Quick Review: UNGUARDED by Scottie Pippen w. Michael Arkush (Atria Books)

PippenS-UnguardedUSHCHow the six-time NBA Champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and Hall of Famer, the youngest of twelve, overcame two family tragedies and universal disregard by college scouts to become an essential component of the greatest basketball dynasty of the last fifty years.

Scottie Pippen has been called one of the greatest NBA players for good reason.

Simply put, without Pippen, there are no championship banners — let alone six — hanging from the United Center rafters. There’s no Last Dance documentary. There’s no “Michael Jordan” as we know him. The 1990s Chicago Bulls teams would not exist as we know them.

So how did the youngest of twelve go from growing up poor in the small town of Hamburg, Arkansas, enduring two family tragedies along the way, to become a revered NBA legend? How did the scrawny teen, overlooked by every major collegiate basketball program, go on to become the fifth overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft? And, perhaps most compelling, how did Pippen set aside his ego (and his own limitless professional ceiling) in order for the Bulls to become the most dominant basketball dynasty of the last half century?

In Unguarded, the six-time champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist finally opens up to offer pointed and transparent takes on Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, and Dennis Rodman, among others. Pippen details how he cringed at being labeled Jordan’s sidekick, and discusses how he could have (and should have) received more respect from the Bulls’ management and the media.

Pippen reveals never-before-told stories about some of the most famous games in league history, including the 1994 playoff game against the New York Knicks when he took himself out with 1.8 seconds to go. He discusses what it was like dealing with Jordan on a day-to-day basis, while serving as the facilitator for the offense and the anchor for the defense.

On the 30th anniversary of the Bulls’ first championship, Pippen is finally giving millions of adoring basketball fans what they crave; a raw, unvarnished look into his life, and role within one of the greatest, most popular teams of all time.

I think this may have been one of the fastest review copy requests I’ve ever submitted. A long time fan of basketball, albeit a relative newcomer to basketball history and publishing, I was very eager to read Pippen’s side of the story: that story, of course, including his time as a key member of the six-time NBA champions Chicago Bulls squad. Pippen gives readers the full sweep of his story, from his difficult upbringing, his shaky start in basketball, and ultimate rise to the pinnacle of the sport. It’s by turns interesting, illuminating, and also amusing. I really enjoyed this.

Unguarded opens with a chapter that deals with The Last Dance, the acclaimed ESPN documentary series that seemingly everyone with even a fleeting interest or memory of the Jordan-led basketball dominance of the 1990s watched when it was released in the early months of the pandemic. No doubt, there will be many people who are itching to read his response (it’s not overly positive), and I’ll admit that it made me a little apprehensive about the tone of the rest of book. Pippen has some valid criticisms of the series, to be sure. But it felt a little bit like he might be gearing up to spend a couple hundred pages airing his grievances, justified or otherwise. (“Bottom line: the doc fails to give my Hall of Fame career the treatment it deserves.”) Thankfully, after this first chapter, the book changed dramatically, and offers a far more nuanced, balanced, and interesting account of his life and career.

Let’s get one topic out of the way: Michael Jordan. “The two of us will forever be linked together, the best duo in NBA history,” Pippen writes later in the book. “He helped make my dreams come true, as I helped make his.” A lot has been made of the occasional (frequent?) beefs the two stars have had over the years, but Pippen’s commentary and memories of Jordan are quite varied. He is absolutely disappointed that his achievements never received the respect and attention he thought they deserved (he brings the receipts, too: there are a lot of stats in Unguarded). However, the memoir contains quite a few moments when Pippen is clear about his awe at some of Jordan’s achievements and what he was able to deliver on the court (“Michael Jordan, basketball’s Baryshnikov”). He’s disappointed with himself for not reaching out after Jordan’s father was murdered. But he’s also disappointed that everyone treated Jordan completely differently than everyone else. Pippen is right, I think: Michael Jordan would not have been the Jordan we know without Pippen and the other Bulls.

Pippen takes a pretty chronological approach to the story as a whole (although, he sprinkles in some relevant jumping around as he goes). He recounts the story of his upbringing, as one of 12; and how his family took care of first one of his brothers and then his father, both of whom ended up in wheelchairs and required nearly round-the-clock care from every other family member. It is clear that this experience helped instil in Pippen a sense of the importance of teamwork — and, given the size of his family, a basketball team is not that different in terms of numbers. It’s a frequently moving account, as are Pippen’s struggles to get noticed by scouts, colleges, and ultimately NBA teams. (I’ve noticed a common thread among some great players: often, they were overlooked, ignored, or invisible to scouts early on — in almost every case, a single champion, or just a couple of champions, helped them realize their potential and dreams.)

