The NBA world has recently been talking about the publicity tour of Scottie Pippen given that he has released his book, Unguarded. In that context, I wanted to speak with author Roland Lazenby, because he had a front-row seat to the Chicago Bulls' dynasty of the 1990s.
Lazenby has written more than five dozen books, including at least four focusing on those legendary Bulls, who won six NBA titles. His most recent work on that team was Michael Jordan: The Life (2014).
Since Lazenby was there, let's hear what he has to say.
What do you think is going on with Scottie? When he called Phil Jackson a racist (in June), Pippen's son (Antron) died in April. It seemed as if that part never entered the narrative of Scottie at the time: Whether Scottie was still in mourning, and it appeared something was just a little off with him.
RL: Obviously, he was a guy loved by all of his teammates. He was a great teammate. Scottie played the game about as well as it could have been played. The way you’d want to play it. The way it was meant to be played.
I think it took him awhile to get to that level. Phil (Jackson, the coach of the Bulls' dynasty) came at him very hard and made him go against Jordan every day in practice. He was a young and still kinda shy guy from a small town. That helped to sorta burnish Scottie.
Scottie always had a good emotional base. Those reporters in Chicago saw that early on. They knew that if you poked Scottie, you could get him to say a lot of things – either in anger or in reaction – and they didn’t do it. I always admired that about them.
Basketball is an emotional game, and Scottie was an emotional guy. I think a lot of this book was produced in the wake of The Last Dance. (the ESPN documentary released in the spring of 2020). That was an embarrassment of riches for Jordan, but it really didn’t play straight up in certain ways.
I bet Scottie probably felt insulted. He probably felt insulted that Ron Harper wasn’t included. Ron Harper was obviously one of Scottie’s very good friends and a real important teammate to him. He was a huge contributor to those last three Bulls championships.
They really showed without Ron that they didn’t have any pressure in their defense. The Bulls had to have ball pressure. So, I would think anger, but they also needed sensational things to sell a book and make it go.
I’m not sure before The Last Dance if there would have been a lot of interest in the publishing industry for a Scottie book. That’s not saying that Scottie’s career and life isn’t worth a book. It’s obviously worth a book. The publishing industry just wouldn’t have recognized it.
Scottie has said some things. I’m not sure how to counter. My book … and I asked Michael to his face about being a tough guy and how hard he was with his teammates and all that stuff. In the mid-90s there weren’t many people who thought Michael was like that. It all sorta came to life later. Michael was very forthcoming about it.
I think if we had a sitdown with Phil Jackson today (Lazenby wrote Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey in 2001) and asked him what does he think about Scottie saying he’s a racist, I think probably Phil would say, "Well, you know, it’s a fair statement." Probably. You’d have to qualify it, but it’s a fair statement to say that you could accuse every Caucasian in America of being a racist or at least failing to understand what racism is.
I don’t think you’ll ever hear Phil defend himself on that. Not because, you know, when we think of a racist, we think about a racist, a really racist person. It’s not really hard for anybody to be thoughtless at times, to not understand things. I think that is particularly true of most Caucasians. I say that having been one all my life.
I think Phil was deeply wounded by it, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing where his denying it puts him in any better light.
I would never think of Phil as an obvious racist. It was obvious to me that Phil and Scottie had a higher appreciation for each other. Scottie refusing to go into that game, and Phil doing what he does as a coach, you know that was a most unusual moment. They got past it. All of them. All the Bulls got past the moment, but it was gut-check time.
The fact that Scottie, after all these years, still has some feelings about it, that part of it doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if Scottie didn’t have a book out that needed publicity to sell it. I really don’t.
I think that is probably the bottom line.
The publisher gets excited when that kinda stuff is in the proposal. I know this from having done many proposals. If you have earth-shattering things in the proposal, then just know you’re going to get lots of publicity, being that guarantees book sales.
Was Scottie scheming to intentionally do that? I don’t know. If you wanna sell books, you have to have publicity. I do know that, and, boy, has he scratched the publicity itch.
I’ve tried to remain impartial just to see how this shakes out. I haven’t read the…
RL: I can tell that by your questions, and I hope you can tell by my answers that I’m not really here to skewer anybody. Obviously, to go in and cover them and go through so much stuff is one of the highlights of my life.
I’ve seen a lot of great basketball, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen greater basketball than what Michael and Scottie produced.
I’ve always wanted to ask anyone around that team about (assistant coach) Tex Winter (the pioneer of the triangle offense). He’s become an obsession of mine. What was his aura around the team? Was he a motivator? Was he connected with the players? Was he the guy on the sideline writing stuff down on paper?
