Born in Arkansas in 1965, the youngest of 12 children, Scottie Pippen is one of basketball’s all-time greats. He played alongside Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls when they dominated the sport in the 1990s, winning six NBA championships. (He also won two Olympic gold medals.) That period, the Bulls’ and, in particular Jordan’s, extraordinary achievements are the focus of the 10-part, critically acclaimed Netflix docuseries The Last Dance, which has been a major hit in 2020.
You and Michael Jordan seemed to have a special bond in the film. When you were both on your game, it seemed like the team was going to win. Was that the case?
Yeah, that relationship, we established that we felt like that in the late 80s, playing against the Pistons, just starting to grow and mature and have each other’s backs. We grew up together and we defended each other. That respect we had on the court, that competitiveness we took through to the top – it was special. That was the respect we had for each other, because we had to be on the court to do what we did. We had to be dominant.
How accurate was the The Last Dance in showing what went on?
I don’t think it was that accurate in terms of really defining what was accomplished in one of the greatest eras of basketball, but also by two of the greatest players – and one could even put that aside and say the greatest team of all time. I didn’t think those things stood out in the documentary. I thought it was more about Michael trying to uplift himself and to be glorified [the series was co-produced by Jordan’s Jump 23 company]. I think it also backfired to some degree in that people got a chance to see what kind of personality Michael had.
Have you spoken to him about your opinion of series?
Yeah. I told him I wasn’t too pleased with it. He accepted it. He said, “hey, you’re right”. That was pretty much it.
It took a lot of effort and commitment to be a top basketball player. Was it a relief to retire?
Yeah, that was pretty much it for me. I had put so much of my life into the game, from back in high school and having to catch up physically, and always feeling I had to prove myself. I think there was some gratifications throughout my career but I had back problems throughout my time and I had to try and keep on top of that.
Owing to a contractual anomaly, you were not well paid compared to your teammates. Was that difficult?
I think at the time there were moments when it was upsetting but also there was so much joy that rose among the pain that I was feeling. There was too much to celebrate and enjoy to be thinking about the negative side of it.
What was it like looking back at incidents from so long ago, like the time you refused to play and sat out the rest of a match?
I kind of let all that stuff go to the past. I didn’t get behind the documentary and try to promote it, talk about any incident that might have happened in the documentary. I didn’t feel I needed to bring back things that happened 20 years ago.
Did you ever get nervous before a big game?
No. I would say I would get more energised than nervous. I think I had been through situations before which meant I didn’t feel any nervousness. We felt like we were the ones being hunted. At that point I think you’re playing with what I call confidence. Maybe even a little bit of arrogance. You feel like you’re at the top.
This has been a dramatic year for America, with Covid, Black Lives Matter and the election. How have those events affected you?
A lot of things have happened this year that have really opened up issues that have been covered up and thrown in a corner. I think it’s opened everybody’s eyes, not just in America but all over the world, as to the equality that America lacks. And I think that our president has put us on a stage of embarrassment.
What would you have done if you were a player now?
You have to make a stand and that’s what the players are doing now. They’re showing they’re unified. I think that would have been the same case had I been a part of the game today. That’s what the Players’ Association is about. It’s great that their voices have been heard.
Do you think things have changed in basketball since when you started?
No. Equality would be: how about we get some black owners? That’s equality. Michael Jordan owns one professional team. In America professional sports as a whole, there’s just one team [owned by an African American]. That’s not equality. Look at the head coaches throughout sports. We are far away from equality. All these owners they hid and shut it down when people started talking about equality. I’ve never heard the commissioner say we’re going to create more opportunities for black owners in our game. I think this is going to get kicked down the road.
Basketball has been played without crowds this year. Less pressure but less motivation. Is it easier or more difficult to play without an audience?
I think it’s easier to play. I played pick-up games in empty gyms for a long time and I think that’s what the NBA turned into last season. Everybody making shots when you’re in the gym and no fans there. Everything goes up as far as the percentages of shooting the basketball. And that’s what we saw last season. From a business standpoint it allows the game to continue, but from a statistical category, if the game stays like that, these guys are going to eat up the record books.
So is the characteristic that marks out the truly great players the ability to perform under pressure of the crowds?
Well I think it has to be a high-skill level but yeah the players need to be able to perform when the pressure is on. But you know players perform differently in late game situations when the pressure is on. Not every player has to play the role of a Kobe Bryant or a Michael Jordan. Look at how LeBron finishes games. He puts a lot of pressure on defences himself, creating a lot of opportunities for other people. That’s what he’s able to do. He can dominate a game late without even scoring.
Last week Diego Maradona died. He struggled with fame and adulation. Did you miss the cheering crowds and did you feel the need to replace that hit with something else?
I was cool with it because I never heard the noise, if I can say that. I played for my team and to make it fun for those guys out on the court. I didn’t really give a crap about what people thought about how I played. When I walked off the court and the cheers went away, I was fine with it. I didn’t care to have people chanting for me. I wanted to have my own privacy. I wanted to not be that basketball player when I’m sitting in a restaurant.
Did you miss the competition? Do you feel a need to replace it.
I can say no, I don’t have to replace it. I can’t replace basketball. I can find things to fill a void in my life, to take up some time. I play golf, I still work out. But what I did in terms of my competitiveness – how can you keep that fire going? I can’t keep it going. Because it was not only me competing with you on the court but I was competing with you off the court. I felt like I was built stronger and more durable. It’s about being the last man standing at the end of the day.
What are your work plans for the future?
I don’t have many. I still work with ESPN and that’s pretty much it. Just kind of sitting back. I’ve got a son who plays at Vanderbilt University and two in high school. I’m kind of enjoying watching them grow.