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Clearing The Air

After 11 Seasons and Six Titles in Chicago, Jackson and Pippen Have to Go Through One Another for Post-Jordan Shot at Title

May 18, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

Phil Jackson doesn't have time for angles and story lines. Not during the playoffs.

Someone brought up the fact that Jackson and Scottie Pippen, former partners in Chicago, were almost reunited in Los Angeles last summer and now they'll square off when the Lakers play the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals.

Jackson rushed through his answer with a quick, "That's-very-ironic, yeah."

He had a similar response to the notion that both of them are trying to shake the stigma that they never won a championship without Michael Jordan's help, and they stand in each other's way.

"Yeah, that's interesting too," Jackson said.

Jackson had his own agenda to pursue. With one unprompted statement, Jackson paid Pippen the highest compliment--and made it clear that stopping him is his highest priority.

"I personally think that if Scottie doesn't lead this basketball club and take this team by the horns, they're not going to get by us," Jackson said. "He's going to be the one to bring them by us. Of course, I'm going to be trying to take that strength of his game away."

In other words, it's on.

"Having had him on my side for so many years, and knowing him as well as I do," Jackson said, "it'll be interesting to see if we can get the type of matchup that still gives us the ability to corral Scottie or hold him in check and yet provide us the ample space for players on other people."

Only one day after Pippen said, "I think that the experience I have had in the past and what I have been able to do will help lead this team, but I don't want to shoulder the entire load," Jackson handed Pippen a backpack filled with bricks.

"Who else can lead them?" Jackson said. "I don't see another leader on that basketball club that can get things done in critical times and make the plays."

Can Pippen handle it?

It helps that he just made the biggest shot of his career, a three-pointer that eliminated the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the conference semifinals. (If he can do nothing else like Jordan, Pippen showed he can make game-winning shots over Bryon Russell).

This followed a season of modest statistics (his 12.5 point average was the lowest since his rookie year) that didn't truly measure his role in transforming the Trail Blazers into a championship contender.

"It's not necessarily what he does, it's how he acts," Portland guard Damon Stoudamire said. "The way you see him stay focused, the way he conducts himself. That's what we needed around here. We needed somebody like that. We didn't have that last year."

Pippen's presence has been a soothing influence on a team that often careened out of control when Isaiah Rider was around. For Pippen, the rainy outpost has been a perfect antidote for his nightmarish year in Houston, where he felt out of place in the Rockets' offensive system and clashed with Charles Barkley.

He was traded to Portland for Kelvin Cato, Ed Gray, Carlos Rogers, Walt Williams, Stacey Augmon and Brian Shaw on Oct. 2, 1999.

While Pippen was still on the blocks, Jackson lobbied Laker management on his behalf.

"I could see myself playing for Phil again," Pippen said. "That's what I was visualizing."

Kobe Bryant envisioned the second coming of "The Dobermans," a nickname hung on Pippen and Jordan in Chicago.

"It was just fun thinking about how we could harass people defensively, and how much fun that would have been," Bryant said.

On top of that they would have had Shaquille O'Neal as a last line of defense, which would have allowed Bryant and Pippen to be even more daring.

"I'll just say I would've been a good fit for them," Pippen said.

However, the four years and $69 million left on Pippen's contract--with a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax set to kick in for teams over the salary cap in the 2001-2002 season--didn't fit the Lakers' budget.

Money wasn't an issue for Portland owner Paul Allen, the multibillionaire Microsoft co-founder.

"When it happened, I was able to say, 'We let our biggest opponent step in the gap and supply themselves with a player that could eventually end up costing us big-time,' " Jackson said. "And here we are in a situation, wondering if this going to happen." Pippen said it won't be too odd to have Jackson on the opposing sideline this series.

"I think it'll be like practice," Pippen said. "It'll be like him putting me on the second team."

Pippen and Jackson spent the first 11 seasons of their careers as NBA player and coach together. They arrived in Chicago in 1987, when Pippen was a rookie and Jackson was an assistant coach. They've been through six championships, Pippen's migraine headache in Game 7 of the 1990 conference finals at Detroit, the retirement and unretirement of Jordan.

Perhaps the greatest testament to their relationship is it survived Pippen's insubordinate act of sitting out the final 1.8 seconds of a 1994 playoff game against the New York Knicks.

Pippen grumbled about Jackson at times, but now he speaks about him in only positive tones.

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