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NBA STARS: Scottie Pippen Has Something to Say

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Scottie Pippen Has Something to Say

The six-time NBA champion has a new bourbon. And a memoir coming soon. And some candid thoughts about Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Phil Jackson, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, and more.
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Margaret Pattillo 2021

It’s been some time since we’ve really heard from Scottie Pippen. But the Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bulls swingman has been busy lately. For one thing, he’s joining the ranks of celebrity alcohol purveyors, releasing his own brand of bourbon called Digits with acclaimed Napa winemaker and distiller Dave Phinney and a superfood popcorn snack called Husk, all while preparing to release his memoir, Unguarded, this fall.

His expansion into the world of entrepreneurship doesn’t mean the Pippen of old has faded away. He’s coming back into view with gusto. Over the last year we’ve been reintroduced to Michael Jordan through his own eyes in the docuseries The Last Dance, which offered a glossy view of His Airness coupled with scenes from the nineties Bulls that plenty of viewers had never seen. All of that renewed focus reminded us of a familiar dynamic: Michael as the hero and Scottie as the sidekick.

Pippen is tired of playing the second fiddle. And he’s willing to make that known. His announcement earlier this year that he would be publishing a tell-all account of his time with the Bulls was striking for a player who’s rarely gone in depth about his past. And in the first time since that declaration, he dives into his claims about the Bulls: how he was the “real leader” of the organization, how he deserved more respect from the press and the front office, and how he, not Jordan, “earned” the credit for the Bulls’ historic rise.

Pippen sat down with GQ this week for one of his longest, most candid interviews in years. Over a glass of bourbon, he discussed creating his first liquor, how he tired of Jordan’s “cheerleaders” during their decade together, that time Phil Jackson gave the last shot to Toni Kukoc, and what Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons need to learn.


GQ: How did this new bourbon you’ve developed get going?

Scottie Pippen: It was just an idea, sitting around during the pandemic, drinking, boozing more than normal. One of our business partners mentioned to me that I should make my own bourbon. And then days later he said he had a great idea. He asked me if I knew Dave Phinney. He said I should meet him and we should do a bourbon together. That’s where it all started. From that point on, he started pursuing Dave and how to make this deal happen.

He reached out to the people at Savage & Cook (a California distillery) and they didn’t really think it was real. They thought it was a joke. And it turned out that we connected. Dave flew into LA within three, four days and we had a six-hour dinner. A lot of drinks. And we had a handshake deal after that. There was great chemistry there between us, and we built on it.

People say you’ve been hands on as a taste tester, you put the labels on your own bottles and everything. What made you want to be so involved?

When I took on the journey of doing this, part of that dinner with Phinney was that he wanted to know that I really wanted to do this. He wanted me to be hands-on and be involved, he didn’t want this to be a passive thing. That wasn’t something either of us wanted to be a part of. From that night we were able to build this bourbon and learn a lot about the business of what it takes to build a bourbon and here we are.

You’ve joined the ranks of celebrity alcohol salesmen. Michael Jordan, Wyc Grousbeck, and Jeanie Buss own Cincoro. George Clooney made Casamigos. Even the rapper E-40 has some moscatos available. What part of that world was appealing to you?

I found a comfort zone in it. I can’t say I haven’t tried other drinks. I love drinking wine and other drinks. For some reason I felt bourbon sort of fit me. It was something that I always had a liking for, but I felt like I was ready to go down the path of creating my own bourbon.

I heard you really like Crown Royal. What’s on the list of Scottie Pippen’s favorite drinks?

I like mixed drinks. I drink vodka drinks. I like tequila. Ayate. But, I’m sort of the guy who fits in wherever. If I’m at a baseball game in the summertime, I’d like to have a cold beer.

You’ve got to have a beer at a ball game. Only way to live.

Yes! But, yeah, I fit in with the party.

And this isn’t the only thing you’ve been working on, right? You’ve got this book Unguarded coming out this year. As someone who has not been overly transparent about everything in your college career or professional career, what made you finally decide to do this book?

This is a story that needed to be told. People needed to know a little bit more about me and my career. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And I thought that this is the time. It’s always about the right timing for things. I think people need something to read and learn about. There’s a new generation that’s come about since my career in the nineties. So, I’m feeding them that literature of what life was like for me growing up as a young kid while telling them a lot about my career.

Part of the book’s curve shows you as this persevering figure: how you beat poverty and tragedy in Arkansas, how you overcame numerous scouts disregarding you as a player and became a key figure on one of the greatest teams of all time.

Well, I think it just shows my work ethic and what I went through. The ups and downs. I continued to focus on the bigger picture and focus on my goals in life.

