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Amid Bulls celebration, Scottie Pippen has no regrets

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It’s fitting that the Bulls brought Hall of Fame forward Scottie Pippen back as an ambassador just before they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1991 NBA championship team Saturday at the United Center.

‘‘That 1991 team was one whose time had come,’’ said Pippen, who helped lead the Bulls to six championships and spent 12 of his 17 NBA seasons with them, including his first 11. ‘‘We were as prepared as ever. We were healthy. We were focused, and it was a statement year for me because I had suffered an awful migraine headache in the Eastern [Conference] finals the year before. So I felt I had let the team down. We could have beaten Detroit if I had been healthy. Now, I wanted to make sure.’’

Pippen, a seven-time All-Star, and his teammates knew that eliminating the Pistons after three previous failures wouldn’t be easy.

‘‘The Pistons were a nasty team,’’ Pippen said. ‘‘You always had to expect them to play dirty because, remember, they were the Bad Boys of Motown. They’d go out of their way to be mean and try to hurt you. And because we had better athletes, coach Chuck Daly just let them play the way they had to play to win. Bill Laimbeer was no real athlete. The same for Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars and James Edwards. We were faster, quicker, more competitive and smarter.

‘‘When opponents hit you with a cheap shot and you’re not expecting it, it can hurt you more because it catches you off-guard and vulnerable. But in 1991, we came prepared to face the worst and play our best. Then when we swept them in four games and they walked off the court with 7.9 seconds left in the last game [a 115-94 Bulls victory], we felt a great sense of relief and pride from finally eliminating the team that had been eliminating us.’’

After the Bulls eliminated the Pistons, Pippen said the team was prepared to meet any challenge. He was especially glad he had played well in the series to silence the doubters who never believed in him. Some naysayers claimed Pippen’s migraine the previous season was a smoke screen to hide his cowardice.

‘‘I don’t think it ever hurt me what the people were saying,’’ Pippen said. ‘‘I’ve been a target of criticism my whole life, especially when the Bulls drafted me as a poor, skinny unknown out of [Central] Arkansas. What bothered me was the fact I had let the team down and let myself down for not playing better the previous year when they needed me to.

‘‘It was gratifying for us to see the Pistons walk off the court before that last game ended. Actually, we didn’t expect anything less because they were a classless organization and everybody saw they were a classless team. I didn’t expect Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars or Laimbeer or Mahorn or Dennis Rodman to come over and shake our hands. They never had anything good to say about us before then, and I didn’t care to shake their hands anyway.’’

But Pippen saved his best ball for the NBA Finals against Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

‘‘Scottie was brilliant for us throughout that first championship final,’’ said Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, who was teammates with Pippen at the time. ‘‘It was outstanding the way he defended Magic Johnson. But he was always such a good teammate. As the second guy behind Michael [Jordan], he played that role to perfection. Had he not accepted that role as well as he did, we never would have been the type of team that we were.’’

Bulls financial chief Irwin Mandel said he thinks Pippen is one of the NBA’s most underappreciated superstars.

‘‘Scottie is more than just one of the 50 greatest players of all time,’’ Mandel said. ‘‘He is one of the top 25 greatest. Because he played alongside Michael Jordan, many people have refused to give him the respect he has earned. But I don’t think there is another player who could have done a better job of complementing Jordan.

‘‘So the reason Scottie is in the Hall of Fame is not because he was Michael Jordan’s teammate. It is because he was one of the best defensive players of all time, as well as a great scorer, passer and rebounder. Consistently, Scottie drew the toughest defensive assignment, and he’d shut his man down. I have the highest respect for Scottie.’’

Pippen’s good points far outnumber his bad ones. That’s why few, if any, take extensive exception to the way he refused to play the last 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 conference semifinals against the New York Knicks. Coach Phil Jackson wanted Pippen to inbound the ball to Toni Kukoc for the last shot.

‘‘I felt I should have been on the floor rather than inbounding the ball,’’ Pippen said. ‘‘Fortunately, Kukoc hit the game-winner on a three-pointer.’’

In Game 5 of that series, a questionable foul call by referee Hue Hollins helped the Knicks escape with an 87-86 victory. The Knicks wound up winning that series in seven games.

‘‘If not for that mistake by the officials, we very well could have won a fourth straight [title],’’ Mandel said.

‘‘If MJ had not retired to go play baseball, I know we would have won,’’ Pippen said. ‘‘But everything happens for a reason, and as I look back over my life, I really have no regrets. .  .  . If given the chance again, I probably still would have sat out those last 1.8 seconds because I had earned the right to be on the court. So I have no regrets about that. None whatsoever.

‘‘Did anybody ever go back to Phil and ask him if he would have made a different decision if he had it to do over again? I don’t think so. So that’s not a fair question just to me. I have no regrets. I’m a competitor, and I play to win.”

And win Pippen did. Again, again and again.

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