ESPN’s docuseries about Michael Jordan may have had the title, “The Last Dance,” but for Scottie Pippen, it may as well have been called “The Last Straw.”
Now on a media tour to promote a memoir he wrote that appears to be doubling as his response to “The Last Dance,” Pippen is wasting few opportunities to try taking Jordan down a peg or two. As noted recently in the New York Times, Pippen’s “Unguarded” doesn’t even get through its prologue before he begins criticizing his celebrated former teammate on the six-time NBA champion Bulls.
In a book excerpt published Monday by GQ, Pippen wrote of watching “The Last Dance":
“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. …"Now here I was, in my midfifties, seventeen years since my final game, watching us being demeaned once again. Living through it the first time was insulting enough.“Over the next few weeks, 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.”— "Unguarded," via GQ
In comments shared Tuesday, Pippen even took aim at one of the most iconic moments of Jordan’s career: the 1997 “Flu Game” in which Jordan shook off an apparent illness to lead the Bulls to victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
“Is it easier to play with a herniated disk or to play with the flu?” Pippen asked during a discussion of his book on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Well, I don’t see many ‘Bad Back Games,’ but I do see ’Flu Games.’ Flu. Come on.”
Pippen was referring to his painful outing against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, which served as the culmination of Chicago’s dynasty and “The Last Dance.” That epic battle is not known for his gutty performance while coping with a debilitating back issue, of course, but rather for Jordan’s game- and series-winning shot against Utah’s Bryon Russell.
In the final episode of the 10-part series, Pippen is shown grimacing as he lands after dunking early in the game, then leaving the court a few minutes later. “I was done after that,” Pippen says in the series. “I’m telling MJ, ‘I can’t go no more.’ ”
A former Bulls trainer attests in the episode to the pain and immobility that was afflicting Pippen, who is shown returning for a second half of which he says, “I was a decoy.”
Jordan, who provided extensive commentary for the series, is then shown in the episode putting what could be viewed as a self-serving spin on Pippen’s laborious efforts to stay on the court.
“Pippen is barely getting up and down the floor, so I’m taking all the shots, I’m bringing all the energy,” Jordan says. “I’ve got very little left in the tank.”
Viewers then hear that what Pippen was able to do in Game 6 “was extraordinary,” but that praise comes not from Jordan but rather from the former trainer, Chip Schaefer.
If Jordan didn’t have much to say about Pippen then, at least in the final edit of that episode, he did in an earlier installment of “The Last Dance” that delved into Pippen’s rise from humble beginnings and frustration at being underpaid by the Bulls. Commenting on a disgruntled Pippen’s decision to delay foot surgery until it caused him to miss the first two months of the 1997-98 season, Jordan said, “Scottie was wrong in that scenario.” In another remark delivered for the series, Jordan said of Pippen’s subsequent trade demand that season, “I felt like Scottie was being selfish.”
In his memoir (via the New York Times), Pippen returned fire. Referring to Jordan’s abrupt decision to retire in 1993 following the death of his father that summer, Pippen wrote: “You want to know what selfish is? Selfish is retiring right before the start of training camp when it is too late for the organization to sign free agents.”
Pippen’s unsparing assessments of Jordan may come as a surprise to those who assumed the longtime teammates were on friendly terms. They formed a dominant duo for most of 11 highly successful seasons in Chicago, and their half-dozen championship runs provided endless scenes of them hugging in jubilation.
Asked by ABC on Monday about his off-court relationship with Jordan, Pippen replied, “It wasn’t what you saw on the court.”
“We always will have that respect for each other,” he added, “but our friendship is not where people who see it on TV think it is.”
Of “The Last Dance,” Pippen told ABC that when he agreed to contribute, he didn’t realize it would be focused so intently on Jordan. “I felt like the documentary only told a story that sort of glorified him as a player,” Pippen said, “and not glorified us as a team.”
In that respect, the hit ESPN program may at least have been true to Jordan’s nature, to judge from Pippen’s comments last week to the New York Times.
“I think he’s always separated himself a little bit from what I consider the traditional team concept, in some sense,” Pippen said then. “And I think ‘The Last Dance’ just put the icing on the cake.
“So it was all about him at the end of the day.”