The Chicago Bulls needed one person other than Michael Jordan to play well in Game 7. Not several, just one. John Paxson was a likely candidate but he couldn't play because of a severely sprained ankle. That left Scottie Pippen, an all-star in his third season, a versatile player who averaged 19 points per game against the Pistons in this Eastern Conference final series.
Watching Game 7 Sunday, you might have wondered where Pippen was. Technically, he was on the court. For 42 minutes, no less. Practically, he was in the dressing room. Chicago's second-best player made one of 10 shots from the field, and passed up a half-dozen more open shots, some of them three-pointers he usually nails while smiling.
Pippen came down with a migraine headache. The Bulls trainer, Mark Pfiel, said Pippen also experienced a severe rush of adrenaline, and the result was wooziness and blurred vision.
In the biggest game of his life, the excitement got to be so much that Pippen literally couldn't see straight. The Bulls' chance of winning without him, especially with Detroit playing so maniacally, was nil.
Three minutes into the game, Pippen took himself out. He said he couldn't judge the spacing between himself and his teammates, couldn't read the 24-second clock, felt disoriented. This wasn't the first time he suffered such symptoms; he had the same disoriented feeling in practice Saturday, though not as severe.
He took an aspirin and thought he was over the problem Saturday night, then took another Sunday morning in the dressing room. "I thought I was over it," Pippen said. "I came in the dressing room and everything was fine . . . until I hit the court."
Coach Phil Jackson let Pippen sit awhile; Pfiel applied an icebag to his head. After a minute or so, Jackson paced past Pippen on the bench, looking at him as if to say, "Are you ready yet or what?" Pippen sat. After another minute or so, Jackson said, "Scottie, let's go."
What a colossal mistake. Already missing the dependable Paxson, Jackson turned to a player who was afraid to shoot, who literally was unsure of where he was on the court. If Pippen can't see, if he's not ready for the pressure of a Game 7, then let him sit. A bench warmer who can see one rim is better than an all-star who sees two.
"I just have to live with this," Pippen said, almost apologetically. "My head is still banging. I've had this happen before, yes, but today was a special day, which makes it seem so much worse . . . I thought I was over it last night, but when I was warming up, my vision just wasn't right. I could tell at the start of the fourth quarter that it just wasn't going to get any better. I feel real frustrated about it, but I can't do anything about it now. I wanted to take control, but I didn't feel the game like I normally feel it."
Some of his teammates didn't know he was disoriented until he came out for a rest in the first quarter. "Scottie was in a fog the whole game," Paxson said. "I guess he was too excited. We needed him bad. Obviously, he's a huge part of what we do offensively."
Suppose Pippen has an average offensive game and scores 19. You can't say the Bulls would have won, but it could have been a dramatically different game.
While the man Chicago needed most came up dizzy, the man Detroit needed most, Isiah Thomas, took over with a swiftness few can match.
Early in the game, Detroit had nobody but Thomas, who had seven rebounds and 11 points in the first half. To start the second half, Dennis Rodman scored successive layups, compliments of Thomas's passes. Between them was a Thomas steal. After the layups was Thomas's jumper, which pushed Detroit's lead from 13 points to 54-35. After a Jordan basket, Thomas drove like a blur down the baseline, skipped on one foot to keep from going out of bounds, and fired an assist pass to Bill Laimbeer. After another Jordan basket, Thomas looked Craig Hodges in the eye, then took him to the basket for a layup. And after a Horace Grant air ball (he presumably was not dizzy but missed 14 of 17 shots), Thomas nailed a pull-up three-pointer that ran Detroit's lead to 61-41. He was responsible for the Pistons' first 15 points of the half.
It was rather surprising that the Bulls quickly cut the lead to 10. It didn't matter, however, because the Bulls played four-against-five the rest of the way as Pippen groped around the court, helpless to contribute in any meaningful way.
Thomas, at 6 feet, is the only small man in the league who can make the game his. In Game 7, he got himself started at the same time he was jump-starting his teammates. Ever since throwing that errant pass to Larry Bird in Boston Garden three years ago, Isiah Thomas has been as clutch a player as there is in the league. Jordan included.
"I don't know whether he went to Chuck Daly or what, but you got the feeling he just wanted to be in control of the game," Paxson said of Thomas. "The way the game was going to be played would be dictated by him. That's the sign of a champion."
Thomas denied he drooled at the sight of Bulls baby-faced rookie B.J. Armstrong, who had to try to defend him in Paxson's absence.
"That hurt them bad," Mark Aguirre said of the Armstrong-Thomas matchup. "B.J.'s going to be an excellent player, but to come in and have to guard Isiah Thomas as a rookie, that's asking a lot."
It's asking the impossible. "In terms of me taking the game over," Thomas said, "I basically knew what I had to do. My role is the only one that fluctuates night to night. It's a delicate balance. A lot of my points have to come in spurts, 'cause my job is still to get everybody else involved. When do you do it? When do you not do it?"
You do it in Game 7 with a second NBA championship at stake.