There is no defending Pippen’s act, but properly framing it requires layers of context and an acknowledgment that the NBA’s power dynamics, financial landscape and media environment have changed dramatically over the past two-plus decades.
Chicago faced a 2-0 deficit in the second-round series after eliminating New York from the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons before Michael Jordan’s first retirement. With 1.8 seconds left and the score tied, Coach Phil Jackson designed a play that called for Pippen to inbound the ball to Toni Kukoc for the last shot. After spending the previous six seasons as Jordan’s sidekick, Pippen felt he had earned the right to decide Chicago’s fate.
Pippen, with three rings, had seniority over Kukoc, who was in his first NBA season. To complicate matters, Pippen had resented Kukoc for years as part of a proxy war with management. Jackson’s selection of Kukoc, who had a string of late-game makes that season, was the most aggravating option imaginable.
“I felt like it was an insult coming from Phil,” Pippen said in an interview for “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s documentary about the Bulls’ dynasty. “I was the most dangerous guy on our team. Why are you asking me to take the ball out?”
Upset by the call in the huddle, Pippen remained on the bench. Jackson gave him a chance to reconsider before replacing him in the lineup. As fate would have it, Kukoc hit a brilliant turnaround shot to win — leaving Pippen to stew as his teammates celebrated.
The Bulls made their frustration and disillusionment clear in the documentary, with guard Steve Kerr calling the situation “devastating” and multiple players revealing center Bill Cartwright chastised Pippen during a tearful speech in the locker room. Pippen apologized and responded with 25 points in a Game 4 win, and the Bulls avoided fracturing before falling in seven games.
Everything about those events is difficult to imagine happening today. To start with, Pippen earned just $3 million while finishing third in MVP voting and leading a 55-win team that season. He was midway through a seven-year contract, so his hands were tied.
A superstar with Pippen’s ability today might make $30 million or more annually, granting him significantly greater influence within an organization. He also would be on a short contract, compelling the team to cater to him.
A high-level coach such as Jackson also would earn far more today than he did in 1994. But coaches regularly bemoan how their profession has become subservient to stars and expendable. Few power struggles in the modern NBA end with the coach prevailing.
Take the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers. When Coach David Blatt instructed LeBron James to inbound the ball on the final possession of a playoff game, James overruled the decision in the huddle. After making the game-winning shot, James bragged to reporters that he had “scratched” the play. Blatt, emasculated in the moment, was replaced by Ty Lue, who had a better working relationship with James, less than a year later.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich might be the only coach whose authority today rivals Jackson’s in the 1990s. In the 2013 Finals, Popovich benched franchise icon Tim Duncan during a crucial late-game defensive possession. The Duncan-less Spurs conceded an offensive rebound to the Miami Heat that led to Ray Allen’s series-saving three-pointer. Duncan didn’t try to overrule Popovich, and he never complained publicly. Instead, he led the Spurs to the 2014 title.
But even a legend such as Popovich, who maintained total control with the season on the line, has lost the ability to dictate terms to his best player. After all, Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio in 2018.
In fairness to Pippen, modern players still quit on their teammates. In the 2015 playoffs, Rajon Rondo gave up on the Dallas Mavericks, walking the ball up the court for an eight-second violation and carelessly fouling James Harden. Coach Rick Carlisle responded by cutting Rondo’s minutes, and Rondo never saw the court again for Dallas.
That ugly exit cost Rondo a shot at a lucrative long-term contract that summer, revealing the power of the modern media environment in shaping a player’s reputation and job prospects. While Jordan worried at the time that Pippen might never “live this down,” at least social media slander, YouTube breakdowns and the proliferation of nationally televised sports talk shows weren’t yet part of the toxic equation.
Pippen wished that the incident “never happened,” but he said he “probably wouldn’t change it” if given a do-over. His stubbornness is understandable given that he was underrated, underpaid and underappreciated throughout his career.
Dwelling on Pippen’s loss of composure is a mistake. If the scene repeated in 2020, it would end differently. Jackson would give Pippen the last shot, Pippen would successfully demand the last shot, or Pippen would go along with Jackson’s plan out of a fear of public reprisal. If, somehow, neither side budged, Jackson would immediately need to worry about his job security, a trade demand by Pippen or both.
There’s no scenario in today’s NBA in which Pippen would be snubbed in the moment and left with no recourse in the aftermath. Superstars today wield too much power. As the basketball world judges Pippen anew, remember this: He remains guilty of a cardinal sporting sin, but his worst moment was a product of a different time.
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