Scottie Pippen discusses the development of the NBL, the “unselfish” Dream Team, and the current state of the NBA.
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Scottie Pippen has had a busy week in Australia.
He first watched the opening game of the NBL between Melbourne United and the South East Melbourne Phoenix at John Kane Stadium. He then spent finals weekend watching the AFL Grand Final at the MCG on Saturday and the NRL Grand Final at Sydney’s Accor Stadium on Sunday. His schedule is also packed with media events.
Pippen’s close friend and former teammate Luke Langley accompanied him throughout. The two NBA champions – Pippen, who has six championship rings, and Langley, who has three – even boarded a superyacht to tour Sydney Harbour.
Pippen leapt in excitement when the boat cruised by the Sydney Opera House, with the 58-year-old quickly jumping on FaceTime to show off the landmark to family back home.
After a lap around the harbour, Pippen sat down with ESPN to talk through a range of topics, from his impressions of the NBL, his own career and success with the Chicago Bulls, and the state of the NBA today.
‘THE NBL IS REALLY GROWING’
Thursday evening’s season opener in Melbourne was Pippen’s first opportunity to watch an NBL game in person, and he walked away impressed.
Outside of a high-octane first quarter, it wasn’t the most exciting matchup — United cruising to an 82-67 win over the Phoenix — but there was still a heap of talent on show, and Dean Vickerman’s group looked like a potential title contender.
“I’m excited I had the opportunity to come on and check out the NBL,” Pippen told ESPN.
“This was something I really wanted to touch on. I have a couple of young boys, so I’m maybe thinking about bringing them over and getting them involved in the program that they’ve created.
“I knew the game was gonna be competitive… I knew that the players can play, and they have the fan support here. The NBL is really growing and developing, and I think the awareness all around the world is being heard.”
When people first get eyes on the NBL, or Australian basketball, the increased physicality is often mentioned as a point of difference with the NBA. Pippen is from an era of NBA basketball that was more physical than it is now, so wasn’t taken aback by what he saw while sitting courtside at John Cain Arena.
“The guys are competitive, and some guys on the court are more of a bully, or more of a bruiser, so the game can tend to get a little physical,” Pippen said. “I didn’t think it got too much more physical than the NBA or any other league.”
After Pippen’s trip around the harbour, he and Longley headed to Hoops Capital East to watch a Sydney Kings practice; sitting in on almost the entire session, while intermittently offering guidance to players and coaches who crossed his path.
HOW PIPPEN’S UPBRINGING SHAPED HIM AS A PLAYER AND PERSON
We all have a good idea of what Pippen’s game was like.
He was this 6’8 wing who was an elite athlete, a creator, a solid shooter, and could effectively guard one-through-five. Pippen was a point forward before point forwards were a thing, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more rounded player than him.
Longley, who won three NBA Championships alongside Pippen (1996-1998), didn’t hesitate when asked what his teammate’s most impressive trait was.
“The remarkable thing about [Scottie] was his generosity on the floor and sense of care for his teammates, especially given his status in the game,” the Australian big-man told ESPN.
Pippen explained where that sentiment came from.
“I think it’s just part of my upbringing, and how I learned the game of basketball,” Pippen said.
“It’s not about me first. It’s about team. There’s an old saying that there’s no ‘I’ in team. I learned that very fast and understood that, if you want to be successful, there’s no room for any individual accolades unless the team is being successful.
“That 92 Dream Team was a very unselfish team. Guys realised and knew what our mission was, and it’s important. That’s what basketball is: it’s a team game. It’s not about me; it’s about team.”
Pippen was born in Hamburg, Arkansas — a small country town in the middle of the U.S. — as the youngest of 12 children. He stayed in the state for college, attending Central Arkansas, and was just 6’1 when he first stepped foot on campus.
He would quickly grow to 6’8, but it was a childhood that came with its adversity, with some tragedy sprinkled throughout — his father had health battles that significantly affected the family — but Pippen’s dreams never wavered, despite how unlikely they seemed.
“I had dreams and aspirations at being great at this game,” Pippen said.
“I never gave up on that. I don’t know what shaped me to have that mindset, but it was a dream that I wanted to play in the NBA and I wanted to be a great. I think it’s just about believing in yourself and never giving up.
“You’re right: I come from a small town. It’s very easy for me to drop my head and give up. I never did that. I always believed in me and my craft, and the work I was putting in, that it would pay off.”
THOUGHTS ON TODAY’S NBA
Pippen didn’t hesitate when asked which player in today’s NBA he’d most like to have played with.
“Steph Curry,” Pippen said.
“He’s a great shooter, great player. Plays the game the right way. He seems to be a great teammate.”
We’ve seen Curry excel alongside big, versatile wings over his career, so the thought experiment of him and Pippen playing alongside each other is an intriguing one, especially with the way the game is played in the NBA today.
“I would’ve been great for today’s game,” Pippen continued. “I was more of an up-and-down player, up-tempo. Played a lot up on the floor, so it would’ve been a good advantage for me to play at a faster pace.”
That difference in play — stylistically, from the 90s to now — is one Pippen made sure to point out.
“I think shooting is definitely more focused on,” he said of today’s NBA.
“Teams are looking to shoot more three-pointers than when it was when I played. More scoring has been added to the game. More up-tempo style of game. Coaches are not controlling the game as much as they did: calling plays and things of that nature, whereas the players have kind of taken the game and sped it up. The possessions, to me, are not as important.
“I think the number of possessions are important; that’s why you see players shooting, shooting, whether it’s a good shot or bad shot. They’re more or less about volume.”
Can Curry still compete in the Pippen era?
“He could definitely compete,” Pippen said, “but it would be a different game for him.” In the late ’80s and ’90s, the game required more physical play. Today’s game is more free-throw shooting, no physical play, no handball or confrontation.”
Pippen is scheduled to return to Australia in February when the NBL playoffs begin. He will be reunited with Langley, whose Kings are aiming to complete a three-peat.
“I think it will be a lot louder then,” Pippen said of his expectations when he returns to Australia.” It’s going to be playoff time, so I’ll make the game a little louder. Don’t be too quiet.”
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Scottie Pippen has had a busy week in Australia. He first watched the opening game of the NBL between Melbourne United and the South East Melbourne Phoenix at John Kane Stadium. He then spent finals weekend watching the AFL Grand Final at the MCG on Saturday and the NRL Grand Final at Sydney’s Accor Stadium…