RL: Tex was a figure they all loved and admired. He was a colorful figure. Michael would do things like sneaking up behind Tex and pulling down his gym shorts in practice, because Tex was so serious about the triangle.
A lot of the early coaches on the Bulls didn’t want anything to do with Tex. That was all Jerry Krause’s vision. When Jerry Krause (the Bulls general manager from 1985 to 2003) was a scout for NBA teams, he had met Tex Winter and became fascinated by him just like he’d become fascinated with a young center out of North Dakota.
Who the hell looks for basketball players in North damn Dakota?
But to Jerry Krause’s credit, back when white executives weren’t bothering to look at HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), Krause was all over that. He became extremely close with (legendary coach Clarence) "Big House" Gaines at Winston-Salem State.
Of course, (he) was an early, early proponent of (New York Knicks guard) Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. The NBA still wasn’t paying a lot of attention to HBCUs.
Krause had a way. He could be the biggest bully in the world. It was all weird how it came together, but Krause could irritate the living soul out of a lot of people. There was no question that he irritated the living soul out of Michael when Michael was a young player, and he gave Phil Jackson a shot at coaching when nobody would give Phil a chance. Even Phil got worn out with Krause.
It was complicated. Tex and Phil were these two guys that Jerry Krause wanted to put into power. It took awhile for him to be able to do that. No one else was going to run the dang triangle offense on an NBA team. Now, it’s outlawed. You can’t run the triangle in the NBA. They’ve cut all the timeline down. They’ve cut the reset clock down. You can’t run the triangle.
I’ll just put it this way about Tex: Scottie and Michael were on the Dream Team bus in ’92 (Olympics). They had (Houston Rockets star) Clyde Drexler as a teammate. Scottie mused (out) loud to Michael just how great would Clyde Drexler be if he had Tex Winter as a coach.
Tex could match talent and the whole package. He had a mojo to match intelligence, talent, competitive nature, character. All that stuff that makes up Michael – and Scottie. Tex had a way of speaking to and offering things for players at that level that allowed them to distinguish themselves and achieve great things.
Tex wasn’t somebody they walked around worshiping.
Tex was a funny guy. He came out of the (Great) Depression. Chip Schaefer (the head athletic trainer of the Bulls from 1990 to 1998) told me once, "If you’re eating steak and leave a little meat on the steak, if Tex is sitting next to you, he’s not above picking up the bone and finishing that bad boy off."
He was just a great guy. I was a nobody though all this. I just had my press credential. He immediately took me under his wing. I’ve know people all over the world, and the appreciation we shared was for Tex Winter.
Tex, at Kansas State, had the great (forward) Bob Boozer back in the late '50s, and when you had a hard time finding white coaches jumping in to integrate their teams, Tex Winter was leading the charge. Catholic schools were doing the right thing, but it took public schools a long time. They really dishonored themselves.
Everyone is talking about the 10 million dollars Mike got for The Last Dance. I guess this is a question to the basketball gods…
RL: Actually it’s a question to basketball logic. I know Scottie is upset. That footage was shot by Andy Thompson, Klay Thompson’s uncle. I would talk to him for 20 years asking if they were going to do anything with that great footage. He said Michael wouldn’t sign off on it.
Of course, Michael went on to become a successful business man and signed off on it. Now, he didn’t know we were gonna have a pandemic and have the world’s stage. I actually thought it was 20 million.
There was a conglomerate that paid up front to get him that, and Michael, of course, was going to have complete editorial control. That’s what happens. I don’t care if it’s (rock star) Mick Jagger or Michael Jordan or whoever. Very wealthy, successful people want to control the narrative as much as they can.
I think The Last Dance achieved so many things. It was hardly a failure. Obviously, a tremendous success, but there were things that were probably upsetting to guys like Scottie. Ron Harper may have been deeply wounded by being left out, but he’s not the type of guy to articulate that. Scottie is not going to take the crap. If he’s mad, he’s going to speak up. Sometimes, in anger, one may not lay out the best case for things.
So, do we have it right on Scottie?
RL: Scottie was able to recover from the post to the perimeter. He was an exceptional defensive player.
What probably hurt Scottie was the elimination of the triangle in pro basketball. People just don’t understand how important he was in running the triangle.
I think this is best considered a tempest in a teapot. I think the best thing, in my opinion, is to consider them all for what they are and what role they played. They all needed each other. That included that daggone Krause. At some point they all began to fight over who would get the credit and the money.
Guess what? That’s the story of every great rock band, and every great ensemble we’ve ever had. Scottie will make some money off this book, and more power to him for that.
They all have their place in the top realm of the sport.
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Q. Do you believe Scottie Pippen?