A big part of the book, though, is you saying that without you, there’s no Bulls as we know it, no Last Dance documentary, no banners, and Mike’s not the same Mike. For those who don’t know, this feels like a very bold claim. But since you lived it, how do you see it?

I want people to read and write their own script. You’ve heard and seen the story of what our team was like, sort of parts of it. Parts they wanted you to see. I think the book will definitely give you a different perspective of me and how I saw things and why I did things the way I did.

It feels like a very honest perspective. It said in the book that you set aside your ego and your “limitless professional ceiling” to achieve what you did. What does that actually mean? What did you set aside?

I think it says it all. You can find happiness in life and it don’t always have to be financial.

Do you think you could’ve been an even bigger star?

Financially, I could’ve been a different star. But to have the longevity that I’ve had from a public standpoint? Nothing replaces wins. That’s what puts you on such a stage of having this forever phase that people remember. That comes from winning. That’s not coming from just being in the league 17 years. It comes from being on the forefront for 17 years. Being on people’s television set, year in and year out, playing for a title. I could’ve went and been financially better off for the moment. But winning has given me financial stability for a long time.

You’ve spoken about this recently, but the book shows a certain level of transparency about your relationship with Michael Jordan and how you bristled at being called his sidekick.

That was the public perspective. That ain’t Michael’s fault. He wasn’t writing the articles. But it was the cheerleaders that were behind Michael Jordan that were doing whatever they can to appease him, to get his vote. [Laughs.] They felt they could get close to him.

Looking back on that time, in the papers it often felt like it was Michael versus the team on occasions. Why did you feel like there was a constant animosity there?

Because [the media] were going through a bit of a frenzy, to some degree. They were cheerleaders. They were fans because they were going through something they’d never seen before: an iconic basketball [star] with global appeal. That was shocking to them. They were meeting media people who were flying from different countries just to meet Michael Jordan, just to see Michael Jordan. It was something for American media to feel like they had over the world. You know? They’d say: “We got Michael Jordan,” or “I’m friends with him,” or “He jokes with us.” They were all looking at it as an opportunity to get close to Mike. That’s how the brands portrayed him. That’s how Gatorade portrayed him, how Nike portrayed him. I don’t wanna say they tricked the media, but they controlled them. [Laughs.]

A piece of that includes you, right? Because if you have the Michael Jordan circus in the press, in commercials, and in the public, it naturally overshadows you and the team. In your book it says that you deserved more respect from the press and the Bulls front office. Was that strictly in terms of how your contract played out or overall?

I was speaking more from a team standpoint. Basketball is a team game. And when you separate one individual out, then you are taking away from the sport. You’re talking about who’s the greatest player and this and that. You know, there’s really no great players in basketball. Basketball is built on great teams. You’ve got “good” players. But when you talk about great players, you can only give them greatness because what? The team. [Laughs.] You know? You can sit here and argue that Charles Barkley was a great player. But he gets diminished why? Because he never won. He never was on a winning team. So when he sit up on that stage with Shaq and Kenny, they can diminish him at any moment. As great of a player as he is, they can make him the size of a period. Kenny Smith can make himself bigger than Charles Barkley on that stage because why? He won. Yeah, Charles in the Hall of Fame, but when you talk about success in winning, you don’t speak of Charles Barkley’s name. Until you put him on a great team like the Dream Team. That’s where he gets his lift at. Because he was a part of a team, he knows what it’s like to get to the top. Great individuals don’t tend to get there and they lose a little bit, they lack something. If you don’t feel what it’s like to win, then you’re left out.

Interesting you mentioned Charles Barkley, because he once said that he would “get arrested for murder” if you didn’t apologize to him for calling him “fat” after your breakup with the Rockets.

I wish he woulda went through with it. I never apologized to him, but I’ll tell you what: He only got arrested for throwing some little white guys out of a window. I ain’t never seen him fight a Black man unless there were referees around. He plays his role like he’s tough. I don’t know nobody he done whooped. Go back and check his record. Did I apologize to him? I told him to get me the hell out of there. That’s what I recall.

Staying in that era of basketball, there are people who put you up on a big pedestal. Mark Jackson said on the Dan Patrick Show this month that he’d rather have Jordan guard him than you because of how physical you were on that end.

