End of the trail?
Scottie Pippen soon will decide whether his NBA career is over Blazer vet: 'It might be better for me to walk away now than in a year or two'
Hair neatly trimmed to his annual summer cut ('low maintenance'), shorts revealing a knee recuperating to near full strength after surgery, Scottie Pippen gazes out the bay window of his six-bedroom, 19,000-square-foot home in Portland's West Hills and smiles.
'If I were in Chicago, I would be looking
at Lake Michigan,' Pippen says. 'And that's nice. But here, on the right day, I can look out at the view and see the sun set over the trees. That's pretty good, too.'
For four years, Pippen and his wife, Larsa, have called Portland home. That soon may change. The veteran free agent, who left Monday for the family's vacation home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., must decide this summer if he wants to re-sign with the Trail Blazers, sign with another team, or retire.
Pippen, who turns 38 in September, says he is leaning toward the latter.
'I think I am going to quit playing, really,' he says. 'It's just something I have been thinking seriously about. It might be better for me to walk away now than in a year or two.'
Pippen was a difference-maker for Portland this season, shooting .444 from the field and a career-best .818 from the foul line, averaging 10.8 points, 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds in just 29.9 minutes a game. His presence in the lineup and leadership proved crucial as the Blazers made a midseason run at one of the top four seeds in the West and homecourt advantage in the first round.
The knee injury that caused him to miss 18 games late in the regular season and not be whole for the playoffs damaged Portland's chances of advancing.
Injuries have caused Pippen to miss 18, 20 and 18 games the last three seasons. Father Time is taking its toll on his body, and he says that's the No. 1 factor as he determines his playing future.
'When you get older, it's a little tougher to get yourself into shape,' Pippen says. 'Most of my teammates are young, and they can flip it on in two weeks. As an older player, you play a lot of catch-up. It is a longer offseason. It has gotten harder for me to prepare my body and gear myself up mentally for the long grind.'
Pippen says he won't rush to make the decision, but he won't delay it until the end of the summer, either.
'My decision about whether or not to play has to be made before any decision about where I want to play,' he says. 'I am going to take some time off right now. I will know I have made the decision if I am not preparing myself for next season. If I don't feel like picking it back up again, that will be it.'
If he elects to play another year or two, Pippen says Portland is the likely spot.
'I don't want to make unnecessary changes at this point in my career,' he says. 'If I stay in the game as a player, it's better for me to be here in Portland. I am not looking forward to testing the free-agent market.'
A few weeks ago, Pippen said his interest in signing with the L.A. Lakers would be piqued if they failed to win another championship this spring. Even though the Lakers have been eliminated, he now says a reunion with his Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, seems unlikely.
'I am not taking them out of the picture entirely,' he says, 'but I look at it and say it is not a good fit for my career at this point.'
Chicago is the other team that intrigues Pippen, with old teammate John Paxson serving as the Bulls' new general manager. Promise of a front-office job upon retirement could make it a possibility.
Working in management for an NBA club 'is something I would enjoy,' Pippen says. 'I am a competitor. Once I walk away from the game as a player, I would like a way to feel I can still compete even if I am not out there on the court.'
Pippen says he doesn't need a year or two away from the game to relax and enjoy retirement if he were to land a front-office gig.
'I probably would want to get right into it,' he says. 'If I hang out too long, I might not want to come back.'
His wife is all for him continuing his playing career if he so desires.
'He's the leanest guy on the team every year,' Larsa Pippen says. 'He's in great shape. He is so motivated. He gets right back into the rhythm of it every summer.'
Pippen doesn't need the money Ñ he made $19.7 million last season, the final year of a five-year, $67 million deal he signed before his single season in Houston. But money still would be at least a consideration if he continues to play. Under the Larry Bird Exception, Portland can pay Pippen more than any other NBA team next season.
And he says he has been comfortable in Portland, though Larsa acknowledges that the wet climate has been difficult.
'We had gotten used to the warm weather in Houston,' she says. 'The first year in Portland was kind of hard. But I love it here. It has worked out well for us.'
Scottie grew to love Chicago and enjoyed Houston, but he seems comfortable with the lifestyle in Portland, too.
