If you were to construct the ideal basketball player for the modern era, you’d start with that coveted combination of size and agility. You’d want someone who can dribble, pass, shoot, and defend multiple positions. You’d want someone who prioritizes teamwork, who is selfless nearly to a fault, yet capable of taking over and dominating when necessary.
Many players are blessed with physical gifts. Few are able to develop the tool-set required to transcend their natural ability. Fewer still realize that — like so many evolutionary outliers — one of the early prototypes for what we’ve come to consider the contemporary stretch-four was a product of chance and circumstance.
Scottie Pippen, legendary Bulls icon and arguably one of the greatest players of all time, started his basketball career as a 6’1 point guard at the University of Central Arkansas. Pippen arrived in Conway equipped with the type of speed, ball-handling, and court vision that endeared him to the coaching staff and earned him a spot as a walk-on. But beyond that, his prospects were mostly unremarkable.
That is, until a fortuitous growth spurt changed the trajectory of his life and career. Pippen grew seven inches over the course of a single summer, and armed with the point guard skills he’d been honing in obscurity, went on to become a standard bearer for future generations of do-it-all, multi-positional wing players.
His resume is unimpeachable. Alongside Michael Jordan, Pippen comprised one of the best duos in basketball history, winning six titles in the 90s and, in the process, cementing his status as one of the all-time greats. We recently caught up with Pippen this week to talk about the NBA’s return, the toughest player he ever had to guard, his second career as a basketball commentator, and much more.
Tell us about this promotion you’re doing with Michelob to get us started.
Yeah, sure. First of all, I’m a huge fan of Michelob Ultra, and I was very excited to hear that Michelob Ultra is the official beer of the NBA now. So that was just announced. And they’re going to be bringing some joy to the fans for the return of the NBA, which is why they announced “Michelob Ultra Courtside.” It’s a digital experience that’s virtual; it brings fans inside the arena. More than 300 fans each game will be invited to appear live on screen surrounding the court, which will be seen by the players and on television. And fans can also virtually interact with one another during the game.
I was wondering how they were going to do that. That’s interesting to see how they’re going to work the fans into the mix.
We’re bringing the in-arena experience to your living room…or basement…or wherever you watch the games. Follow us to learn how you can win #ULTRACourtside virtual seats for the biggest @NBA games of the season. pic.twitter.com/rgyjoKVKym
— Michelob ULTRA (@MichelobULTRA) July 29, 2020
It’s been more than four months since just about everything went on hiatus, but basketball is finally back. How have you been keeping your sanity during all this?
Well, I’m having a lot of fun. I’ve got three boys at home with me, so we’ve been training really hard. My oldest son, 19, he was a starting point guard at Vanderbilt last year. So we’ve been training for him to get back to normal life this season. And I got a 17-year-old going into his senior year. And I got a 15-year-old. He’s going to be a freshman. So we’ve just been at home preparing and trying to stay safe as much [as possible]. And just trying to stay busy. It’s been strange, obviously, with no sports on TV. But my kids have been able to manage playing a lot of video games and working out and getting outside, shooting some hoops. So it’s been pretty productive for us.
I’m always curious what it’s like for a player of your caliber who has children who also play basketball. That must create kind of a unique bonding experience. Are they impressed by your accomplishments, or are you just kind of dad to them at this point?
Well, they didn’t really have a chance to watch my career. But I think they’re impressed by my career. And if nothing else, I think having a chance to sit at home these last few months and watch the documentary helped to kind of give them an opportunity to relive my career. But for the most, I’m really just dad to them.
You’ve been on ESPN for a few years now and have kind of settled into a nice second career as a commentator. I was wondering, do you watch the game any differently now than when you were a player?
I mean, I watch it the same way. When I played the game, I kind of was more of a floor general. Very vocal, a leader out on the floor. So, I kind of see the game the same way. I’m a guy that anticipates what’s going to happen. I see plays, see the execution and things of that nature. I look at it from both sides. From the offensive side, as well as from the defensive side.