Throughout Unguarded, you definitely get a sense of how important the team aspect of basketball is to Pippen. He speaks freely and fondly of many of his teammates (his early close friendship with Horace Grant, for example, is written about in a very endearing manner). Here, too, though, his strained relationship with Jordan raises its head:

Michael was wrong. We didn’t win six championships because he got on guys. We won in spite of his getting on guys…

We won because we played team basketball, which hadn’t been the case my first two seasons when Doug Collins was our coach. That’s what was special about playing for the Bulls, the camaraderie we established with one another, not that we felt blessed to be on the same team with the immortal Michael Jordan.

The six championships get a fair amount of attention, of course (save for one, which is dealt with quite quickly), and there were times when Pippen indulged in a bit more game-reporting than I find interesting. I’m sure those who were able to watch those championship runs (sadly, I was not) will get a kick out of reading his memories of the games and key moments (including those 1.8 seconds that have plagued him ever since). His memories of the Jordan-less couple of years between the two three-peats were also interesting, and he says he had “never had so much fun”, and that “Without Michael judging every move, no one was afraid to make a mistake.” Sure, they didn’t win, but there is something to be said for having joy in what you do — especially if your job is, let’s be clear, playing a game.

Fans of the sport will also be interested to read his thoughts of the game’s evolution. Like many players who were active in the 1990s, he likes to point out that it was a far more physical game back them (especially when you were up against the Detroit Pistons of Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman). There are a few amusing comparisons in the book, putting Jordan and others of Pippen’s age against some of today’s stars.

Michael would hold on to the ball for five seconds, at most, before he took a jump shot, drove down the lane, or dished it to another player. He wasn’t James Harden, holding the ball for an interminable ten or fifteen seconds.

Sometimes, when I watched Harden play for the Houston Rockets, bouncing the ball up and down twenty feet from the basket, I felt as if my life were passing me by. I wanted to shout at the TV, “For God’s sake, James, stop dribbling!”

Speaking of current stars, I think Pippen’s included something that will definitely spark debate going forward: after writing about his disappointment at the dissolution of the team after that sixth championship, he claims complete belief that the team could have won a seventh. He then mentions two other dynasties that came later, the Lakers and Warriors. On the latter, he offers the following matchups…

Let’s go through the matchups:

Dennis Rodman or Draymond Green at power forward? Dennis.

Luc Longley or Andrew Bogut / JaVale McGee at center? Luc.

Michael Jordan or Klay Thompson at shooting guard? Michael.

Me or Kevin Durant at small forward? You could go either way.

The only matchup clearly in Golden State’s favor would be Steph Curry over Ron Harper at point guard.

One more thing: the Warriors had nobody off the bench as skilled as Toni Kukoc.

Another topic that gets a lot of attention and good examination is the Chicago Bulls organization. Pippen covers his contract frustrations with the Bulls, and his strained relationship with them even today. Pippen covers his various injuries and health concerns over the course of his career (back pain, migraines, etc.), and also his distrust of the team doctors (“The team doctor is looking out for just that, the team. Not the player and not his long-term future”). He writes about his working relationship with Jerry Krause, the villain of The Last Dance (“the most insecure man I ever met. It made him work hard and become an excellent general manager. It also made him petty and vindictive”), someone he had plenty of beefs with, but ultimately also a man who Pippen has come to reevaluate just a bit with time (“we should probably have pointed the blame at Jerry Reinsdorf”).

I feel like I could write a lot more about Unguarded — from Pippen’s thoughts on Phil Jackson, the Triangle, social justice, Tex Winter, Dennis Rodman, and so much more. I think I’ll leave it here, though, and encourage everyone even a bit interested to give the book a try. While not perfect, it is certainly an engaging read. (Michael Arkush co-authored the book, and has co-authored other basketball books with Phil Jackson and Ray Allen.)

Pippen’s memoir is told in a welcoming style, which invites readers in to learn about his life, his lessons, and his side of the story. It’s illuminating and amusing, and an excellent read. Definitely a must for fans of the Bulls and basketball in general, but also could appeal to those who want to learn a bit more about the time and what it was like to be part of a cultural juggernaut.

Highly recommended.

*

Scottie Pippen’s Unguarded is due to be published by Atria Books on November 9th, in North America. (At the time of writing, I couldn’t find any information about a UK publisher/release date.)

Follow the Author (Pippen): Goodreads, Twitter
Follow the Author (Arkush): Goodreads

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