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It was a bizarre misstep in an otherwise brilliant season and a largely impeccable career, and more than 20 years later—fairly or unfairly—it is indelibly folded into Scottie Pippen's basketball legacy. May 13, 1994: Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls at Chicago Stadium. New York leads the series, 2-0. The game tied at 102-102 with 1.8 seconds left. The Bulls have blown a 20-point fourth-quarter lead to their most heated rivals on their home floor, and now Pippen, in the midst of one of the finest seasons of his career up to that point, collapses in a fit of petulance.
Unthinkably, unfathomably, he sits down during a Chicago timeout—and refuses to reenter the game.
Understand: this was Pippen's team. In the days before training camp that season, Michael Jordan had announced that he was retiring to play professional baseball. That shocking turn of events left Pippen as the centerpiece of Bulls coach Phil Jackson's roster. He missed 10 of Chicago's first 12 games with an ankle injury, but upon his return, the Bulls won 30 of their next 35 games and finished with 55 wins on the season, more than many thought they could win without Jordan. At the NBA All-Star Game in Minneapolis, he scored 29 points and had 11 rebounds, and was named the game's MVP; he was named first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defensive after averaging 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 2.9 steals on the season, and finished third in the MVP voting behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
The Bulls entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the East and swept Cleveland in the first round. They then faced the Knicks for the fourth year in a row, and after blowing leads in the first two games they squandered the lead again. They led 90-70 early in the fourth quarter, only to stop scoring; by the time Bill Cartwright hit a shot with 6:39 left, the Knicks had narrowed the score to 92-83. The Bulls still led 102-96 with 1:09 left when Patrick Ewing hit a pair of shots to narrow the lead to two. T hen Pippen dribbled out the shot clock, and, blanketed by Anthony Mason, took a desperation three-pointer that didn't even touch the rim. In the midst of that, he waved over teammate Toni Kukoc to set a screen, but Kukoc never did, which may have touched off a deeper wave of resentment.
Pippen and Kukoc, wrote the New York Times's Ira Berkow after the game, "have had a rivalry going back some three years," ever since Bulls general manager Jerry Krause chose to sign the 6-foot-11 Croatian while Pippen was in the middle of contract negotiations. Pippen was known to give him a hard time in practice, though, as Berkow wrote, that may have been merely "the Bulls way"—Jordan had famously done the same thing to a young Pippen. Pippen was also concerned that Kukoc could potentially earn more money than he did the following season.
So after Ewing tied the game at 102-102 and the Bulls called timeout with 1.8 seconds remaining, all that subtext exploded in the most infamous moment of Pippen's career. Jackson drew up a play in which Pippen would inbound the ball from midcourt and Kukoc would take the final shot from the top of the circle. Pippen reportedly swore and said, "I'm tired of this." And then he sat down on the end of the bench and refused to get up.
"Pip, come on, get up," one of his teammates said. "What are you doing?"
But Pippen refused. Jackson had to call a second time-out because he had only four players on the floor. He subbed in guard Pete Myers for Pippen, and Myers inbounded the ball, and then Kukoc hit a 22-footer at the buzzer to give the Bulls the victory.
"As far as the last play goes, Scottie Pippen was not involved in the play," Jackson said after the game. "He asked out of the play. That is all I'm going to say about it."
Said Pippen: "Phil and I kind of exchanged some words. That was pretty much it. It wasn't Phil taking me out of the game, we pretty much exchanged words and I took a seat. I think it was frustration. We really blew this game as much as we possibly could. We were able to pull off the win. Toni made another outstanding shot and it was a well-called play by Phil."
Remarkably, there seemed to be little carryover from Pippen's decision to sit. But this would prove to be the most trying postseason of his career: In Game 5 against the Knicks, referee Hue Hollins whistled Pippen for a last-second foul on guard Hubert Davis that would cost the Bulls the game--and eventually the series, as they would lose in seven games.
Yet despite all of that, Pippen said, the 1994 season was "one of my greatest seasons…. I enjoyed my growth and development as a player, as well as the leadership role that I had. It was the first time for me to be the clear-cut star. I didn't always have a chance to rise up when Michael was there, especially in my first three years. But by him stepping away a little bit, it gave me a little room to grow. And when he came back, it gave me an opportunity to stand beside him instead of standing below him."
The following season—after enduring off-season trade rumors—Pippen led the Bulls in every major statistical category, and after Jordan came back at the tail end of the 1995 season, the Bulls' second championship three-peat would soften the impact of Pippen's worst public moment.