Scottie Pippen missed the first 35 games of the 1997-98 season rehabbing from ankle surgery. The Chicago Bulls legend opted to undergo surgery late on purpose as his way of thumbing his nose at management. Bulls majority governor Jerry Reinsdorf never extended Pippen’s contract, while general manager Jerry Krause tried to trade him several times behind his back.
Krause told Phil Jackson that the 1997-98 season would be his final year with the Bulls, even if the team went 82-0 and won the championship. Krause and Jackson’s relationship became such a circus that there was no chance for reconciliation between the two.
Since Pippen knew it was his final year in Chicago, he decided to make a decision for himself by delaying his surgery, and his choice surprisingly didn’t bother Jackson.
Phil Jackson wasn’t upset with Scottie Pippen
In Episode 2 of ESPN’s The Last Dance docuseries, Jackson told director Jason Hehir he wasn’t frustrated by how Pippen handled his surgery in 1997-98.
“No, I wasn’t,” Jackson said. “You have to understand players’ mentality and where they’re coming from, and some guys can handle it, some guys can’t, and Scottie probably needed to have this to feel like he justified what his salary was. So I stayed solid, said, ‘We’re gonna survive this, we’ll be fine. We’ll go forward.'”
Pippen only made $2.8 million in 1997-98 despite being one of the best players in the world. He was grossly underpaid during his entire Bulls tenure. While Michael Jordan knew that Pippen was underpaid, he disagreed with the small forward’s decision to delay his surgery.
Michael Jordan: Scottie Pippen was wrong in that scenario
Jordan said in The Last Dance that Pippen was wrong to delay his surgery on purpose in 1997-98. The six-time Finals MVP knew what his partner in crime was trying to accomplish, but he was also aware that neither Reinsdorf nor Krause would give Pip what he wanted.
“Scottie was wrong in that scenario,” Jordan said. “He could have got his surgery done as soon as the season (1996-97) was over and be ready for the season (1997-98). What Scottie was trying to do was trying to force management to change his contract, and Jerry wasn’t gonna do that. So now I gotta start the season knowing that Scottie wasn’t gonna be around, but we have to find a way to win.”
Without Pippen, the Bulls started the 1997-98 season 12-8. Jordan did his best to keep the team afloat, but he needed his Robin, who was an elite all-around player.
Pippen wound up making his season debut on January 10 against the Golden State Warriors and put up stellar numbers in the 44 games he appeared in. The Hall of Famer averaged 19.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists, and Chicago went 36-8 with him in the lineup.
The Bulls went 62-10 in 1997-98 and won the Eastern Conference. Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson had to get past a familiar foe in the 1998 Finals to finish their last season together on the right note, and they came through when it mattered most.
Bulls faced Jazz in 1998 Finals
The Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Finals in six games. Utah was motivated to beat Chicago in the 1998 Finals and had homecourt advantage in the series. The Jazz won Game 1 at home, marking only the second time Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson trailed a Finals series.
However, the Bulls took control of the series by winning Games 2-4. Everything was set up for them to win championship No. 6 at home in Game 5 and end the dynasty in Chicago. The Jazz, though, spoiled the fun and won Game 5 to send the series back to Utah.
Pippen played Game 6 with a herniated disc after taking several charges in Game 5. The Bulls icon finished with eight points and four assists in Game 6 despite barely being able to run up and down the floor. Meanwhile, Jordan scored a game-high 45 points and hit the game-winning shot to clinch the Bulls’ sixth championship.
Pippen probably should have undergone surgery after the 1996-97 season to be ready for the start of the 1997-98 campaign. However, the Arkansas native wanted to prove a point to the Bulls, and it somehow all worked out in the end.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference