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We never could've guessed that The Last Dance—the ESPN docuseries that promised (and delivered) the defining portrait of the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls—would be a saving grace for sports fans stuck at home when it premiered in April 2020. But a month into the pandemic in the U.S., with stadiums empty and NBA stars playing H.O.R.S.E via Zoom, the 10 episodes turned out to be a marquee event, on rejoinder, for well over a month.
Of course, with dudes running back decades-old beef throughout the series, not everyone was going to be happy. Case in point? Scottie Pippen, who was Jordan's right-hand man during each and every title run. Now, while The Last Dance gives plenty of credit to Pippen—a seven-time All-Star in his own right—you could argue that he doesn't get the best shake in the series. The Last Dance covers the trade rumours that surrounded the forward during the 1997-1998 season, when he opted to undergo ankle surgery during the season, instead of the offseason. "I thought Scottie was being selfish," Jordan says of the choice.
Then, of course, The Last Dance covered a game many hoops fans will never forget: Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals. In the final seconds of the night, Bulls coach Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc instead of Pippen. In return for the slight, Pippen took himself out of the game. "It's one of those incidents where I wish it never happened," Pippen said in the documentary. "But if I had a chance to do it over again I probably wouldn't change it." Jordan added: "It's always going to come back to haunt him at some point, in some conversation. Pip knows better than that."
Shortly after The Last Dance wrapped its final episodes, ESPN's Jackie MacMullan revealed that Pippen was “wounded and disappointed” by his portrayal in the show, despite Jordan saying that the forward was the greatest teammate he ever had. Turns out that Pippen wanted to tell the story how he saw it. Instead of making like Tiger King and giving us a made-for-TV sequel to The Last Dance, Pippen responded to Jordan in his new memoir, Unguarded, out now.
Here's a taste of what Pippen wrote about Jordan, Jackson, and all the games we're still talking about, decades later.
On the Good Times—and the Bad
My years in Chicago, beginning as a rookie in the fall of 1987, were the most rewarding of my career: twelve men coming together as one, fulfilling the dreams we had as kids in playgrounds across the land when all we needed was a ball, a basket, and our imagination. To be a member of the Bulls during the 1990s was to be part of something magical. For our times and for all time.
Except Michael was determined 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. So Michael presented his story, not the story of the “Last Dance,” as our coach, Phil Jackson, billed the 1997–98 season once it became obvious the two Jerrys (owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause) were intent on breaking up the gang no matter what happened.
A Brief Review of 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. Michael could shoot 6 for 24 from the field, commit 5 turnovers, and he was still, in the minds of the adoring press and public, the Errorless Jordan. 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.
On the Toni Kucoc Play That Changed Everything:
There was one person I was angry with: Phil Jackson.
Michael was gone. This was my team now, my chance to be the hero, and Phil was giving that chance to . . . Toni Kukoc? Are you serious? Toni was a rookie with no rings. I was in my seventh year with three rings. And, by the way, in the MVP race that season, I finished third behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
The most humiliating part was Phil telling me I would throw the ball in bounds. At least when you’re on the floor, you can be a decoy.The Knicks would have put two defenders on me. Someone would have gotten a good look.
By not going back in the game, I did the right thing not just for myself and my pride. Also for the players who would come after me. Who, one day, might very well find themselves in the same position.
On Accusing Jackson of Being a Racist Due to the Call:
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I was so hurt when he picked Toni over me that I needed to come up with an explanation for why I was rejected. For why, after everything I had given to the Chicago Bulls, I wasn’t allowed to have my moment. So I told myself at the time that Phil’s decision must have been racially motivated, and I allowed myself to believe that lie for nearly thirty years. Only when I saw my words in print did it dawn on me how wrong I was.
Fortunately, I’d gotten a bit of a rest that off season by delaying surgery on my right ankle and left wrist. This was the same ankle that had been bothering me since the Knicks series in 1992. I waited until the end of August, as I felt it was time I made a decision for myself, and not for the Chicago Bulls. I’d given enough to them already. Surgery would have meant another lost summer and being on crutches for weeks.
That ain’t resting. That’s struggling.
A Truce With Isiah Thomas?
In the spring of 2020, while the doc was being aired, Isiah was interested in the two of us declaring a truce. He reached out to B. J. Armstrong, who called me.
“Would you be willing to talk to him?” B.J. asked.
“Dude, are you kidding me? When I came into the league, he was never nice to me. Why would I want to meet with him now?”
Isiah is no fool. He knows better than anyone else how poorly he came across in "The Last Dance," and with good reason. I wasn’t about to make it easier for him.
Turns Out, It Isn't All Beef with MJ
For the Hall of Fame ceremony, I needed to choose an official presenter, a person to stand on the stage with me as I delivered my remarks. That individual is required to be a member of the Hall.
I thought about asking Dr. J, since he was the player I idolized growing up. Except I barely knew him.
Instead I picked someone I knew quite well, whose greatness I observed up close, day after day, year after year. There really was no other choice.
So what if Michael and I weren’t best friends?
The two of us will forever be linked together, the best duo in NBA history. He helped make my dreams come true, as I helped make his. He said yes right away and I was extremely grateful.
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