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‘The Last Dance’ Episode 2 recap: ‘Anybody can be traded’ — even Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen was Michael Jordan's sidekick on the Bulls, and during the 1997-98 season he was the subject of trade discussions. (Brian Bahr/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” is a 10-part documentary that focuses on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Read our preview here.

Fittingly, the second episode of “The Last Dance” focused much of its attention on a quintessential secondary superstar: Scottie Pippen.

The Chicago Bulls forward, who rose from poverty and obscurity in Arkansas to become Michael Jordan’s trusty sidekick and a Hall of Famer, approached the 1997-98 season injured and angry. Pippen was entering the final season of a seven-year, $18 million contract that made him perhaps the NBA’s most underpaid player. Bulls ownership had refused to renegotiate the deal, even as player salaries soared. To make matters worse, General Manager Jerry Krause publicly acknowledged that he had engaged in trade conversations regarding Pippen.

Feeling taken advantage of and taken for granted, Pippen elected to postpone surgery on his foot. Rather than address the injury over the summer, he waited and missed the first two months of the season.

“I’m not going to f--- my summer up to rehab for a season,” he explained. “They’re not going to be looking forward to having me, so I’m going to enjoy my summer. I’ll use the season to prepare.”

Jordan, who considered Pippen indispensable and called him his “best teammate of all time,” wasn’t pleased. In footage from 1997, he snapped at a reporter who asked him multiple questions about Pippen. In a more recent interview, he bluntly said, “Scottie was being selfish.”

Of course, that was easy for Jordan to say. He was fabulously wealthy, famous and powerful. And Krause wasn’t talking openly about shipping him out of town.

“Anybody can be traded,” Krause told reporters at a 1997 news conference. “Part of my responsibility is to listen to other teams when they talk to me about our players. We think Scottie Pippen is one of the top couple players in basketball and feel very strongly about him. … We had a number of offers that we thought were good offers. I’m never going to stop being aggressive.”

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The Bulls were not the same during Pippen’s early-season absence. They stumbled to a 4-4 start and struggled to score. Jordan took out his frustration on his teammates, and a pair of behind-the-scenes clips show him tearing into Ron Harper during practice.

“I let my anger motivate the players,” Jordan said. “ ‘I want this. Do you guys want this?’ My innate personality is to win at all costs. If I have to do it myself, I’m going to do it.”

After establishing Pippen’s dilemma, “The Last Dance” traveled back in time to explain how he got to Chicago. In 1986, Jordan returned from his own foot injury to play sensationally against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. In just his second season, Jordan set the NBA playoff record with a 63-point explosion, leading to Larry Bird’s famous declaration that he was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

In archived footage, the Hall of Fame forward looked and sounded stunned by Jordan’s shocking scoring: “Point blank, I’ve never seen anybody play like he plays. You can include all of them.”

In another clip, Bird’s chief rival, Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson, offered similarly unqualified praise: “Jordan is the most talented player in the NBA by far.”

The problem, of course, was that Jordan didn’t have any help, and the Bulls were swept by the Celtics. Krause set about reworking the roster, trading for Pippen at the 1987 draft, adding power forward Horace Grant and trading Charles Oakley for center Bill Cartwright. Suddenly, the core of the Bulls’ first three-peat was set.

Pippen arrived in training camp as a rookie having dominated weaker competition in college, but he was in for a rude awakening. The Bulls were Jordan’s team, and he needed to fit in. Jordan, for his part, bought Pippen a set of golf clubs as a welcome gift. Pippen saw through the gesture, joking that Jordan was “trying to lure me in so he could take all my money” gambling on the course.

The money issue dogged Pippen throughout his prime. Against ownership’s recommendation, he signed his long-term contract in 1991 because he valued security for his family in Hamburg, Ark. (population 3,500). Pippen had to consider severe circumstances: His father had suffered a stroke that left him in a wheelchair, and his older brother had been paralyzed in a schoolyard accident. That contract, the documentary notes, left him as Chicago’s sixth-highest-paid player and the NBA’s 122nd-highest-paid player by 1997.

