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Arts and Culture

Souring up the last dance

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
Souring up the last dance

Scottie Pippen’s book Unguarded, co-written with sports journalist Michael Arkush and published by Atria Books, became an instant bestseller upon its release last November.

The memoir from the two-time Olympic gold medalist and NBA Hall of Famer certainly has its inspirational sections. The youngest in a family of 12 grew up “poor in the small town of Hamburg, Arkansas, enduring two family tragedies along the way, to become a revered NBA legend.”

Basketball fans know he was to become the prized sidekick of Michael Jordan, without whom the GOAT might not have led the Chicago Bulls to their couple of threepeat championships from 1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998.

From being the fifth overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, it took Scottie only five years to earn his first of six rings, whereas it took Michael all of eight. Well, maybe Pippen just came at the right time, when the Bulls were patiently building up on their championship hopes behind an already seasoned Jordan, who by that time had started buying into the team concept. Still, they had to run the gauntlet of roughhousing defense from their perennial East rivals, the Detroit Pistons, before finally dethroning them in 1991. Like MJ, Pippen took his licks from the Bad Boys, and his toughened stance certainly helped pave the way for the Bulls’ first Finals triumph.

The more knowledgeable stans would vouch for Pippen’s all-around value as a complete player, from a defensive stalwart to a back-up scorer who was also no slouch off the boards. It was a perfect partnership with Jordan, despite memorable controversial episodes involving Scottie alone, such as benching himself in a pique in the last 1.8 seconds of a playoff game against the NY Knicks, when coach Phil Jackson called the last scoring play for Toni Kukoc, who did bail the Bulls out.

Perhaps the most memorable image of the vaunted partnership was Scottie lovingly assisting the dehydrated Michael off court after the latter’s “flu game.”

Now, Pippen “finally opens up to offer pointed and transparent takes on Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman, among others. Pippen details how he cringed at being labeled Jordan’s sidekick… He discusses what it was like dealing with Jordan on a day-to-day basis, while serving as the facilitator for the offense and the anchor for the defense.”??

“Closely observed, and uncommonly modest,” noted Kirkus Reviews. “A master class in settling scores, or creating new ones,” quipped The New York Times. That last is in reference to what now helps sell the book: disgruntlement over the 2020 airing of the popular 10-part ESPN documentary, The Last Dance.

Here are excerpts from a chapter where Scottie rips at the way the GOAT went on a solo fastbreak with the docu series:

“Similar to the previous eight, the (final two episodes) glorified Michael Jordan while not giving nearly enough praise to me and my proud teammates. Michael deserved a large portion of the blame. The producers had granted him editorial control of the final product. The doc couldn’t have been released otherwise. He was the leading man and the director.

“… To be a member of the Bulls during the 1990s was to be part of something magical. For our times and for all time.

“Except Michael was determined to prove to the current generation of fans that he was larger-than-life during his day — and still larger than LeBron James, the player many consider his equal, if not superior. So Michael presented his story, not the story of the ‘Last Dance,’ as our coach, Phil Jackson, billed the 1997–98 season…

“Even in the second episode, which focused for a while on my difficult upbringing and unlikely path to the NBA, the narrative returned to MJ and his determination to win. I was nothing more than a prop. His ‘best teammate of all time,’ he called me. He couldn’t have been more condescending if he tried.

“… Each episode was the same: Michael on a pedestal, his teammates secondary, smaller, the message no different from when he referred to us back then as his ‘supporting cast.’ From one season to the next, we received little or no credit whenever we won but the bulk of the criticism when we lost. Michael could shoot 6 for 24 from the field, commit 5 turnovers, and he was still, in the minds of the adoring press and public, the Errorless Jordan.

“Now here I was, in my mid-fifties, seventeen years since my final game, watching us being demeaned once again. Living through it the first time was insulting enough.

“… I spoke to a number of my former teammates who each felt as disrespected as I did. How dare Michael treat us that way after everything we did for him and his precious brand. Michael Jordan would never have been Michael Jordan without me, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Bill Cartwright, Ron Harper, B. J. Armstrong, Luc Longley, Will Perdue, and Bill Wennington. …

“I’m not suggesting Michael wouldn’t have been a superstar wherever he ended up. He was that spectacular. Just that he relied on the success we attained as a team — six titles in eight years — to propel him to a level of fame throughout the world no other athlete, except for Muhammad Ali, has reached in modern times.

“To make things worse, Michael received $10 million for his role in the doc while my teammates and I didn’t earn a dime, another reminder of the pecking order from the old days.”

Uh-oh. Well, it’s been said that most sports memoirs can’t do without an uncovering of grudges, a takedown of some of the rivals, coaches, even teammates in the course of one’s epic climb to stardom.

Now, who else in the NBA can come up with the next big autobio? Books on Jordan and James keep being written by authors other than themselves. Chris Paul or CP3 should soon tell all, especially if he gains his first ring this year. Oh, Steph Curry will have his bestseller. Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook would offer conflicting versions of super threesomes that didn’t last. Eventually, memoirs by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic may set the trend for European superstars.

As for the league itself, I fear that the historical recollection of its current state may well sound spotty, not just because of the pandemic-caused bubbles and benchings. I can’t believe how today’s ballers have gotten so injury-prone despite a much gentler version of the game, with opposing players hugging one another after every match. The rule on the offensive swipe to earn a foul needs to be reviewed, just as the small guard’s drive-and-bump against a paint protector. The All-Star selections captained and chosen by the most popular vote-getters make light of the East-West rivalry.

Other than those, the young All-Stars Ja Morant, Trae Young and Darius Garland are set to lead the wave of the future. And the Playoffs? It should still be a Western Finals between the Suns and Warriors, while the East will be tight and exciting, with the top 12 teams having a chance after the recent tweak that’s the play-in, but with the Heat, Bulls, Bucks, the upstart Cavs and the Sixers having the best chances for the Finals. Grudges may yet be engendered.

SCOTTIE PIPPEN

Philstar
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