The $4,000-per-hour Gulfstream 2, with its pair of Rolls-Royce Speys barely breaking a sweat, makes its way across the tarmac and stops in front of the private hangar at Houston's Hobby Airport. A white stretch limo the length of the Suez Canal waits nearby. Three Houston motorcycle cops, their Harleys as shiny as a championship ring, will run interference -- just like they did during the John Glenn parade not long ago. An official photographer is on hand, as is a small Rockets welcoming committee and -- who knows how she sneaked past security -- a giggling mother who wants a baby bib autographed, with the baby wearing it. All the arrangements have been made: a two-bedroom apartment at a downtown luxury hotel, a complimentary limo, a bodyguard upon arrival at the Rockets basketball facility and a five-year, $82.2 million contract.
Scottie Pippen steps off the G2 with practiced cool, but his awestruck smile betrays him. After introductions and a quick scrawl on the baby bib, Pippen squeezes himself through the limo door, plops himself on the leather seats and peers out the tinted windows. "I played on six championships in Chicago," he says, "and I never had it like this." This is Pippen's new life and, at 33, he probably deserves one. He owns those six rings and played with the greatest player in the history of hoops. Yet he couldn't wait to leave the Bulls, the team that traded for him, nurtured him and, during the course of his 11 years in Chicago, alienated him. So here he is in Houston, trying to spend some of Rockets owner Les Alexander's money on a decent mansion, bathing in the strange warmth of a Texas winter. Best of all, he is far, far away from Jerry Krause, the general manager he still despises.
Pippen can't quite believe it. The money. The perks. The respect. Mostly the respect. And all for him -- not Jordan, or Krause's pet, Toni Kukoc. The Rockets say they would have paid Scottie more if they could; the Bulls didn't even bother with an offer. This is now home. This is life without Michael. These are the first six days and nights of the Pippen Era in Houston.
1:12 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21. Where's Scottie?
It has been a morning to forget. Pippen was supposed to be here at Chicago's Midway Airport at 10, but that was before all hell broke loose at his Lakeshore Drive condominium. There was an electrical fire a few stories above his 21st-floor unit, which set off the sprinkler system, which later short-circuited the whole building. No power. No phones. No heat.
Of course, Pippen needs the stress like Krause needs a buffet line. He got back from Houston at midnight Wednesday, fresh from his physical with the Rockets and a brief house-hunting tour. He was up until 3 a.m. downloading programs onto his laptop, and then got about three hours' sleep before realizing his world no longer included electricity. So Pippen propped a flashlight on a bathroom counter and took a shower in the semidarkness. He used the same flashlight to pluck clothes from his walk-in closet for this latest trip to Houston. And then came the 21-flight walk downstairs.
At about 1:45 p.m., Pippen's white Range Rover pulls up to the plane. His and wife Larsa's luggage is stowed, and within 10 minutes, the 16-seat G2 is headed to Memphis to pick up longtime agent Jimmy Sexton en route to Houston for the official announcement. Pippen sits near the rear of the plane with the 25-year-old Larsa, digs into a pasta salad, then falls asleep as the cabin throbs to a CD he brought aboard. About 75 minutes later, the plane lands in Memphis and taxis to a private facility, where Sexton anxiously awaits.
Sexton, the former University of Tennessee football manager whose first client was Reggie White, leads Pippen to a plush conference room where addendums to the original Rockets contract must be initialed and then faxed immediately to the NBA's offices. One problem: Sexton's usual contact at the air center -- the one who'd said she'd fax the papers to New York -- is already gone for the day. Worse, Pippen is already back on the plane, the Rockets are getting antsy and Sexton is stressed. Sexton reluctantly hands the most celebrated free agent contract of 1999 to a counter clerk, tells him not to peek and says someone will be along shortly to retrieve the folder.
Pippen and Sexton share a row of seats as the G2 takes off. Sexton pulls out a copy of the contract and explains the details, including the advantages of no state income tax in Texas. That done, Pippen is briefed about the day's itinerary: an hour-long news conference at 5, a two-hour practice, an ESPN Up Close interview at 8:30 followed by a session with NBA Photos.
