Scott Burrell: 'Michael Jordan prepared me for life, not just basketball'

Scott Burrell: 'Michael Jordan prepared me for life, not just basketball'

Interview

Scott Burrell: 'Michael Jordan prepared me for life, not just basketball'

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Recently, eight-year NBA veteran Scott Burrell was a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. He opened up about playing for the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, “The Last Dance” documentary, his experience playing with Michael Jordan, MJ’s “bullying” and more. Listen to the interview above or read the transcribed Q&A version below.

How nice is it to have your championship season immortalized in this documentary? 

Scott Burrell: It’s awesome that they filmed everything because now I can show generations and generations how that season was, playing for a world championship and winning a world championship. [It’s great] having everything you do put on film. If I had a home video recording of it, it wouldn’t be the same. It would be blurry, and I probably would’ve lost it. (laughs) Since this is professionally done, in high-def, I think it’s awesome.

NBA Entertainment had a camera crew that was embedded with the team, and they shot over 500 hours of footage. What was it like having the camera crew around on a daily basis?

SB: After the first few days, you got used to it. They were with us, like you said, all day and all night – at the practices, on the bus, on the plane. You kind of got used to it and just didn’t pay attention to it anymore. And that’s what’s fun about this, the movie; MJ rides me, but it’s part of it and it’s real-life footage. It’s going to make people say, “Wow, I never knew they got access like this!” and it’s great! 

Let’s talk about that. Before “The Last Dance” came out, Michael Jordan told director Jason Hehir: “When people see the footage of [me riding Scott Burrell], they’re going to think that I’m a horrible guy.” He pushed you really hard that year. What was it like dealing with that?

SB: It was like getting taught; getting taught in a tough way. I didn’t think it was embarrassing, I didn’t think it was humiliating. I don’t have any regrets of how it went down or any second thoughts about learning from the best. I mean, I was getting tutelage from the best player to ever play, from the best team ever put together! And it was a team that won five out of seven championships before I got there, and I didn’t want to mess it up! So, I was glad to learn any way possible that was taught to me. 

Jordan has explained that he was trying to toughen you up and prepare you for a grueling postseason. Do you think his way of doing things made you tougher and more prepared?

SB: I think it prepared me for life, not just basketball. I had played with some very good teams in the past and with very good players, but it’s totally different when you play for a great player and great coaches, and you’re playing for the same goal – winning a championship. It’s totally different when that level is turned up another 100 degrees and you’re in the midst of it.

There are stories of Jordan getting physical with some of his teammates like Steve Kerr and Will Perdue. I have to ask: Was this “riding” just verbal? Or was it ever physical?

SB: No, it was never physical. Jordan is smaller than me, he wouldn’t mess with me. (laughs) I’m just joking; I’m just teasing. (laughs) That was a strong man for his size, just saying. But, no, it was always verbal. It was never physical. That’s why when people say, “Are you worried about what people will think?” or, “Are you worried about how people are gonna take it?” I’m like, “No!” It was never physical, and it was all to make me better and prepare me for the season later on. So, I don’t think it’s anything that I have to worry about.

Have you seen the episode of “The Last Dance” with the footage of Jordan riding you? Do you know what episode it’s in?

SB: It’s later on; maybe seven or eight, something like that. I saw parts of it because when I got interviewed for it, you know what it is about. I mean, yeah, he’s tough on me. He rides me. But it wasn’t anything that I hadn’t been through before; it’s just Michael Jordan [doing it] and it’s on film. I’ve been ridden before by coaches and by other players. It’s just that this time it’s on film and it’s higher stakes, so that makes it more interesting. 

If Jordan played in today’s NBA and acted the same way, I wonder how people would respond. Videos of him riding his teammates would be posted on social media and things like that. Would Jordan’s style of leadership be accepted in today’s NBA?