Guys that I played against, Mark Jackson, those kind of guys, they have that level of respect. They don’t like to be singled out as a team that Michael Jordan beat. Naw. Michael Jordan didn’t beat them. The Chicago Bulls beat them. The Chicago Bulls were the better team. It’s not an individual game, you can’t go into basketball and beat nobody with an individual record. And I used this example of what happened to Kevin Durant just the other day: this is the first time we’ve ever really seen Kevin Durant have to be the man and bring the team home. We ain’t never really had to see that because he’s had [Russell] Westbrook, Steph Curry, Klay [Thompson]. He’s been beating people, definitely in Golden State, by committee. With a team. He did that, but that team already knew how to win without KD. But you put KD in Brooklyn, and Kyrie [Irving] gets hurt and James Harden ain’t that guy, now KD not only has to score for them but also make plays for them. And this is no knock to KD, but they asked me, “Has he surpassed LeBron James?” And my answer was: LeBron James knows team basketball better than KD.

KD can score better than LeBron, probably always have been able to. But has he surpassed LeBron? Naw. He tried to beat the Milwaukee Bucks instead of utilizing his team. You see what I’m saying? LeBron James would’ve figured out how to beat them and he wouldn’t have been exhausted and he may not have taken the last shot. But LeBron ain’t KD, and KD ain’t LeBron. KD is a shooter, a scorer. But he doesn’t have what LeBron has.

Scottie Pippen Has Something to Say On Michael Jordan Charles Barkley Kevin Durant Ben Simmons and More
Margaret Pattillo

He’s also an MVP!

A two-time MVP. In the Finals. [Laughs.] That’s good when you’ve got Steph Curry leading the troops. But when you’re leading the troops, you gotta know how to lead and win. And KD, as great as his offense was, it turned out to be his worst enemy because he didn’t know how to play team basketball when it came down to it. He kept trying to go punch for punch. They were beating him with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], [Khris] Middleton, and what’s the little guard name

Jrue.

Yeah, Jrue Holiday. So, you got three guys scoring for the other team and you the only guy scoring for your team? Who gonna win? And we in the overtime and you done played every minute?! You gonna lose. But, LeBron would’ve been better in that kind of situation because he would’ve used his team to pick them apart.

So then what else does Kevin Durant of all people need to learn at this point?

He needs to learn how to utilize his teams. He has to learn how to set up his teammates to be better. That’s it. As great as he is, there’s a [cap] to his [talent]. He could’ve easily made that three, killed them in regulation, and we wouldn’t have been talking about this. But I knew going into overtime, he wasn’t gonna make it. He was taking all the shots. You done played the whole game, bro! And they’ve got guys physically wearing you down. You gonna lose. Giannis was under the same stress but not quite. Giannis got rest and he didn’t have to score every time. KD? He got no rest and pretty much had to put a bucket on the board every time they went down. And he did that, but that’s a lot. If he had a chance to do it all over again he would probably do it the same way. But he ain’t have no more. He shot that last shot and it was shorter than Giannis’ free throw shots. [Laughs.]

You know he was tired after that.

But, have you ever seen LeBron take a shot like that? He ain’t gonna take that shot. He’s gonna be smarter. He’s gonna force a double team. That’s what KD wasn’t able to do. He was so exhausted he couldn’t even go to the bucket. I’ma be honest, I felt like Steve Nash should’ve put KD on the block and just let him sit there and throw passes so he could rest. But he kept him at the top of the floor where they were getting all up under him. It wasn’t fair. But that’s just coaching. Steve Nash is an inexperienced coach. So, he gotta know. He wore KD down. How are the fuck are you gonna win? He played the whole fucking game. How you wake up the next day and say you shoulda won?

Going back to those nineties games, you took yourself out of the Knicks 1994 playoff game with 1.8 seconds left. What actually happened? Why’d you refused to go in the game?

I don’t think it’s a mystery, you need to read between the fine lines. It was my first year playing without Michael Jordan, why wouldn’t I be taking that last shot? I have been through all the ups and downs, the battles with the Pistons and now you gonna insult me and tell me to take it out? I thought it was a pretty low blow. I felt like it was an opportunity to give [Kukoc] a rise. It was a racial move to give him arise. After all, I’ve been through with this organization, now you’re gonna tell me to take the ball out and throw it to Toni Kukoc? You’re insulting me. That’s how I felt.

Are you talking about Phil Jackson?

Yeah. Go back and look at it and you can see it. It was my team. Why are you telling me to take the ball out on a game-tying shot? It wasn’t even a game-winning shot. Why are you trying to let him be the hero? He ain’t the leader of this team. No. You trying to make him a hero to hit that shot. If he misses, he playing wit’ house money. He playing what I done earned here. Okay? I have been earning this for Michael Jordan for years and he gets the last shot. And I’m supposed to step inside and let Kukoc get in there? [Scoffs.] Do you understand English? Oh. Okay. Exactly.