Someone asks Pippen if his Chicago number will be retired anytime soon. Pippen scoffs at the idea. "In fact, I'm gonna call Pete Myers and tell him to ask for it," he says. He'll soon be surprised to learn no Bull will wear 33 this season. His jersey will join No. 23 in the upper reaches of the United Center.
5:16 p.m. Thursday. Houston, We Have A Pippen.
Tim Frank, the Rockets manager of communications, sits next to Pippen as the limo cuts through the god-awful Houston rush-hour traffic. A small glitch has developed. Pippen's late arrival means everything will be pushed back an hour, which is just as well since birthday boy Hakeem Olajuwon, a devout Muslim, can't make it until after sundown, when he's done with his daily prayers. Olajuwon and Pippen played together on the USA team that won the gold in the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the Dream has made it a practice of presenting Pippen with scented oils from his annual pilgrimages to Mecca ever since. But to be Rockets teammates? Olajuwon reacted as if he were 36 going on Phi Slamma Jamma.
By the time the limo pulls into the parking lot at the Westside Tennis Club, more than 100 media reps are waiting on the first-floor basketball court used by the Rockets. Scottie slips in through a side entrance and takes an elevator to the second-floor offices of the Rockets coaching staff. Alexander is there to greet him. So are senior executive vice president Robert Barr, coach Rudy Tomjanovich and director of team security James Haywood, who looks as if he could snap your neck with his thumbs.
"Welcome," Tomjanovich says to Larsa. "It's been a long day, but this should really be fun."
"He's ready," says Larsa, a former model and aspiring actress.
Pippen has worked out at least two hours a day, seven days a week since July to be ready. He couldn't afford a day off, not after off-season back surgery and the whispers that his body was breaking down. But it wasn't until earlier in the week, when they were discussing how much clothing Pippen should take to Houston, that Larsa realized how anxious he was to leave Chicago and begin his new life.
"How many suits do you want to take?" she asked that day.
"Pack everything," Pippen answered.
It's 6:20 p.m. and the league is moving slowly as it processes free agent contracts. The Rockets cleared one hurdle earlier in the day when they got Charles Barkley to agree to sign for $1 million, clearing enough cap room for Scottie. A team official was sent to LaQuinta, Calif., where Barkley is playing in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic with Jordan. He re-upped in the scorer's tent at the 10th tee of Tamarisk Country Club, all, he says, because of Tomjanovich and Pippen. But Pippen's 40-page deal is drawing attention in the league office.
A cheeseburger with the works is ordered for Pippen as he waits in Barr's office. Now it's 7:30 p.m. The subject of jersey numbers lives again and Pippen says he thought about wearing No. 6, in honor of his favorite player, Julius Erving. Instead, he says, he'll stick with 33, which, when you add the threes, equals Dr. J's number.
On Barr's desk is a 15-point prepared outline for Alexander, the former securities trader, for when he addresses the reporters. Pippen, no dummy, understands the value of public relations. "Man, they're going to hate me," he says. "How long have they been waiting?"
Scottie asks Frank to arrange for a pizza and beer delivery to the assembled media -- his treat. Frank orders 15 pies, as well as cheese sticks and cheese sandwiches. Pippen can afford the extras.
Meanwhile, Sexton and Rockets management have crashed into an NBA wall. League lawyers aren't crazy about Pippen's incentive package, the one responsible for adding $15 million to his five-year base of $67.2 million, and are telling the Rockets to restructure the deal. Sexton and team lawyers go back to work, Tomjanovich cancels practice and by 9:05, Scottie and Larsa are back in the limo. Pippen pulls out his cell phone. "I'm gonna call Harp," he says, dialing best friend Ron Harper, who remains with the Bulls. "I want to see how his first day was with Tim Floyd."
No luck. Harper isn't home.
