NBA

When Michael Jordan Left for Baseball, Scottie Pippen Was No Leader for the Bulls

When Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls to pursue a professional baseball career, the Bulls lost their leader both on and off the court. Jordan’s absence during that 1993-94 season may not have seemed so detrimental in terms of wins and losses. The Bulls still won 55 games that season, but his leadership skills were sorely missed as the Bulls scrambled to find their true leader. Scottie Pippen was the obvious choice as a replacement, but he failed them.

Michael Jordan leaves the Bulls to play pro baseball

The 1993-94 season was a weird one for the Chicago Bulls. Gone was their team leader in Michael Jordan. Jordan was still playing at an MVP level when he abruptly traded his Air Jordans for some baseball cleats. He shocked the sports world when he decided to play baseball in the Chicago White Sox farm system rather than continue his reign through the NBA with the Bulls.

Jordan just capped a season where he averaged 32.6 per game in the NBA. He led the league with 2.8 steals per game. He was at the top of his game but decided to make the switch. Jordan’s baseball career was short-lived and was pretty ugly. He played AA for the Birmingham Barons and wound up hitting .202 in 127 games.

Jordan’s biggest asset on the baseball field might have been his speed. Jordan finished the season with 30 stolen bases and finished with 46 runs scored. While Jordan’s baseball numbers weren’t very good, he followed his gut and gave it a shot. He returned to the NBA the following season and went on to win three more scoring titles.

With Jordan gone, who would lead the Bulls?

With Michael Jordan out of the picture for one season, the big question was who was going to be the leader of the Chicago Bulls. The logical candidate would have been Scottie Pippen. Pippen had been Jordan’s right-hand man throughout his career. Now would be the perfect time for him to shine.

Outside of Pippen, there were other candidates who would have to step up. There were longtime veterans in center Bill Cartwright, who was in his 13th season and guard John Paxon with his 10 years of experience. Horace Grant was in his sixth season with the Bulls and showed veteran leadership on and off the court.

B.J. Armstrong was in his fourth season and Toni Kukoc was just a rookie. Pippen, in his sixth season and after having been in Jordan’s shadow for all of those years, needed to step up. On the court, he did. Pippen led the team with 22 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He was still the versatile player he was when Jordan was there. Outside of the numbers, however, he didn’t prove to be the leader the Bulls were looking for.

Scottie Pippen’s defining moment as a non-leader for the Bulls

The Chicago Bulls won 55 games without Michael Jordan during the 1993-94 season and went on to make the postseason. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, any indication that Scottie Pippen had taken on Michael Jordan’s leadership role went right out the window.

The Bulls were home and had just blown a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls and Knicks were tied at 102 with 1.8 seconds remaining in the game. After a time out, Chicago had the ball, and Pippen was to inbound the ball. The only problem was that Pippen was sulking and refused to go back in the game. Pippen reportedly swore and said, “I’m tired of this.” And then he sat down on the end of the bench and refused to get up.

Bulls coach Phil Jackson had to call another timeout after realizing he only had four players on the court with Pippen still in his chair. Pete Myers replaced Pippen, threw the inbounds pass to Toni Kukoc, who hit the game-winning shot with Pippen on the bench. After the game, Pippen said what happened. “Phil and I kind of exchanged some words,” he said. “That was pretty much it. It wasn’t Phil taking me out of the game, we pretty much exchanged words and I took a seat. I think it was frustration. We really blew this game as much as we possibly could. We were able to pull off the win. Toni made another outstanding shot and it was a well-called play by Phil.”