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Potential Pip comeback creates extra buzz
by David Friedman / February 17, 2007

Will six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen shift the balance of power in the NBA this season? He appears determined to do just that, saying with conviction that he would like to come back for the latter part of this season to play for a team that has a chance to win the title.

“I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple months,” Pippen told me at Friday’s media availability session for All-Star participants (he is the Bulls legend on that team’s entry in Saturday’s Shooting Stars competition). “I felt like I could do it all along, even though when I retired I knew that I needed some time away from the game. I knew that my body had been through a lot over 15-16 years and it was time to give my body a break.”

He knows that it is not a sure thing that anyone will sign him and he also knows that his body cannot withstand playing more than 15-20 minutes a night.

“It’s a challenge for me,” Pippen added. “I feel that I bring more to the game than just six championship rings. I have the experience and I have the knowledge (to help a team become a champion).”

Pippen indicated that there are several teams for which he would consider playing if they are interested in signing him but clearly expressed a preference for joining the Miami Heat.

“They have a great center and probably the best player in the game when you look at Dwyane Wade,” he explained.

Pippen even said that he would consider playing for Minnesota. That surprised me because Minnesota is not a championship contending team and because Pippen has previously made some harsh – but justified – comments about Kevin Garnett. I asked Pippen if he felt less critical about Garnett’s game now.

“I’m not critical of his game. I was just saying that he is a guy who doesn’t want to get to the end of his career as just a stat stuffer. His career has had a great start, but it hasn’t led him to the pinnacle.”

Is that Garnett’s fault or because his supporting cast has not been good enough?

“I think that it is more the fault of who he has been playing with,” Pippen added. “He is doing all that he can out there on the basketball court.”

Without question, his most noteworthy statement came just as his media availability period was ending. Someone asked him if he still felt underappreciated as a player.

“If you ask people who understand the game, the GMs and the coaches, they’d rather have a Scottie than a Michael,” Pippen stated matter of factly.

Pressed to explain this remark, he added, “I’m an all-around player. I make the people around me better.”

With so much attention focused on various aspects of All-Star Weekend, Pippen’s slight dig at Jordan may pass unnoticed but there is in fact some truth to what he said – not so much that GMs would prefer Scottie to Michael but that they would prefer the way that Scottie played. Jordan was a more naturally gifted scorer but as a rebounder, playmaker and defender Pippen did not have to take a back seat to any midsized player – even MJ – and he consistently played, as Larry Brown would say, “the right way,” supporting his teammates and trying to get them involved. He never felt the temptation that MJ often did to try to simply shoot his team out of trouble single-handedly.

As for Saturday night’s competition, Pippen said that he is relying on Ben Gordon to make the halfcourt shot. I asked Pippen which station he will be at and he said that he will probably shoot the bank shot. That, of course, is largely a lost art in today’s game, used only by Tim Duncan and one or two other players.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. I asked McGrady why the Rockets seem to struggle so much more without him than they do without Yao.

“It’s really tough for a big man to carry a team that doesn’t have a creator, a go to guy down the stretch of games to take over,” McGrady answered. “Big men have to get the ball. It’s not fair to Yao to say that he can’t really carry a team because he has to get the ball… It all revolves around me. Regardless of how great a big man is, it is still tough for him to carry a team without a creator on the court”

He also revisited a little bit of history concerning his departure from his hometown Orlando Magic.

“You guys know the situation (a reference to then-Orlando president John Weisbrod) and why I couldn’t return to that place,” McGrady said. “I’d be stupid to sit here and say that I wanted to leave home. I can’t believe that people actually believed that I really wanted to leave Orlando. I wasn’t in the city and didn’t really have a chance to defend myself, but the truth came out and everybody saw what the problem was and that problem is not there anymore.”

McGrady expressed skepticism about Pippen’s comeback plans.

“Scottie really said that? He’s joking. I can’t even take him seriously,” McGrady suggested. “I don’t believe it. We’d love to have him back, but I don’t believe it.”

When I asked Bryant for his take on Pippen coming back and whether Pippen could help the Lakers, he replied, “He’s serious about that? I’m going to have to call him and see what is going on. When he worked out with us in training camp last year he looked like he was in tip top shape – like he never left the game. If he is really serious about coming back, I would love for him to be in the triangle with us. He could help us out tremendously (with) his leadership, his experience, his professionalism and obviously his know-how about executing within the (triangle) system.”