What was it like of deal with Michael and all of the things you’ve already mentioned: the globalization of the game coming from him, the favoritism in the press, the changes in coaching. What was it like to deal with that on a daily basis?

Michael had his power and control. He established those years before I got there. I didn’t just wake up like that. I was drafted into it. I see why a lot of players faded away at the end. There was no success, so there were always reasons to not wanna be there.

How do we take that as fans, then? We saw you holding him up during the Flu Game. We see y’all vibing on the bench. But you say in this book that you were the “real” leader of the Bulls.

Our relationship between the lines was impeccable. We pushed each other to be great. We trained with each other to be the best. So, everything we did, from a basketball standpoint, it was a high level of respect there that we knew we could be the best. We could be dominant. We had gone through pretty much the Vietnam War to get where we got to. We were battle-tested.

You made an effort to point out that your relationship was impeccable “on the court.” Was it a different story off the court?

[Sips bourbon.]

Michael was bigger than the game, you know. Even my initial arrival to Chicago he was a big, iconic figure for the NBA (Pippen was drafted three years after Jordan). So, we never really had that off-the-court relationship.

What was it like to watch the Last Dance then?

It was enjoyable. It was entertaining. My kids never saw my career so I watched it with them. I knew it was going to be something that was more built for Michael to supersize himself to this generation of basketball players, to make himself the greatest, and bigger, and everything was kind of focused on his legacy and what he did in the game. It wasn’t about what the Chicago Bulls did. It wasn’t about what we did as a team.

After all of this happens, you still took a job as a broadcaster with the Bulls. After all the financial fights, the racism, and all the different trials, you still did that. Why?

I never was a broadcaster for the Bulls.

You did it in 2011.

Maybe I did a fill-in. But I was never a broadcaster for the Bulls. Maybe I came in and did a game. I think it was something we were trying to move on from. I went back to the Bulls after my years in Portland and the [drama] was something we were trying to move on from. But it never really evolved to anything. So, I felt like it was time for me to move on.

Obviously we’re going through the playoffs right now. The most recent heartbreak was the Sixers falling to the Hawks in seven games. The biggest critique was of Ben Simmons’ inability to play on the offensive side of the floor. Did you watch the series? What did you think?

Why y’all feel that way about Ben Simmons?

I was at Game 7 and I think a lot of fans felt like to score five points and to almost have no points in the fourth quarter of all seven games, plus his poor free throw shooting, is inexcusable.

Okay. Understood. You guys have been looking at Ben Simmons for five years now? And you can say this to Stephen A. Smith, too: Y’all know he can’t shoot. Y’all know he don’t look to shoot in the fourth quarter. You know he’s afraid to go to the foul line, he don’t wanna be humiliated, so what are you asking me? I’m not against Ben Simmons. But I think he is who he is.

I watched a lot of games that Doc [Rivers] shouldn’t have had him in, in the fourth quarter. If I give you a deck of cards and I give you a deuce of heart and a deuce of diamond, and we playing Spades, why you keep grabbing those cards when you know you’re gonna lose in that category? This kid been this way the whole time and Doc brought him in and set him up for failure. He been like this! And you guys know he been like this. And Doc kept putting him in the game, he kept letting that team do fouls on him. Take him out the game! The Lakers did it with Shaq, and he’s bigger and more dominant and probably more fearless than Ben Simmons. Doc made him be a failure.

He’s still a good basketball player. That’s his weakness: shooting the basketball. If you take that away from Ben Simmons, he got no weakness. That’s Giannis’ weakness, too. But, Giannis don’t mind being humiliated. That’s the difference between him and Ben Simmons. Giannis will go to the free throw line and shoot two fucking airballs and come right down the court the next time and try and dunk on you. If Ben Simmons miss a free throw, he gonna start passing it before he get to the free throw line on the other end. He didn’t even wanna cross half court with the basketball because he was so afraid of being humiliated going to that foul line. That’s why he didn’t try to make that dunk at the end of the game. He’s been doing it all year, bro.

What’s the impetus behind this new, public look for you? You’re in videos with Polo G. You’ve got a new hairstyle. What’s the reason? You look like a cool dad now.

I’ve always been outgoing. I think this younger generation always had respect for me. You hear my name a lot in a lot of the music videos and the raps and things of that nature. I try to stay relevant. I still feel young. So, I’m not giving up on my youth yet. I still enjoy being in a youthful stage of my life. I’ve got kids and I like to know what’s going on so they don’t stay too far ahead of me. It’s just the evolution of life

 

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