Past the strip malls of Westheimer Road they go, until they reach The Green Room, a two-story cigar bar favored by Barkley. Pippen and his party are escorted upstairs, where the manager presents him with an El Fuente the size of a nightstick. Pippen puffs away on the $65 stogie as he watches SportsCenter on a nearby big screen. One of the featured stories: Pippen's impending deal with the Rockets.
Pippen originally was interested in the Lakers, but a sign-and-trade deal couldn't be worked out. Besides, no one really thought Krause was going to hand Lakers VP Jerry West another championship. The Portland Trail Blazers were very interested and could offer the most money, but Pippen didn't like their title hopes. Same case with the Phoenix Suns, who were briefly considered.
Then there were the Rockets, who had enough of everything to make the deal work. Still, Houston management was stunned when Krause and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf approved the trade that sent Pippen for somebody named Roy Rogers, Trigger and a second-round draft pick. The rare goodwill gesture by the Jerrys meant Pippen could earn about $24.2 million more in base salary -- a long- overdue thank-you note.
Sexton calls with occasional updates. Barr and Pippen discuss possible personnel moves. "You should go after the green-, pink-, blue-, red-haired one," says Pippen of former teammate Dennis Rodman. "I'll call him." Barr says they've thought about it.
More sports news: video of Jordan and Barkley playing golf. Word of Luc Longley's deal with the Suns. Pippen, no fan of his former Bulls center, says, "He couldn't jump over a Sunday paper," and predicts a difficult adjustment for Longley in the run-oriented Western Conference.
The manager picks up the bar tab. Pippen thanks him, returns to the limo and is at the hotel by 1:25 a.m. Pippen is registered under Johnnie Walker but has been known to use Dan Ryan, in honor of the freeway in Chicago. Pippen says he'll have no trouble sleeping.
2:18 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22. The NBA is Fan-tastic.
Pippen and Gerald Johnson, who lives in Houston and works in Sexton's agency, are at an intersection near Highways 6 and 59. Pippen is driving a rented green BMW 740. "Gerald, I turn here?" he asks. Before Johnson can answer, a man bursts out of a nearby van and rushes toward the car. Pippen recoils.
"You the man! You the man!" screams the fan, all the time jumping up and down. Five other men emerge from the van, all wanting to shake Pippen's hand. "Welcome to Houston," they say. Traffic is tied up for about 10 minutes as they pay homage.
Pippen drives away, clearly shaken. "I felt my heart quit beating for a minute," he says. "I thought we were getting carjacked."
Pippen is understandably paranoid about such things. While he was a Bull, a woman stalked him for almost a year. She would follow him to restaurants, sit at a nearby table and talk to herself while staring at him. She often followed him home and rang the doorbell. She followed him to Barcelona for the '92 Olympics. And at the United Center, Pippen would be standing at the foul line preparing to shoot when she would appear behind the baseline seats. A restraining order was issued and eventually the woman disappeared from his life.
Sexton calls Pippen late in the afternoon and tells him to return to the practice facility -- there's still a problem with incentives. Once there, he meets briefly with Sexton and then goes down to the Rockets locker room and meets equipment manager Jay Namoc, who jots down Pippen's equipment needs on a yellow legal pad. One problem: Namoc doesn't have the right kind of undershorts in stock. Until the custom order arrives, Pippen has to revert to high school gym class days. "I haven't worn a jock in 15 years," he says.
Pippen is assigned Clyde Drexler's old locker. Barkley's locker is located across the room, mostly because Drexler and Barkley didn't get along. No such problem with Charles and Scottie. Pippen puts on a Rockets pinstripe uniform -- the Midnight Blue, Mercury Blue, Metallic Silver and Rockets Red -- a far cry from the classic red, black and white Bulls uniforms. He's asked if he feels odd in the new outfit. "No," he says. "It would have been odd to still be in Chicago."
Pippen returns upstairs at 8:16 p.m. A half-hour later, after another meeting in the conference room, Sexton, Tomjanovich, Alexander, Barr and executive vice president Carroll Dawson emerge with smiles on their faces. "Good job," says Tomjanovich, hugging Sexton.