I asked O’Neal how he is dealing with making the transition from being someone who dominated night after night to being a player who has to kind of pick and choose his spots in that regard.

“The older you get, you start to lose a little bit, especially in terms of your athletic ability. I’ve had a lot of knick-knack injuries that have slowed me down a little bit. One thing that Mr. (Bill) Russell taught me is that you never lose your mind. When you are playing on a great team, it is all about the one-two punch. When I came to Miami, I said to myself that it would be foolish for me to take 20-30 shots while this youngster that we have here who is full of energy takes 9-10 shots. It would be foolish for me to do that. Let’s just change things around and see how it works – and it worked. So Dwyane is going to get the bulk of the shots and I will probably get take the second most shots and that’s just how it is. That is how it was for every dominant center. Patrick’s shots decreased. David’s shots decreased. We can win like that; we proved that we can win like that. As long as we keep playing together we can win like that.”

I followed up that question by asking O’Neal if it is difficult for him to deal with that aspect of the aging process.

“No,” he replied. “It’s all about winning. You have to put winning first. You just have to know the game and understand that it would be foolish for a 35-year-old to take 20 shots while he’s got a young energetic guy just throwing the ball to the 35 year old.”

O’Neal smiled his trademark wide grin.

“It just don’t work like that.”

Earlier in the day, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame held a press conference at the Lounge in the Palms Hotel. Dick Stockton emceed the event and announced the names of the 15 finalists for enshrinement this year, as chosen by the Hall’s four nominating committees (North America, Women’s, International and Veterans). NBA fans will recognize the names of Richie Guerin, Adrian Dantley, Pistons owner Bill Davidson, Phil Jackson, Chris Mullin and referee Mendy Rudolph. The 1966 Texas Western team that became the first NCAA basketball champion with an all-black starting lineup could join the small group of teams that have been enshrined.

After the press conference, eight Hall of Famers who attended were available to speak to the media.

“When I heard Phil Jackson’s name announced (as a Hall of Fame finalist), I reflected right back to when I took a team of (retired) players to China (in 1984),” Earl Monroe told me. “Rick Barry was one of them, plus Cazzie Russell and Connie Hawkins and Pistol Pete Maravich. We had a great bunch of guys together to play against the Chinese national teams. I had to make a decision whether to have Cazzie Russell coach us or Phil Jackson. I decided that Phil would coach us, so I take credit for Phil making it happen (as a championship coach in the NBA).”

Mullin told me that being selected as a finalist made him reflect back on all of the people who helped shape him at key points in his career. I asked him who some of those people are.

“Back when I first started playing a guy named Jack Alesi basically taught me from scratch everything that I know,” Mullin recalled. “Coach Carnesecca, of course. Bobby Knight in ’84 (the Olympics). Then on to the Warriors with Nellie. I played for Chuck Daly in ’92. I played for Larry (Brown) at Indiana. The people I have been able to play for and with are just incredible.”

The recent history of the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge is that the games tend to be lopsided wins for the Sophomores. Friday’s game was emphatically not an exception to that rule, as the second year players routed the rookies 155-114. After the game, I asked Mike O’Koren, the Wizards assistant coach who coached the Rookie squad, why the sophomores generally have such an easy time in this event.”

The Sophomores understand that there is hype involved with this game,” O’Koren replied. “Our players got caught up in the hype a little too much. You can only say so much as a Top 50 player (referring to assistant coach Dave Bing) or as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. I would think that they will learn from this and they will come back next year and play a lot better and probably win the game.”

The New York KnicksDavid Lee won MVP honors, scoring 30 points on 14-14 field goal shooting. He also had 11 rebounds and four assists. After the game, I asked him about why the sophomores consistently seem to have such an advantage in this event.

“The difference between a rookie and a second-year player is bigger than the difference between a sophomore and a freshman in college,” he explained. “You have an extra year of experience and you know the nuances of the game, especially on the defensive end of the court.”

Oscar Robertson was the assistant coach for the Sophomore team.

“What you saw today are the stars of tomorrow,” he said after the game.

“Oscar said it best right before we came out,” concluded Sophomore coach Marc Iavaroni. “’Let’s make sure we jump on them.’ I think that pretty much told the story tonight.”

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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