The second episode of ESPN’s tremendous The Last Dance documentary following the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls — and diving heavily into the backstory of its major players — puts Scottie Pippen into central focus. One of the major points is that Pippen, by the 97-98 season, was arguably the most underpaid athlete at the time.
Entering the final year of a 7-year, $18 million contract, Pippen was the 122nd highest paid player in the NBA and sixth highest paid member of the Bulls, despite being the clear second best player to Jordan on the team and a top 5 or 10 player in the NBA — with some willing to argue he was the second best player in the league to Jordan. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf refused to discuss any renegotiations with any player under contract, so Pippen simply had to play out his last year — with the potential of being traded.
At the end of the 96-97 title run, Pippen suffered a ruptured tendon in his ankle that would require surgery, but rather than have that surgery in June so he’d be able to return for the start of the next season, Scottie saw an opportunity to stick it to the Bulls front office a bit by postponing surgery and enjoying his summer instead of rehabbing.
“I had a ruptured tendon in my ankle, and I decided to have surgery late because I was like, you know what, I’m not gonna f*ck my summer up trying to rehab for a season,” Pippen said in The Last Dance. “They’re not going to look forward to having me, so I’m going to enjoy my summer and use the season to prepare.”
It’s an incredible quote and also, after five championships, it’s kind of understanding why Pippen would decide to not ruin his offseason with rehab given his contract situation. Unsurprisingly, Michael Jordan is less understanding of the choice and still isn’t pleased with Pippen’s decision to delay surgery until after the summer.
“Scottie was wrong in that scenario,” Jordan said. “He could’ve gotten his surgery as soon as the season was over and been ready for the season. What Scottie was trying to do was force management to change his contract, and Jerry wasn’t going to do that. So now I gotta start the season knowing Scottie wasn’t going to be around, but we have to find a way to win.”
In today’s era of players being more assertive about their health and timetables for returning from injury, Pippen’s decision might not be quite as controversial, but at this time — and to do it on a team with someone like Jordan who loathed missing games and not playing — it’s pretty incredible for Scottie to make that choice.
If The Last Dance does one thing, it is showing just how incredible it is that the 97-98 Bulls managed to win a title despite so much dysfunction going on. The star players and coach hated Jerry Krause, with Jordan and Pippen regularly yelling at him and making vicious jokes about him in front of the entire team. There was tension between the two superstars on the team due to Pippen’s choice to delay surgery. There were trade rumors involving Pippen that pushed him to make a trade request, and the documentary hasn’t even gotten to Dennis Rodman yet, who regularly would go missing.