A modern star would never find himself in Pippen’s situation. The current collective bargaining agreement more effectively ties performance to pay than the 1990s version: Most contracts run only four years, with a few exceptions for lucrative five-year deals. What’s more, trade talks are rarely made public by executives out of respect to players and agents, who wield more influence today than they did 25 years ago. The power dynamics have shifted so far that any GM who, like Krause, was disliked by his two star players and his coach would struggle to keep his job.

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For Pippen, the combination of his paltry salary and Krause’s trade comments was a bridge too far. Coach Phil Jackson and multiple players recalled Pippen berating Krause on the team bus during the 1997-98 season.

“After you’re in the game for a while, you realize no one is untradeable,” Pippen said in a recent video interview. “I felt insulted. I took the attitude of disrespecting [Krause] to some degree. … I felt like it was time for me to go shopping. I had to do what was best for me.”

In late November 1997, Pippen went public with a trade request that threatened to strip Jordan of his trusted companion and bring the Bulls’ dynasty to a premature end. Episode 2 ends with Chicago desperately needing cooler heads to prevail.

Best quote: “The first time I met [Scottie Pippen] he could hardly string three words together he was so shy.” — Former president Bill Clinton

In all the talk about his unhappiness, don’t miss the footage of a young Pippen blossoming at the University of Central Arkansas, hardly a basketball hotbed. A 6-foot-1 Pippen entered college as the equipment manager before sprouting five inches in one summer. Soon enough, he was dunking, blocking shots and drawing Clinton, then living in Little Rock, to his games.

Pippen’s NBA journey got off to an inauspicious start as the fifth pick in the 1987 draft. Wearing a green Seattle SuperSonics hat, Pippen was conducting a post-draft interview when a reporter informed him that he had been traded to Chicago. That was news to Pippen, who was told by the reporter that he would need a new hat.

Aside from Jordan’s arrival, the Pippen trade — which sent Olden Polynice (the eighth pick) and other draft assets to Seattle — was arguably the most pivotal move in founding the Bulls’ dynasty. Despite all the flak he took later, Krause nailed it.

Funniest moment: There’s nothing funny about an injury to a star, but Jordan’s stubbornness and contempt for the Bulls’ decision-makers during and after his 1985 foot surgery is remarkable given that he was only 22 at the time.

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted to shut down Jordan for the season once doctors advised there was a 10 percent chance he could suffer a career-ending re-injury. Jordan didn’t want to hear it. Reinsdorf underscored the dangers by telling Jordan to imagine he had a headache and a bottle with 10 pills. Nine would cure the headache, but one would kill him. Would he risk taking a pill?

“It depends on how bad the f---ing headache is” was Jordan’s merciless reply.

Meanwhile, Jordan returned to the University of North Carolina, where he began ramping up his activity level without informing the Bulls — a fact that he seemed to delight in, then and now. Rumors surfaced that Chicago was planning to tank in his absence to improve its draft positioning, a strategy that Jordan has continued to despise during his tenure as owner of the Charlotte Hornets.

“That just shows a losing attitude, not just on the team but in the front office also,” Jordan told a reporter when asked about potential tanking. “We should always try to go out and win.”

Such a direct indictment of his bosses would send shock waves across the Internet if it were made by a second-year player in today’s NBA.

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Most revealing scene: Jordan was raised in Wilmington, N.C., by his blue-collar parents, James and Deloris. Typically, Jordan biographies begin with his childhood love of baseball and the fact that he was cut from the high school varsity basketball team as a sophomore.

Here, Jordan said he was motivated as a child by two oft-overlooked factors: the racial climate in his hometown and his desire to please his father.

“You had racism all over North Carolina and all over the United States,” Jordan said. “There was a lot of it around there. As a kid, [I thought] this is where I don’t want to be. I want to excel out of this. My motivation was to be something outside of Wilmington. For me, it became athletics.”

Jordan and his brother Larry would compete in various sports and sometimes fight, with James occasionally showing favoritism to Larry because he was handier with tools around the house. In archived video, James also noted that a young Michael responded best to challenges.

“I wouldn’t be here without the confrontations with my brother,” Jordan said. “When you come to blows with someone you absolutely love, that’s igniting every fire within you. I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention. I want that approval. My determination got even greater.”

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