In his hagiography The Last Dance, Michael Jordan made a statement that’s stuck in Scottie Pippen’s craw. “‘His best teammate of all time,’ he called me,” Pippen writes in an excerpt of his new book. “He couldn’t have been more condescending if he tried. On second thought, I could believe my eyes. I spent a lot of time around the man. I knew what made him tick. How naïve I was to expect anything else.”
Best teammate rather than one of the best in the world, period.
For Pippen, the now 56-year-old former Chicago Bulls star has had it with the slights. Did he know his role behind the greatest to ever play the game on a six-time NBA champion team and play that role with more mastery and tenacity than any other? Probably. But his secondary status on the team outweighs his actual placement among the hoop firmament. And he’s about had it with MJ, who should be his biggest proponent, siphoning the glow from the rest of his Bulls teammates since the run. Lately though, Pippen, with more screen time and press attention, has gone out of his way to disrupt the narrative.
In a freewheeling GQ interview, Pippen accused former Bulls coach Phil Jackson of making “a racial move” when he drew up the final shot for Toni Kukoc in a 1994 playoff game against the Knicks; called Charles Barkley soft, and a guy who “only got arrested for throwing some little white guys out of a window”; and said that last year’s playoffs proved Kevin Durant “didn’t know how to play team basketball when it came down to it.”
Flame-throwing is certainly a new look for Pippen, for as much as he actually did talk shit on and off the court he, as just about anyone would, was always perceived as the more stoic superstar next to MJ’s switchblade slick talk (who can forget that moment in The Last Dance when, after beating Larry Bird’s Pacers, he whispers into his ear, “You bitch. Fuck you.”) But recently, it’s Pippen who’s had his knives out, taking jabs at the G.O.A.T. and other members of the Bulls organization—namely John Paxson. Pippen says Paxson wronged him at several negotiation tables first as a player, and then as a scout/consultant for the Bulls once he retired, giving him a token role with little power over personnel. Pippen feels shortchanged by these influential figures, and the longtime Bulls playmaker and defensive engine distributes that bitterness in doses.
It started in 2011, when Pippen gave his two or three cents to the Jordan/LeBron G.O.A.T. debate that was in healthy supply at the time (and forevermore): “Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to play the game,” he said on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show. “But I may go as far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game because he is so potent offensively that not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved.”
Pippen’s flip-flopped since. In May of 2017, he said LeBron hadn’t passed Kobe as a player but later in December that same year, he said LeBron had completely passed MJ statistically. He waffled on it a week later, reasoning that LeBron needed to win more championships to ever surpass His Airness. Later in 2018, he went off the board completely and said Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest while LeBron and Jordan shouldn’t even be compared to one another. Maybe a week after that he said that LeBron hasn’t passed Jordan. Since then, he’s said that LeBron isn’t MJ’s nor Kobe’s caliber. So, yeah, it’s hard to know how he actually feels about them on the court, but Pippen has been very clear about how he feels about Michael Jordan the person.
Pippen worked alongside the domineering Jordan for more than a decade, winning chips and gold medals, smoking cigars and playing poker. But he also spent time with him in heated gyms where Jordan would press every button to draw out a competitive edge. And the organization largely let him do it. He was the most powerful person in the NBA and had the chops to back it up; no one was going to second-guess him. That left Pippen and his teammates a little stranded on an island full of gold treasures. Pippen, in particular, felt underappreciated by a Bulls organization which, of course, fully bought into Pippen’s secondary status, and let its feelings be known during contract negotiations. For the majority of his career, Pippen was locked into one of the worst contracts (for a player) in NBA history, earning approximately $18 million over eight years. In the ’97-98 season, the year the Bulls sealed their second three-peat, Pippen made just $2.775 million compared to Jordan’s $33.1 million. Pippen made less than Luc Longley that year, while Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, and Toni Kukoc were all paid more.
After being traded to the Rockets and finally securing a payday, beefing with Charles Barkley and flaming out in the playoffs with Houston (and then Portland), Pippen called it a career in 2004 while playing for the Bulls. Paxson, then the Bulls GM and VP of basketball operations, was disappointed in this choice, and Pippen believes he held it against him by stopping him from being more involved in the team post-retirement. In his new book, Pippen recounts a call from Paxson shortly after The Last Dance aired in May of 2020. According to Pippen, Paxson was playing footsie by sending him out to scout players during the 2014 draft, after parading him about as “a mascot” once he got on the payroll, only to essentially ghost him after he filed the scouting reports. “It dawned on me they’d been humoring me from the start,” he wrote. The 2020 call was apparently the first time Paxson had reached out since then. As Pippen tells it, Paxson apologized: “Pip, I hated how things turned out when you came back to Chicago. This organization has always treated you poorly, and I want you to know that I think it’s not right.”
Paxson, of course, wielded power at the time and Pippen didn’t let him forget it. “John, that is all fine and dandy, but you worked for the Bulls for almost 20 years. You had a chance to change that and you didn’t.” Paxson, then, apparently began to cry. I can almost imagine Pippen sitting quietly on the line, collecting his tears in a large pot.
At this point, damn near two decades later, I don’t doubt that there will be stories about the exuberance of winning with Jordan and the Bulls, and of being the greatest on the planet at something alongside a presence like 23. But Pippen knows MJ beyond the play, beyond the practices, beyond the stardom. If what Pippen says is true, that The Last Dance was just an attempt by Jordan 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,” then his decades-long public beef with him makes all the sense in the world. This part of Pippen’s book isn’t about absolution; it’s about knocking The G.O.A.T. down a peg.