Scottie Pippen is often considered the greatest sidekick in basketball history, the Robin who allowed Michael Jordan to play Batman as the Bulls captured six NBA championships in the 1990s.
When presented with the opportunity, though, Pippen was a damn good No. 1 option.
After Jordan announced his first retirement prior to the 1993-94 season, Pippen emerged as a superstar in his own right, finishing third in MVP voting behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. He averaged 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.9 steals per game for a Bulls team that went 55-27 during the regular season, only two wins off their pace from the previous championship campaign with Jordan.
But that individual excellence was quickly forgotten on May 13, 1994. Pippen’s actions at the end of a key playoff game nearly altered his legacy forever.
Chicago earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and cruised past Cleveland in a first-round sweep. That put the Bulls on a collision course with the Knicks and star center Patrick Ewing, one of the NBA legends who just couldn’t find a way to take down Jordan.
Following two close wins to open the semifinal series, the Knicks hit the road looking to push the Bulls into a 3-0 hole. The Bulls held an 89-70 lead through the first three quarters of Game 3, but the Knicks dominated the fourth, continuing a trend from the previous two contests.
With 5.5 seconds remaining in regulation and Chicago ahead by only two points, Ewing caught the ball on the left block against Bill Cartwright, took one dribble into the paint and lofted a hook shot toward the basket. The shot was nothing but net, tying the game and leaving the Bulls with 1.8 seconds left on the clock.
With Jordan unavailable for the typical clutch-time heroics, Bulls coach Phil Jackson decided to give Toni Kukoc the final shot. The “Croatian Sensation” was a 25-year-old rookie at the time, but he had hit multiple game-winners in his first NBA season.
Jackson stacked up four players — Kukoc, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant and Steve Kerr — at the foul line and had Pete Myers inbound the ball. Grant looped around toward the basket, and Armstrong and Kerr split off in opposite directions. Myers lobbed the ball over the outstretched arms of Charles Oakley into the waiting hands of Kukoc, who created enough separation to launch a jumper over Anthony Mason.
Cash. Game over.
On this day in 1994: Tied at 102 with 1.8 seconds left in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks, Toni Kukoc hit the game-winner.
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 13, 2018
“How did I do it? Easy, I shoot the ball and hope it goes in,” Kukoc said after the game (via The New York Times). “The ball came in my hands and there was not much to think about. I had a pretty good look at the basket.”
As NBA.com’s Scott Rafferty notes, the Bulls had used this exact play earlier in the season against the Pacers with Pippen throwing the pass to Kukoc for a 3-pointer.
Oh, and speaking of Pippen, why wasn’t he on the floor for the end of Game 3?
Pippen became visibly frustrated when Jackson designed the play for Kukoc. Rather than accepting his role as the inbounder, he refused to enter the game. Jackson subbed in Myers to replace Pippen.
Per The New York Times’ recap:
According to Andrea Kramer, an ESPN reporter, who was beside the Bulls’ bench at this time with a cameraman, quoted Pippen as issuing and expletive and then saying, “I’m tired of this.” And Pippen then sat down.
Some of the other players said, “Pip, come on, get up, what are you doing?”
He refused to come back in the game. Since the Bulls only were sending four men on the court, Jackson had to call a second timeout.
A dejected Jackson walked off the floor and didn’t offer many details after the game about what happened in the team huddle.
“As far as the last play of the game goes, Scottie Pippen was not involved in that play,” Jackson said. “He asked out of the play. I left him off the floor. That’s as much as I’ll talk about that.”
When asked whether it was his decision to sit, Pippen told reporters, “Yeah, pretty much.”
A media blitz followed. The Los Angeles Times’ headline read “Bulls Survive Mutiny.” TNT’s Ernie Johnson — still going strong in 2020! — called it “the talk of the town,” and analyst Dick Versace said it was a “big problem” that had to be fixed before Game 4.
“You think of Bill Buckner, who had a Hall of Fame-type of career, and he’s known for one blunder,” former Bulls forward Scott Williams told ESPN’s Ian O’Connor. “I was afraid that would happen to Pippen.”
The Bulls ultimately lost to the Knicks in a seven-game battle, but fortunately for Pippen, the infamous self-benching became a footnote in his Hall of Fame career. Jordan’s eventual return put Pippen back in his sidekick slot, and Chicago ran off a second three-peat from 1996 to 1998.
Even Kukoc has brushed aside the temper tantrum, saying he loves Pippen and always felt his support, especially in his first few NBA seasons.
“It’s just something that happened,” Kukoc told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “Everyone has an ego. Even someone that doesn’t play one minute has an ego. I don’t take anything away from [Pippen] for that.”