'It's a great city and a great secret,' he says.
While with the Blazers, Pippen has embraced golf. He owns memberships at Pumpkin Ridge and Oswego Lake and says he normally shoots in the 90s.
The Pippens' gated home is in a quiet area with proximity to both the Rose Garden and the Blazer practice facility in Tualatin. The spacious brick house has a pool that doesn't get much use and separate quarters for the live-in nanny, who helps with the couple's two young boys: Scottie Jr., 3, and Preston, 8 months.
The Pippens look at each other when asked if they want to have more children.
'This is it,' Scottie says.
Larsa raises her eyebrows and laughs.
'Yeah, right,' she says. 'I come from a family with five kids. Scottie comes from a family with 12 kids. Does that answer your question?'
'Trust me, we are not going for 12,' Scottie says, grinning.
He was the youngest of 12 children reared by Preston and Ethel Pippen in rural Hamburg, Ark., population 4,000. Preston was a mill worker, and Ethel had her hands full with a houseload of kids. Preston died in 1990, but Ethel, 80, still lives in Hamburg and is the object of continued affection from her youngest child.
'She was the one who made our family,' Pippen says. 'Still does. I had a great life growing up. We weren't rich, of course, but I never felt poor. Always had something in the house to eat. I come from a strong family. Maybe it's because I had a religious background Ñ we were Methodist. I felt at peace with the way I grew up. I was able to take on a whole set of challenges by myself.
'I experienced things that were good teaching tools later on. It kept me humble.'
All of the Pippen kids played basketball in the neighborhood, and Scottie learned from his older brothers. But he was never a star, in no small part to his stature. He was always slim and only 6-1 as a high school senior. He didn't make the starting five until that season and Ñ amazingly Ñ didn't even play as a junior because he was student manager on the football team.
'They wanted me to work through the winter with offseason training,' he says. 'It was something to do back then. Small town. No entertainment.'
His senior season was successful Ñ 'I was pretty damn good, I thought' Ñ but he received no college scholarship offers. Central Arkansas offered to pay for school through a work-study program if he would serve as student manager for the basketball team, which evolved into an opportunity to walk on as a player.
By the time his freshman season came, he was 6-3 and good enough to play. By the start of his sophomore year, he was 6-7 'and it was over,' he says.
Pippen loves that he wound up in Chicago thanks to then-Seattle General Manager Bob Whitsitt, who selected him with the fifth pick in the 1987 draft, then sent him to the Bulls for the No. 8 pick, Olden Polynice, and two second-round choices.
'I guess I owe Bob twice,' Pippen says with a laugh.
The Chicago years were a blur of incredible accomplishments, including the six NBA championships. High on the list: A teammate introduced him to Larsa, a senior at the University of Chicago-Illinois, in 1996. The model-actress-dancer of Syrian and Lebanese descent took Pippen's breath away.
'We saw each other every single day, all day,' she says. They married in 1997.
'Obviously, her looks attracted me first,' he says. 'But it's really what is deep down inside of her. Her love for me. Her being my best friend. We just have fun together.'
During their year in Houston, Larsa commuted to Los Angeles during the week to audition for acting parts, returning to be with Scottie on weekends.
'It got to be too crazy,' says Larsa, who has put her career on hold to be a wife and mother.
Now they are in Fort Lauderdale, where they are building a vacation home and where they moor 'Lady Larsa,' their 85-foot yacht. Scottie discovered boating during his years in Chicago and has owned seven or eight yachts, each bigger and more luxurious than the one before.
This is a time for Scottie to relax and unwind. It is a time for him to look back on a career that gave him six rings and will one day land him a spot in basketball's Hall of Fame. He knows it is a long way from Hamburg, Ark., to the Hall in Springfield, Mass.
'I never would have dreamed all of this,' he says. 'I was just a small-town kid from a small school when I came into the NBA. It has been a great career for me. I have put forth a lot of effort to fulfill my legacy.'
This is a time for decision-making. Pippen may have played his final game. If not, he says odds are high that he will be back in a Blazer uniform next fall.