ESPN’s “The Last Dance” has thus far been the Michael Jordan show with occasional detours. In Episode 7, Scottie Pippen, for better or worse, got a segment in the spotlight.
The segment chronicled the Bulls’ 1993-94 season that succeeded Jordan’s first retirement to pursue a career in baseball (a topic that is also explored at length in the episode). That year, the Bulls won 55 regular season games, finished third in the Eastern Conference and were potentially poised for a deep playoff run — even without their savior.
Pippen and Toni Kukoc (even in his rookie year) led the way. The forwards' supreme skill and interchangability facilitated the Triangle offense to perfection. Steve Kerr lauded Pippen's gentle leadership style compared to Jordan's.
That prelude set the table for one of the hot button moments of Pippen’s career: the 1.8 second game. The scene was Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bulls trailed the fierce rival Knicks 2-0 and were in desperate need of a win to stay afloat in the series. A Patrick Ewing running hook tied the game 102-102 with 1.8 seconds remaining, capping a six-point Knicks comeback in just over a minute. The Bulls needed a quick play to survive.
Phil Jackson drew up that play for... Kukoc, who, it must be noted, did display a penchant for clutch late-game shots over the course of the game. Pippen refused to re-enter the contest out of protest, saying to Jackson nothing more than "I'm out."
“I felt like it was an insult coming from Phil. I was the most dangerous guy on our team. So why are you asking me to take the ball out?” present-day Pippen said in Episode 7.
The story ends with Kukoc stroking an off-balance, turnaround jumper to win the game off an inbound pass from Pete Myers, who Jackson subbed in for Pippen. The Bulls went on to lose the series in seven games.
This is a long-recycled tale, with Pippen ‘no commenting-ing’ the situation at the time and reportedly being berated by teammates after the contest. A win didn't heal those wounds immediately.
“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.”
“We had come too far with that team to go out like that,” Bill Cartwright, Pippen's teammate (and eventual assistant coach), said in “The Last Dance.” Cartwright delivered an impassioned, tearful speech to the team after the game, and Pippen apologized, yet still, many believed his legacy had been irrevocably impacted.
But in the documentary, Pippen admitted that if he could do it over, he probably wouldn’t.
“It’s one of those incidents where I wish it never happened,” Pippen said. “But if I had a chance to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”
Pippen’s candor here is appreciated. There’s an argument to be made that this was a defining learning moment in his career, a turning point towards him evolving into a true leader. Take Jackson’s word for it.
“It was a learning moment in his life,” Jackson 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.”
Ultimately, the 1.8 second game will always be remembered as a smudge on Pippen’s legacy. But he did more than enough over the years to wash away most of its stain.