Pippen Leads Blazers to Win

March 19, 2002

Jimmy Lynam has been around the NBA for most of the last 20 years. He coached Bill Walton in San Diego, Charles Barkley in Philadelphia, and Chris Webber in Washington.

He's now an assistant coach with Portland and he has another name to add to his list of Great Ones I Have Coached: Scottie Pippen.

   "Oh my goodness. He has tormented me so many times over the years, but I really had no idea," Lynam said last night, prior to the Trail Blazers' 100-91 victory over the Celtics. "He's an indescribably great basketball player - and I choose that word very carefully. He may not be all-world in any one area, but across the board, he makes great plays at both ends of the court."

This is Pippen's 15th season in the NBA, his third with Portland. He'll be 37 in September. He still demands a cup of hot coffee at halftime. On an incredibly balanced team, Pippen is fifth in scoring, fourth in rebounds, third in minutes, second in assists, and first in steals.

Last night, Pippen didn't shoot well (3 for 11) but he still put up characteristic numbers: 11 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, in 35 minutes. More to the point: He came in during a rough patch in the fourth quarter and calmly steered the Blazers to their 28th win in 35 games.

"He's our leader. He settles us down," saluted Portland coach Maurice Cheeks. "He gets in the places we need to be. He's a calming influence for us."

Pippen has assumed - some might say reassumed - a leadership role on a team that had the reputation of being Knuckleheads United. In all his years with Chicago, Pippen was generally seen as a willing second to the dominant alpha male, Michael Jordan. Last night, a heckler at the FleetCenter kept calling Pippen "Bagger Vance" - and it wasn't because of any potential resemblance to Will Smith. It was because Bagger was a caddie.

But let's face it, the Jordan-Pippen relationship worked pretty well on the court. After a one-year experiment with Barkley in Houston - an experiment that didn't work - Pippen arrived in Portland and now is winding down a career in which he won six rings and was named one of the top 50 players in NBA history.

Ask him about leadership and he says that he has always been a leader. It's just that no one ever really noticed in Chicago.

"Inside the locker room," he said, "this is the way I've been my whole career. People looking in from the outside have not seen a lot of things I did, and a lot of things I did do got overshadowed because of Michael. I always lead by example. I understand the game. I understand situations. That's a part of the game."

The recent Portland surge is attributable in part to Pippen regaining his health. He missed 18 games with a bum knee and other ailments early in the season. The Blazers struggled. They had a new coaching staff and a lot of new faces, and Pippen briefly talked about retirement. (He's under contract through next season at numbers only Bill Gates could love.) There were even rumors of Pippen being traded, something Cheeks hoped wouldn't happen.

One by one, the players got healthy and Cheeks got his message across. Roles were established. The Blazers were 13-18 after a Jan. 2 loss to Toronto and didn't crack .500 for good until Jan. 22. They are now 41-25, having won 15 of their last 16.

"It was tough early because I couldn't help the team," Pippen said. "I was trying to fight through the injuries, and it knocked me down. It was a challenge, really. For a while there, we were behind the 8-ball."

Pippen made his presence felt last night when it mattered most. The Blazers led, 83-80, but no sooner did Pippen arrive then Portland went on a crushing 8-1 run. Pippen himself closed it with a driving layup and later added two free throws. The Celtics got within 4 late in the game when Pippen was called for a foul on a 3-point attempt by Paul Pierce.

"A ghost foul," he said. "A typical Boston Celtics ghost foul. How long have they been called? Forty years? How long have the Celtics been around? I used to see those calls when I watched games as a kid."

But this time, the Celtics couldn't take advantage. A jubilant Pippen chest-bumped Bonzi Wells after the game and talked about how he's enjoying watching this team come together.

Maybe this is how Pippen's story should end, as the Gray Eminence on a team in dire need of one. He has his money. He has his rings. He wouldn't mind another, of course, but maybe, at 36, he is finally allowing himself to sit back, appreciate what he has done, and enjoy what he is doing.

And by doing that, he's also reminding everyone just what the fuss was about all those years ago.

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