There is still one piece of unfinished business. As part of the deal, Krause insisted days ago that Pippen talk to him when the contract was completed and approved. So Pippen gets on the phone and manages to thank Krause for agreeing to the sign-and-trade deal and for trading for him 11 seasons earlier. Pippen is sincere, but when the call is finished, he says to no one in particular, "That was hard for me to swallow."
At last there is a news conference. Pippen says he is so happy that he might sleep in his new uniform. He says he wants to look forward, not backward, but when asked about the Bulls' chances this season, Pippen can't help himself. "I don't know," he says. "They may be fighting for last place."
Tomjanovich cancels another practice, but Scottie still has to do a photo session. After that, it's an interview with NBC's Hannah Storm. It's 10:12 p.m. when Pippen returns to the tennis club's restaurant and celebrates his new deal by munching on chicken wings and sipping beer. Back in the Rockets' offices, team communications coordinator Robyn Wherritt is on the phone with a friend. "It's incredible," she says, "and he's freakin' ours."
4:23 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23. The Rocket Crashes.
At the moment, Pippen is asleep on a couch in Barr's office. He switched hotels in the wee hours, practiced until noon, iced his knees, had a chocolate protein drink, ate lunch, looked at a $3 million, five-acre home and a $1.9 million, three-acre spread, returned to Westside and then crashed. Pippen hasn't gone through two-a-days in six years, and his body is suffering culture shock.
During the evening session, Pippen finds himself guarding rookie guard Bryce Drew from Valparaiso. Drew, so unassuming that he ate at Fuddruckers the night he signed his contract, is wearing one of those WWJD wristbands. As Pippen presses forward, towering over him by almost a half-foot, Drew's eyes grow slightly wider. What Would Jesus Do? He'd pass.
Practice ends at 9, but not before Pippen pulls up during sprints with a twinge in his left hammy. Trainer Keith Jones takes him to the training room and then delivers a bottle of tablets to Larsa, who is waiting to make a late-night house tour. "Make sure he takes these," says Jones. "He's in there twitching, jumping with cramps."
Pippen later cramps up in the car, but he still meets Larsa for another look at a house. By 10:50, he's exhausted. Sexton orders take-out Italian from the car, picks up the food and sends Larsa and Scottie to their hotel.
1:12 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24. No More Bull--.
Another scrimmage. Pippen schools Michael Dickerson, a 6'5" guard out of Arizona who was the first of the team's three first-round picks. There was nothing like this in the Pac-10. With Pippen, the Rockets upgrade their defense, get a much-needed ballhandler and passer and double their offensive possibilities. He averaged 19.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 44 games last season, on par with his career averages of 18, 6.8 and 5.3. And even with Hakeem and Barkley, this is Pippen's chance to be the star.
"I'm going to try to say this the right way," says 39-year-old Houston guard Eddie Johnson, who settles in for a private haircut in an adjoining room. "He has played with the ultimate ball hog in Jordan. That's not a negative with Jordan. He broke a play whenever he felt like it. But Scottie has been able to carve a great career out of it. Now he might be able to step out of that Jordan thing."
Like Jordan, Pippen is motivated by what he doesn't have. He was one of 12 children in a family that had little money. He was recruited by exactly zero Division I schools and arrived at tiny Central Arkansas without a scholarship. He initially was projected as a sixth- or seventh-round pick and was doubted by Jordan. He was, by NBA standards, outrageously underpaid ($2.77 million base salary in 1998) and unappreciated by Reinsdorf and Krause. He was given nothing.
So he seethed inside. He held grudges. He was driven by the need to prove others wrong, to prove himself right. While at Central Arkansas, he constantly called University of Arkansas assistant coaches, telling them that he wanted to transfer, that he was better than anyone on the Razorbacks' roster, that Nolan Richardson would love him. They ignored him. Four months ago, in a chance conversation with Pippen, Richardson said it was one of the worst mistakes of his coaching career.