You’ve been a regular on The Jump for a while now, obviously one of the most popular NBA shows. I feel like it’s kind of distinguished itself from other sports shows in that the conversations are a little more calm, more rational discussions about hoops, more focused on what makes the league entertaining, as opposed to firing off hot takes about everything. How intentional is that? Or, what goes into maintaining that ethos?
Well, I mean, I would give credit probably to the producers and Rachel [Nichols]. But our show is mostly players that have played the game. And so we’re not the normal analyst who’s going to go at people…wanting to take a shot at a player because they didn’t get their chance to go play. I think players that have been in the moment or have been in the game have a better understanding, a bit more respect for what’s going on inside the game and how players handle themselves. Each situation is handled differently. You don’t have to do the same thing in each situation regarding the game, whether it’s your leadership or a decision that you make on the basketball court.
Today, we tend to talk about you as sort of an ideal player for the modern NBA, someone at your size who can shoot, pass, dribble, defend, etc. But it seems like some of it happened by chance. After developing all those point guard skills, you had a late growth spurt in college that ended up sort of defining who you became as a player and how your career turned out.
I think it has everything to do with who I became as a player. Being a kid that was 6’2, 6’3, I didn’t get a lot of respect. I had all the skills that I had, but when you put height, size, length, however you want to say it, with a person with skills, now you’re creating a whole different monster. That’s really what I was able to take away from my growth spurt is that I became real long, real range-y. It just helped me offensively. But more so, it built my confidence to the point where I felt like that I could pretty much play any position, but not only that, I could guard any position.
Talking about guarding, you’re easily one of the best defenders of all time. I wanted to ask you…obviously you have to have the physical gifts we just talked about — the length, the reach and all that. But if you had to put your finger on it, what’s that extra thing that you and other elite defenders, say, like Tony Allen or Kawhi, those types of guys, what is the mentality that separates you from everyone else?
I think we all sort of strive for the same thing. It’s the hunger. It’s that hunger, that superior confidence. And when I watch guys like Tony Allen when he played, Kawhi, they have superior confidence on both ends of the basketball court. I think that they feel like they can take the ball back from you, that they can stop you. And that’s really what it is. It’s really you becoming a complete player from a mental standpoint, as well as a physical standpoint.
When you think back on it, who is the hardest player you ever had to guard? Who’s the one guy that you feel like just really gave you fits?
Probably Dominique Wilkins.
Yeah. He was kind of before his time. He was right there with Michael for the scoring titles, and he could come in any night and try to get 35 or 40 points on you. And dunking crazy. So he was always a bit of a freak. He could shoot the ball. And you didn’t know what shot he was going to take because he never met a shot he didn’t like.
I feel like we don’t talk about Dominique as much as we should anymore. He’s kind of been brushed to the side a little bit…
I think he’s definitely one of those guys that kind got [overshadowed]. A lot of guys that played in that Michael Jordan era sort of got overshadowed because so much attention was drawn to Michael.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the restart. You’d mentioned recently that you thought restarting the season wasn’t worth the health risks involved. How do you think we’ll look back on this decision in the future?
Well, I mean, you can’t knock anything that the NBA is doing. I mean, even though we feel like that this is a strong health issue going on globally, they’ve been excellent in terms of what they set out to do to protect the players, to protect the game, and continue to keep the game moving. So, the NBA has always been a trailblazer in terms of setting the bar high. And what they’re doing right now is pretty amazing. So this is pretty special to see this going on.
Just thinking about it from a player’s perspective, with all the weird circumstances — no fans, being cooped up all the time, etc. — how do you have to approach that? What kind of mindset do you have to have to put all that aside and still go out there and perform?
I think it’s a pretty good situation. I think people outside see that they’re in a bubble and it’s bad, but they’re in the safest place in the world, to be honest. And they’re getting the opportunity to do something that they love, they enjoy doing. And they’re hanging out with people who they love to be around. Other than them not being with their family, they’re enjoying being around their team. So I think this is a very unique situation that the league has created for them. Under these circumstance, I think they’re in a very good place.