against Mason and get off an easier shot than a right-hander could.

You can’t argue with the result: Kukoc calmly sank the jumper at the top of the key. But you can certainly argue with those who permanently grade down Pippen for refusing to play those 1.8 seconds. It was his team and his game to win against an opponent that had bullied and bloodied him in the past. That should have been Pippen’s shot.


  1. There is so much wrong with this. Jackson's coaching decision for the end of game play was right on. Kukoc hits and Bulls win. How can anyone say it should have been another player's shot? Pippen's response was disrespectful to the coach and to the team no matter how heated the moment.

  2. I disagree. This is a basketball game. The objective is always to win. While Pippen might arguably be the better offensive player, Kukoc was the better shooter. And besides, it's almost certain the defense collapse on Pippen. Heck, that's why he lost the ball the previous possession, because the Knicks knew he was getting the ball.

    Thus he was the perfect decoy in that scenario, he draws the defense, Kukoc gets the clean shot, they win. No one questions his leadership. But the way he did it almost cost them the game. And that to me has always been the question mark to how great he could've been.

  3. I agree wit ya man, Pip should have got the shot,,make or not - it was HIS shot

  4. You play to win the game. That's it. Pippen may care, but we as fans should not care who gets to shoot the shot, just that the coach called a play and the play was successful. Anything else just feeds into the wrong mindset for a supposed team game.

  5. Whoever sees Pippen's actions in a negative light has probably not been too competitive in their lives...

  6. so the argument here is that if you disagree with the coach, then you should refuse to go into the game?

    of course it should have been pippen's shot, but the coach thought otherwise, for whatever reason, and it turned out he was correct. pippen was wrong in his analysis, wrong in his approach, and WRONG in the way he handled the adversity. biggest 1.8 seconds of his career and dude was pouting on the bench. says something, don't it?

  7. No such thing as "it's someone's shot." Shots aren't a hereditary birthright. Even Michael made John Paxson and Steve Kerr famous...
    Whose shot it is depends on the moment, the opportunity, the defense, the play called.
    Stand up, Pippen. Or sit down permanently.

  8. because of this boneheaded move by pippen, a lot of people lost confidence in his leadership capability without jordan. and a lot of the bulls players wanted to bail out on the team in 1995, including pippen.

    remember the horrible start in 1995? the team was projected to end up missing the playoffs, and avoided that fate only because jordan came back.

  9. Enjoyable review; deeply flawed conclusion.

    It should unequivocally NOT have been Pippen's shot. The coach made a strategic decision to use someone other than the blatantly obvious choice, and it worked. Not only did it work, but there is was also the incalculable boost to Kukoc's confidence which served him well for years to come.

    In what world does a top-class coach make crucial decisions based on a star player's ego, overriding strategic considerations?

  10. i want my team to win, but more importantly than that, i want to be the main reason my team wins. this was the mentality he was living in then. but that is not a healthy excuse, it is just an explanation. there were lots of reasons why the bulls won that game, but only a couple possibilities why pippen sat on the bench... he was a selfish baby in that moment who whined because he didn't get his exact way, looking at his little pocket sized photo instead of the big picture (and there are always more people than one in the big picture) that or he crapped his pants when he heard he wasn't getting his way, and he didn't want everyone to see him walk out onto the court with it dribbling out his diaper. either way, very childish even for the pampered overgrown boy's game that I love. I love Pippen, too. one of the most unselfish players of all time 1.8 seconds aside, but in no way, in no world was his decision right, or even justifiable, and to write that it was just further deepens the roots of the problem in the first place. like lennon said, ALL THROUGH THE DAY, I ME MINE, I ME MINE, I ME MINE. Pippen should've taken himself out at the end of game 5 as well, so the terrible call at the end of that game couldn't have been blown. but like lennon said again... INSTANT KARMA'S GONNA GET YOU, GONNA BRUSH YOUR FINGERS BARELY ACROSS HUBERT'S SHOOTING HAND AND DRAW THE AWFUL WHISTLE'S SOUND.

  11. Great comments. I never intended to justify Pippen's selfish act. It was the wrong decision and he admitted as much. My biggest point was showing there were many big issues that contributed to his meltdown, mostly that he was right in thinking that he deserved the shot.

  12. "...mostly that he was right in thinking that he deserved the shot."

    Ben, I'm not trying to argumentative here, but that is precisely where you are mistaken. Pippen may well have had plenty of reasons to have believed that deserved the shot, but no serious coach would ever think along those lines. The only question is which play is likely to provide the best opportunity to win.

    Unfortunately, in a superstar-driven sport, there is a tendency for coaches to get the ball to their star players for last second shots, even though such plays are often not the best percentage plays to choose.

    I certainly understand why Pippen felt slighted, and you outline the emotional component very well. But the smart, and correct reaction in crunch time, is be help the team win, even if it means playing the role of a decoy.

  13. Interesting points here. I linked to this article on my blog. I hope that's ok.

  14. no disrespect to pippen. i understand how it must have felt like, and as a kid cheering the bulls without MJ, the fact that pippen was on the bench for the last shot baffled me. nonetheless, the right thing to do was to stand up and take responsibility, pippen was the bulls' leader, the shot was made for kukoc for strategic purposes and pippen was supposed to lead the knicks defense to free up more space for kukoc. MJ has passed up the winning shot to the paxsons and kerrs all in the name of winning. this was a childish move by pippen which fortunately did not cost his team.

  15. The only reason why it's even an issue is because Kukoc somehow hit the shot. Can you imagine less than 2 seconds on the clock and the ball not going to Jordan? Scottie wasn't MJ; but there's no doubt that he was the closest thing to him while he was gone. I've always been pissed how he never got his due.