Scottie Pippen, Unguarded, and Boxing
Boxing fans are familiar with Michael Arkush from The Big Fight (the autobiography that he fashioned with Sugar Ray Leonard) and The Fight of the Century (a book about Ali-Frazier I). Now Arkush has joined forces with NBA great Scottie Pippen on the autobiographical Unguarded (Atria Books).
Pippen was born in Hamburg, Arkansas, on September 25, 1965. The youngest in a family with twelve children, he stood 6’1″ upon graduating from high school but spurted to 6’7″ while attending college at the University of Central Arkansas.
Pippen was chosen by the Seattle SuperSonics with the fifth pick in the 1987 NBA draft and was immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls. He spent eleven years with Chicago, during which the Bulls won six NBA Championships. He was named to the All-NBA First Team three times and the All-NBA Defensive First Team for eight consecutive seasons. For much of that time, he had a teammate named Michael Jordan.
Pippen’s relationship with Jordan is a theme that runs through Unguarded. At the start of the book, Scottie voices resentment at how he was portrayed in ESPN’s ten-part 2020 documentary, The Last Dance, that was controlled editorially in large measure by Jordan.
“The doc fails to give my Hall of Fame career the treatment it deserves,” Pippen states, “Coming from someone who was my teammate and supposedly my friend, there is no excuse. It was almost as if Michael felt the need to put me down to lift himself up. Given everything he has accomplished in and out of basketball, one would assume he’d feel more secure.”
Among the other thoughts that Pippen shares about Jordan in Unguarded are:
* “I’m not suggesting Michael wouldn’t have been a superstar wherever he ended up. He was that spectacular. Just that he relied on the success we attained as a team – six titles in eight years – to propel him to a level of fame no other athlete except for Muhammad Ali has reached in modern times.”
* “I was a much better teammate than Michael ever was. Ask anyone who played with the two of us. I was always there with a pat on the back or an encouraging word, especially after he put someone down for one reason or another. I helped the others to believe in and stop doubting themselves.”
* “On defense, I could be ‘the man’ in a way I could never be on offense. Not on a team that had Michael Jordan. There’s no doubt in my mind, I was superior to Michael in both individual and team defense. Of course, because the media believed Michael could do nothing wrong, he was in the running every season for the Defensive Player of the Year award. I was not.”
* “Seeing me as his sidekick – God, I hated that term and being referred to as Robin to his Batman.”
On the technical side of things, Unguarded explains the rudiments of the triangle offense nicely. That attack mode (preached by head coach Phil Jackson and assistant coach Tex Winter) was crucial to Chicago’s longterm success. The book also addresses Pippen’s refusal to participate in the final 1.8 seconds of a 1994 playoff game between the Bulls and New York Knicks because he was miffed that Jackson had designed the final play to set up a shot for Toni Kukoc.
Quite a few NBA stars are fight fans. As elite athletes, they understand and appreciate the extraordinary things that boxers do in the ring.
Pippen was on the original “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Four years later, he reprised that role in Atlanta.
Atlanta, of course, was where Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron. He also attended the gold-medal basketball game between the United States and Yugoslavia. At halftime of that game, Ali was presented with a new Olympic gold medal to replace the medal from 1960 that had been lost or stolen.
After Ali died, Pippen posted several photos on social media of himself with Muhammad at that 1996 championship game with the messages: “Goodbye to the champion of champions. Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali . . . We may never again see an American hero quite like Muhammad Ali. RIP to the greatest champion of all . . . A legend like no other, Muhammad Ali taught us all to dream.”
After reading Pippen’s autobiography, I was curious to know more about his feelings toward boxing. Indeed, in a way, it seemed to me that, even though Pippen and Jordan were teammates, Scottie was cast into the role of Frazier to Jordan’s Ali. Frazier was Ali’s equal in the three fights that they fought against one another. Ali rose to the heights that he did in the mythology of boxing in part because of Joe. But Frazier could never escape Muhammad’s shadow.
So I spoke with Scottie last week.
Pippen doesn’t go to fights, but he’s a fan.
“I was born in 1965,” Scottie told me. “So I grew up in the Muhammad Ali era. Boxing was at its pinnacle then because of Ali, Frazier, and George Foreman. Those guys were true champions and they gave us some of the greatest entertainment ever seen.”
Did Pippen ever box?
“When I was young, a lot of my friends joined a club and boxed on Saturday nights. But I was never into boxing myself. I appreciate what it takes to be a great fighter. Like all sports, it takes hard work and dedication. You have to outwork your opponent. But boxers have something different inside of them.”
Which NBA players does Pippen think would have made the best fighters?
“I think Charles Oakley would have been a good heavyweight,” Scottie answered. “But you don’t know until you find out about the chin.”
Which fighters has Pippen followed in recent years?
“Like everyone, I watched Mike Tyson. And there’s my guy from Arkansas, Jermain Taylor. He was a good fighter.”
But Ali is number one in Pippen’s heart.
“Meeting him at the Olympics was a once in a lifetime experience for me,” Scottie reminisced. “I grew up loving Ali. It was amazing, meeting one of my first heroes. He wasn’t just a great fighter. He was an advocate and so much more. All people, not just athletes, owe Ali.”
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected]. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.