After Pippen signed his first contract, the first thing he did was buy his mom and dad a new house. Then he bought his mom a Cadillac DeVille. When he agreed to this latest deal, he received a call from Jordan. "Congratulations," Jordan said. "You deserved it. Now I'm going to have to come down there and check you and Charles out."
As for the Jerrys, put it this way: The Bulls ought to be happy they don't play the Rockets this year. Phone call or no phone call, Pippen will never forgive Krause. "I'd just like to know what went wrong," he says. "I've had more communication with the Rockets management in the last four or five days than I did with Jerry Krause in 11 years. I think that's very sad.
"The Bulls organization doesn't feel like they have to treat you as a player. You're more like a piece of meat. If the Bulls had treated Michael Jordan the way I've been treated by the Rockets, he would have played until he had to crawl out of the gym. Now maybe the Rockets are tricking me. But I don't think so."
Pippen is asked to use his imagination, to pretend he and Jerry Krause are hanging out and having a couple of beers. What would he really say?
"That's a hell of an imagination," he says.
Lunch is finished. Pippen drives back to Westside and takes another nap on Barr's couch.
1:37 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25. Sir Charles Returns.
"I am going to have a great season," says Barkley.
Chuck has lost weight during the off-season, perhaps as much as 25 or 30 pounds. He is minutes removed from his first scrimmage and a day removed from the Chrysler pro-am. "I walked in today and everybody was saying how tired they were, how hard Rudy was working them," says Sir Charles. "I said I was very refreshed."
Pippen isn't. After practice he looks at three more houses, eats stir-fry back at Westside, naps in the players' lounge, practices, then calls it a night after dinner at P.F. Chang's.
12:20 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26. The Big Debut.
Media Day. Barkley, Olajuwon and Pippen are asked to pose for photographs for this magazine, and the photographer is trying to set the scene. "Okay, we're welcoming Scottie to Houston," he says. "Man," says Barkley, "that $67 million didn't welcome him enough?"
Pippen spends the rest of the afternoon relaxing and preparing for his first exhibition game as a Rocket. He arrives at the Compaq Center at 6:07 p.m., minutes after Barkley has asked Namoc to supply him with a pair of Scottie's signature Nikes. Several writers conduct a 10-minute interview with Pippen before he excuses himself. Then Barkley bursts out of the training room, his expression one of mock horror. "I just heard the worst thing in my life," he says. "I just heard Matt Bullard makes more than me."
The loudest cheers of the pregame introduction go to Pippen, who raises both arms and soaks in the newfound love. In Chicago, it was always Jordan's name that was drowned out by the cheers. Earlier that night, in one of those TV fan-reaction stories, everyone says they're there to see Pippen. Now they're proving it.
Early in the period, Pippen's joined on the floor by former teammate and new Spur Steve Kerr. Kerr is still wearing his Bulls-issued Nikes. So is Pippen, the red and black just visible enough.
"I might pass you the ball," Pippen says during a break in play.
"Yeah, this is weird," Kerr says. "They treating you right?"
"I'm thrilled to be here. They're really taking good care of me."
Pippen doesn't disappoint his new fans. He blocks the first shot of Spurs forward Sean Elliott and finishes the quarter with eight points and four rebounds. He plays only five minutes in the second period, but all 12 in the third and eight in the fourth, finishing with 15 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots, two assists, one steal but six turnovers. Playing their regulars at game's end, the Rockets hold off the Spurs' second teamers, 106-104.
Afterward, Pippen does a radio show at halfcourt, then joins the rest of the Rockets and signs autographs for 20 minutes. Back in the locker room, there are handshakes and smiles. In the hallway, he hugs Larsa.
This is his moment, the one denied him in Chicago by the Jerrys, the one rarely available because of Jordan's shadow. He says he is at peace with the past, but Pippen is still Pippen, which means he must now prove that those half-dozen championships were no fluke. That's what he tells himself.
He doesn't want to be like Mike, but you know what? Jordan would be doing the same damn thing.
This article appears in the February 22, 1999 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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