Scottie Pippen’s Refusal to Play During the 1994 NBA Playoffs Reduced Bill Cartwright to Tears

Certain moments, for better or worse, write themselves into sports history and become part of a given player’s legacy. Let’s consider Scottie Pippen as an example of that. For all the success the forward found during his time with the Chicago Bulls, he’s largely remembered for two things: being Michael Jordan’s running mate and refusing to enter the game during the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals (and, more recently, claiming Phil Jackson’s decision to give someone else the ball was racially motivated before walking that assertion back).

And while the latter moment didn’t prove to be immediately damaging — Toni Kukoc nailed the game-winning shot in Pippen’s absence — it did shake the Chicago Bulls to their collective core. In fact, Bill Cartwright was reportedly reduced to tears after the final whistle.

Scottie Pippen blew off Phil Jackson during the 1994 playoffs, which apparently made Bill Cartwright emotional

When Michael Jordan left the NBA behind to play baseball, Scottie Pippen became the main man in Chicago. As the cliche says, though, with great power comes great responsibility. The forward might have overlooked that lesson.

During the 1994 postseason, the Bulls found themselves facing the New York Knicks and trailing in the dying seconds of Game 3. Phil Jackson drew up a play that featured Pippen inbounding the ball to Toni Kukoc. Pip felt slighted by that role and refused to take part. He sat on the bench as Chicago won the game.

That victory, however, did little to lift the mood. Thanks to Phil Jackson and his triangle offense, the Bulls became a team where collective success came first. Pippen’s actions, in the eyes of the locker room, ended that commitment to the group. Allow Frank Deford, who penned a story about Jackson for Sports Illustrated during the coach’s time with the Lakers, to explain:

Amazingly, Toni Kukoc, the player Jackson had assigned to take the shot, made it. But that was still tainted by Pippen’s disgrace, and even as he left the court, Jackson was trying to suppress his anger and decide what to do. He had to act quickly, in that brief time before the press would be allowed to descend
on the locker room. Then, a couple of minutes later, Jackson heard sobs coming from the shower. “It was Bill Cartwright, and he’s not an emotional man,” Jackson says. “But I knew what he was feeling. Everything we stood for had gone. In one moment, everything had changed.”

Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated

Fittingly, the Bulls would go on to lose that series against the Knicks. During the offseason, Cartwright would leave town as a free agent and see out his playing career in Seattle before returning to Chicago as an assistant coach on Jackson’s staff.

Despite that breach of trust, the Bulls came together and won three more championships with Pippen

Scottie Pippen (second from left) and his Chicago Bulls teammates.
Scottie Pippen (second from left) and his Chicago Bulls teammates. | Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS

From Phil Jackson’s quotes and Bill Cartwright’s reaction, it’s easy to assume that Pippen had shattered everything the Chicago Bulls were building. In reality, though, that wasn’t the case. If anything, the club (eventually) came back stronger than ever.

The head coach left the players to sort things out among themselves, and he believes the team’s bond deepened. “I could feel Cartwright, feel them coming together,” Jackson told Deford. And then: “That’s the fascinating thing that brought me back to the game this year [in 1999]. You reap so much from the
relationships. You know, all we’re really trying to do is just make music together, to create a format of harmony.”

If that harmony was actually deepened, it didn’t make much of an immediate difference. During the 1994-95 season, the Bulls entered the postseason as the fifth seed in the East and, once again, fell in the second round. After that, though, Michael Jordan returned to the Windy City, and the club rattled off three consecutive championships. Pippen, of course, was a key member of those teams.

How much of that success was down to the locker room bond? And how much was because His Airness was simply that good? You can be the judge of that.

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