SB: That’s a good question. Well, MJ would change. Everybody changes with the times, So, he wouldn’t have been as strong, I’m sure, if there were cameras everywhere, following him second-to-second. But he would have been the same competitor. He might have done something [similar] behind closed doors, which means it’s now on the other player to say, “This is what he did,” or, “I can’t take this!” Then, that’s when MJ gets them traded. (laughs) So, I think things would happen the same maybe, but he would have changed in that he wouldn’t have done things in front of cameras. And if people had a problem with it, they would have asked to get traded or he would have told them, “Trade them.”

The 1997-98 season was your first year with the Bulls. They had won five championships before you got dealt to Chicago. How did you react when you found out about the trade? 

SB: I was definitely excited. But once your excitement wears off, you’re nervous. You’re uncertain about the future, you’re uncertain if you will fit in, you’re uncertain if you’re good enough. I mean, I’m humble. I’m humble to the point where I knew what my talent level was; I think I was a good player, but I don’t think I was anything special or great. I belonged in the NBA, but you don’t know how good you could be until you play with that team or how good you should be until you play with that team. I was just happy that they made me feel like I was a part of it. I was happy to do my part to help [the team] win, to make myself better and the team better. It was an honor to be part of it.

At that point, Michael Jordan was kind of viewed as a god. He intimidated many opposing players. What was it like witnessing his greatness night after night?

SB: It was amazing. I’ll tell you what was just as amazing: the things he did in practice. He could do everything, and he worked on things in practice so he could do them the game. So, you were amazed [watching him] in the game, but you might have already seen it in practice and you’re like, “Wow, he just did that in the game. He did that in practice and worked on that!” The amazing things he did, no one else could really do. I mean, the closest thing that I can think of, that was like him, was Kobe Bryant. It was absolutely a pleasure and an honor to play with him.

Former Bulls forward Scott Burrell

You’ve said that you were scared to go hard against Jordan in practice initially because you didn’t want to injure him. What was it like facing him day after day in practice?

SB: I mean, it was awesome for the challenge. But I was worried about banging knees, worried about him rolling his ankle, worried about him hurting his ACL. Any day, something small could happen or something big could happen. Here’s the thing: Everyone watched the NBA because of Michael. Every city you go to, everyone goes to the games because of Michael. Every Bulls fan is a huge Bulls fan because of Michael. I didn’t want to be the person to come in there for a year and mess something up! So I was nervous about that. But MJ would tell me, “No, I don’t get hurt. Just keep going hard. Just keep going hard!”

But you still have that fear factor in the back of your mind. You try to block a shot and you may come down, hit him in the head and he gets a concussion. You worry about stuff like that!  I mean, every little thing [worried me]. You didn’t want to get your feet tangled up and make him roll an ankle. No. 1, that would ruin our season. No. 2,  it would ruin the [season for] fans of the NBA.

Right, if that happens, you’re the villain.

SB: Exactly! (laughs)

I enjoyed the exchange you two had in the first episode where you asked him for a hug and he just glared at you. What was he like off the court as a teammate and as a person?

SB: He’s competitive. Whether you’re playing cards with him or you’re shooting jump shots with him or whatever, no matter what it was, he’s always competitive. You always had to try to beat him. But that made it fun. I mean, there was nothing that wasn’t competitive. Off the court, he’s a great guy. He’s vulnerable. He opened up and he talked to you. He’s a normal human being. And I knew he wasn’t going to give me a hug, but I knew I could make him smirk. (laughs)

That was when Jordan was at the height of his fame. What was it like traveling with him and how did people react when they’d meet Jordan out in public?

SB: It was like a rock band. Every hotel, we’d have fans who were outside, waiting to get a glimpse of the Bulls. Sometimes, along the highways, you’d have fans pulled over and stopped. Whenever we had a police escort, it was even more amazing because some of these cities are obviously [full of] big basketball fans and they would always want to get a glimpse of him. But I think the Finals were the most unbelievable time. That’s when we had our police escort and the fans were lined up along the highway, and they would go to the Utah games. Even just coming out of the hotel, it was unbelievable how packed it was.

Are there any misconceptions about Jordan or things that fans don’t know about him?

SB: I don’t think people know how hard he worked. Some people talk about it, but [it’s different] once you live it every day and see it every day, and you realize there’s never, ever, ever a day off. And how much he pushes people to become better, and the people do get better – whether it’s making a big shot or whether it’s doing small things, you had to get better and do something to help that team win. It worked in our favor to help us become better players.

In a recent interview, you said that you recently texted Michael and told him, “Thanks for getting me 1,000 interviews.” I thought that was funny. How much attention have you been getting since this documentary started airing?

SB: It’s huge! This is my second interview today and I have two more after this. But it’s getting to the point where people are trying to catch Michael now, which is sad. Like, “Was he mentally tormenting people?” or, “Was he abusive?” No! He was a tough competitor, a coach. He wanted to win, he wanted us to get better and he wanted to prepare us to be great when it was our time to be called on. That’s it. I just don’t understand how you can watch this film and try to portray him as a person that goes too hard at people when he’s never done anything to get in trouble and he’s never been involved in scandals. He just did nothing but win championships and he has one of the best companies in the world right now. Just let him be Michael, the way he did it.

I think people are asking those questions because he made that comment about looking like “a horrible guy.” That makes everyone wonder, “What are we going to see? How bad is it?” But you’re right, it does seem like people are blowing it out of proportion. You mentioned that you texted Michael, so you guys have stayed in touch over the years?

SB: Yeah, we keep in touch. It’s not like I call him every day, but we keep in touch. I always say to people, “He’s on my resume!” So if I ever get a job opportunity, they can get a chance to call him and ask him about me.

You’re currently the head coach of Southern Connecticut State University. Do your players ever ask you about Jordan? I’m sure other coaches get excited about it, but how do your players react?

SB: Alex, it’s funny that you asked that question because all players will say is, “LeBron is better than MJ!” Because they don’t know, they’ve never seen MJ play. They just see LeBron and they just see today’s NBA. They don’t know what MJ had to go through – the teams that he had to play against and the way they played against him – to show his greatness. But he fought through every bit of adversity, and that adversity was totally different than it is now. For these guys, the money is different, the physicality is different and the style of the game is different. 

I tell people, “If MJ played now, he would average 45 points a game, maybe 50, because that’s how talented he was and how skilled he was – while getting beat up and getting triple-teamed when the league was very competitive.” With today’s kids, they just see LeBron and KD and Kobe. They don’t know how good MJ was. I think this documentary is great for this generation. If they really want to know, they’ve got to watch the film, watch this documentary, and they’ll see what he went through to become great. It’s funny because they don’t really ask me any questions, but all the coaches do – the AAU coaches and [players’] families ask about him. But the kids don’t really want to know how great Michael is and why Michael is great.

On Twitter recently, I’ve seen many kids criticizing Jordan’s competition. I’ve even seen people say that Jordan was playing against plumbers and mailmen, which is crazy.

SB: I always say this: He averaged 30-to-38 points back then. That means if you put MJ in this era today – with no physicality, no one really trying to block shots because they’re worried about being put on ESPN, the friendships that everybody has (so no one’s gonna go back at each other) – he would average 45 points. And I talk about teams like Houston. Last year, they were one of the top seeds in the West and they played no defense. Imagine if MJ played in this era when the Bulls did play defense and he was still as great as he was offensively. That’s what I say to people. It’s different eras, but three-pointers are what people live by now. I prefer the old school, for sure. 

In Chicago, there was this internal battle taking place (Phil Jackson and the players vs. Jerry Krause and management). Considering you arrived in Chicago when things were very tense, was it strange to see that internal battle play out?

