Normally, a buzzer-beating game-winner in the midst of a contentious playoff series is cause for unbridled celebration. But after Toni Kukoc hit a turnaround 22-footer to snatch Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals from the jaws of collapse, the air in the Bulls’ postgame locker room was thick with tension.
That had less to do with the shot as it did with the events that transpired moments before it. Knotted at 102 with 1.8 seconds to play, coach Phil Jackson drew the winning play up for Kukoc instead of Scottie Pippen — a slight in the eyes of the latter. Asked to assume the role of inbounder — a decoy — on the most crucial play of the Bulls’ season to that point (they trailed 2-0 in the series), the MVP candidate’s response was simple: “I’m out.”
So, when Kukoc splashed that turnaround, it was off a pass from Pete Myers, not Pippen. He spent the final 1.8 ticks of the game on the bench. After a burst of ebullience by the team on the court, they trickled into the locker room, uncertain.
“We don’t know how to act because Scottie’s one of our favorite teammates, one of our favorite people in the world,” Kerr said of the postgame vibe. “He quit on us. We couldn’t believe that happened. It was devastating.”
In that moment, it was the sage Bill Cartwright who came forward, delivering an impassioned speech on behalf of his teammates who felt betrayed by Pippen. Though Will Perdue was left off the Bulls’ postseason roster that year due to injury, he was in the locker room to absorb Cartwright's comments.
Here’s his account of Cartwright's raw, unfiltered and tear-filled comments, given on the most recent episode of the Bulls Talk Podcast:
“I had always known Bill as soft-hearted, but a hard-a**. He didn’t really say a lot, he talked with his eyes.That was really the first time Bill had expressed anything from an emotional standpoint. He had talked to officials with displeasure, he had talked to his opponents with displeasure, but never to his own teammates, especially having a direct conversation with Scottie in front of the whole locker room.
“And as you heard Steve (Kerr) talk about (in ‘The Last Dance’), it was one of those instances where he (Cartwright) was so angry and so frustrated, he was talking about opportunities and how we were blowing opportunities. ‘You guys don’t understand where I’ve been, what I’ve dealt with.’ He had tears rolling down his cheeks. I think it was one of those things where he wanted to grab Scottie by the neck, choke the crap out of him, throw a few body punches, throw him on the ground and tell him to straighten his a** out, but he knew he couldn’t do it. So it was almost like that anger turned into raw emotion, and the tears about what we were doing. The whole team was moved.
“You heard everybody talk about, we came into the locker room — even though we won — we came in the locker room, it was dead silent. Phil didn’t even know what to say… But the one thing we did do is, guys rallied around him and almost won that series.
“Even though we didn’t get by the Knicks, we still made them earn it, and we were still a pretty good team that won 55 games.”
Cartwright’s rallying rant, and the emotion it was delivered with, is corroborated in “The Last Dance” by multiple teammates, including Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, John Paxson and Bill Wennington. Pippen, also with emotion, apologized in response.
“Scottie was in tears, and upset, and he realized, ‘I made a mistake,’” Wennington recalled in the documentary. “‘I thought I was bigger than the game and I’m not.' And he apologized to us.”
Jackson said in "The Last Dance" that he briefly addressed the team after the incident. But in Cartwright’s eyes, his was the way the team's message should be delivered. Man to man. Player to player. Teammate to teammate.
“There’s times where the coaches don’t speak, because ultimately, look, we’re playing,” Cartwright said in a recent interview with Perdue and NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. “This is our team, and our team is gonna be what we make it. Coaches are gonna teach you, they’re gonna hold you accountable, but ultimately this is us.
“So at that point in time, I didn’t feel like Phil should be saying anything. This is on us. This is all us.”
Ultimately, Pippen bounced back. Three games later, he uncorked his legendary step-over dunk on Patrick Ewing. The Bulls went on to fall to the Knicks in seven games, but there remained three titles in Pippen’s future and a restoration of his status as a trusted leader alongside Jordan after his return.
“It (the 1.8 second game) was a learning moment in his life,” Jackson later told the New York Times before Pippen’s Hall of Fame induction in 2010. “He came back as a leader of teams for another decade.”
To this day, Pippen insists he wouldn't have done things any differently, even if given the chance.
“It’s one of those incidents where I wish it never happened,” Pippen said in “The Last Dance.” “But if I had a chance to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”
Believe him or not, there’s no changing the past. And Pippen’s features many more peaks than valleys, even if the valleys often echo the loudest.