The game will have a little extra meaning for Scottie Pippen when the future Hall of Famer returns to the Rose Garden on Saturday night.

'Portland is like a second home to us,' says Pippen, who spent four seasons in a Portland uniform before signing a two-year, $10-million free-agent contract with the Chicago Bulls. 'It was a great four years playing there. I hated to leave.'

Had the Trail Blazers offered the same deal as Chicago, Pippen would have stayed. His wife, Larsa, and their two young sons were happy here, and he was comfortable playing for coach Maurice Cheeks.

But the new management team, Steve Patterson and John Nash, decided not to make an offer, at least not one acceptable to Pippen. And so Pippen wound up in his wife's hometown, with the franchise that had him for 11 years, when he was a major piece of the Bulls' amazing run to six world championships in the '90s.

'I have to look at it as a better opportunity for me,' Pippen says. 'It is a chance to be a part of the Bulls organization again. Because of the way things ended when I left, I wasn't sure the opportunity would ever have presented itself.'

Pippen had an adversarial relationship with former General Manager Jerry Krause, from both a personal and professional standpoint. It got ugly before Pippen was sent to Houston in a sign-and-trade salary dump-off in 1998. Now he is back in Chicago with the team's new GM, former teammate John Paxson.

Contrary to public opinion, Pippen has not been promised a position in the front office once he retires.

'Not at all,' Pippen says. 'Everybody is saying that, but it is not true.'

Maybe not, but it's no secret that a front-office role would be of interest to Pippen.

'I don't want to say I wouldn't welcome an opportunity like that,' he says. 'But I am still a player. I will wait for that until I decide I'm going to walk away from the game.'

That might be sooner than you think. Saturday could be Pippen's final appearance in Portland as a player. He has struggled with injuries this season, and only recently returned to action after Dec. 12 arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Ñ his second in nine months. If he plays next year, it will probably be because of the paycheck.

'The knee is all right,' Pippen says. 'It has been kind of up and down. I'm trying not to push it and put myself in a position where I might get injured again. I'm not carrying heavy minutes. We kind of agreed upon that before the season.'

Helping out the young guys

For now, it appears Patterson and Nash made the right decision on Pippen, 38, whose leadership and defensive skills were invaluable to the Blazers a year ago. Blazer brass was banking on the educated guess that Pippen's health would be a major factor, and it has been. The veteran small forward has been in only 19 games thus far, averaging 6.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists while playing 18.5 minutes a game.

As much as anything, Paxson acquired Pippen to help with the development of Chicago's many young players, including Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Eddie Robinson and Marcus Fizer. The hope was that Pippen's influence would help Chicago make the playoffs in the East. That is not going happen for the Bulls, 13-33 and in the cellar of the Central Division.

'We anticipated the team doing a lot better than we have done,' Pippen says. 'A lot of things have happened. We have changed players and head coaches, and we just haven't had the time to come together. A lot of the young players haven't developed as much as you would expect.'

A week ago, Pippen unloaded on his teammates to the Chicago media, blasting them for lack of desire and effort.

'That was me trying to motivate them,' he explains. 'The fans were getting to the point where they were a little aggravated, and I could see why. We weren't playing hard enough for the fans to appreciate you at the end of the day. Winning is important, but not as much as effort.

'I think it is getting better. Our young guys are making strides. It doesn't show in our record, but the individual work habits are improving. I don't think this is a bad team. The guys just don't know how to play hard enough to win. It is a learning trial you go through in this league, learning how to play hard, keep the momentum and finish games.'

Players love Skiles

Pippen has special praise for two Bulls Ñ new coach Scott Skiles and rookie guard Kirk Hinrich.

'I love Scott as a coach,' Pippen says. 'He is great, a very intense guy, but he is loved by the players here. Hey, they had better love him.

'Kirk has probably been our best defender this year. He is pretty advanced for a young kid. I didn't expect anything from him, but he plays both ends of the court.'

Pippen's legacy has been carved in the postseason. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been in more playoff games than Scottie (208), who is the all-time leader in steals (395) and second in 3-pointers (200). But he won't be adding to his career stats in Chicago.

'I knew I was going to be losing when I came back,' he says. 'I didn't expect to turn things around. I expected us to win more games than we have, but we have given away so many games at the end. If we hadn't done that, we could have 19, 20 wins and be in the playoff hunt.

'It's been tough, but I enjoy Chicago, being back in the city and around the fans. It is the right place to end my career.'

And don't be shocked if that happens this season instead of next.

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