SB: Definitely. I mean, you never think that you would see the struggle between management and players and coaches visibly. You might hear about it, but [not see it]. It wore on everybody. That’s another reason why it was so amazing that this team was so focused on just winning championships, because they had so many different stories going on, so many little fires going on. Everyone had to worry about a little fire of their own, but also the big picture was winning a championship.

Jerry Krause is sort of being viewed as the villain of “The Last Dance,” but he did bring you to Chicago by trading for you. How do you feel about Jerry Krause? 

SB: I mean, we all wanted new contracts. We were all free agents. I don’t think he’s a horrible guy. But he is management and, like, we were all free agents for a reason and no one got re-signed. I mean, I’m sure people would’ve loved to stay in Chicago. I don’t have anything bitter to say about him or anything bad to say about him. But management is management, players are players. Mr. [Jerry] Reinsdorf had a lot to do with the team breaking up as well. Everybody blames Jerry Krause, but the owner [played a big role too]. Like, you would never see [George] Steinbrenner break up the Yankees if they won seven World Series in a row, or five of seven. They would just find a couple guys to help reload; they’d never break it up.

Scottie Pippen’s frustration over his contract was covered in the documentary. He put off surgery until the season and requested a trade. What did you think of that situation and how did you feel about it back then?

SB: You really didn’t see it much. You knew Scottie was upset about it, but Scottie had to do what Scottie had to do. It’s not me. I’m with the players, so I want whatever is best for them. He was definitely underpaid, and he went out and did his job. He had his surgery and played once he came back, and we needed him to win that championship. I wish Scottie got his money earlier and he didn’t have to do the things he did or be upset about what he was upset about. But it happens like that, and it ended up working out for him in the long run. But if there’s someone that deserves the money, pay him his money! ‘Cause you’re making more money [because of the championships]. Why can’t you pay him what he’s worth?

What was it like playing with Dennis Rodman?

SB: Dennis was an awesome teammate. He never spoke. He came into work and worked his butt off. He would miss practice once a week or once every couple of weeks, but [when he showed up], he came focused to win. (laughs) He watched so much film. I learned a lot from Dennis. Dennis is a little bit older than me. Dennis worked out, did cardio every day and lifted weights every day before games. He was in great, great physical shape. A competitor and he knew the game – he had a high IQ for the game, offensively and defensively. And he dominated the game without even trying to score, which is amazing. In this day and age, scoring is everything. That’s how you get $20 million a year, if you make a couple jump shots. But Dennis dominated the game playing great defense. He was a great passer, knew when to score and when not to score. He just brought big-time energy and was fun to play with.

What was it like playing for Phil Jackson? And how did your time with Phil help you when you later made the transition to coaching?

SB: Phil was great at motivating. He never yelled because you had Michael (who people feared) and Michael was the leader on the court as a player. But Phil was a great Xs and Os guy, knew how to talk to players and was easy to communicate with. He was always in a relaxed mood. Because, like I said, he didn’t have to be the tough cop. But he knew when to pull back and when to be tough. I tell everybody: We were on the road in Orlando and he gives us a day off before we play the Magic; he’s letting people play golf, whatever they want to do. But guys knew when that shootaround came the next day, we better be focused and we better win [the game] because Phil gave us a day off. He didn’t have to do it, but he did. We played for Phil and played for each other and ended up winning that game.

What was it like making that transition from playing to coaching?

SB: It was easy. I mean, I knew I wanted to [coach]. I didn’t have any desire to play anymore. I knew I wanted to stay involved in the game and coaching was the next step. I didn’t know what level I wanted to be at. I was lucky to get a good job at Quinnipiac University in my hometown. Then, eight years later, I had the opportunity to get the head coach job at Southern Connecticut, which is in New Haven, Connecticut – the next town over. I love every bit of it. I try to teach my players. I want to push them to be the best they can be on the court, but I also want them to grow mentally so when they leave after four years of college, they’re better people and more prepared for society.

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