Twenty years ago the Dream Team went to the Barcelona Olympics to hand out large portions of ass-whupping with a side order of ‘oh no he didn’t’ to the basketball world. Accurately described as the greatest squad in the history of team sports they were instrumental in spreading the popularity of basketball worldwide.
Ahead of the Olympics we caught up with NBA Hall of Famer, trophy magnet and oatmeal raisin cookie fan Scottie Pippen at the Nike World Basketball Festivalto talk the globalisation of basketball, those days in Barcelona and why Patrick Ewing won’t sign his poster.
Welcome to London, as you can see we’re getting quite excited about the Olympics. You’ve won Olympic gold twice. Where do they rate in your long list of achievements?
Pretty high but I definitely appreciate the NBA championship I won as well. I don’t want to put them in categories of which is more important to me. The medals and the rings are special in different ways. The championships rings are special because I was able to accomplish something with a group of guys who were on a journey that lasted a long time.
Can you believe it’s been 20 years since the Dream Team?
It doesn’t feel like 20 years.
At the time did you have any idea of the legacy you were leaving?
I think I did to some degree but I was still a player so you really don’t reflect on that kind of thing when you’re playing. But I realised that we were a special team and were setting new standards in the Olympics using NBA players. I knew it would have special significance but you can’t really get a sense of what’s what until you come out of the other end of it.
It seemed an ambassadorial role as much as a sporting one.
You’re right, we were ambassadors for basketball and we knew what we were doing would be viewed worldwide. We got global recognition and we knew we were setting new standards for the game.
The legend surrounding the 1992 practices scrimmages describes them as the best games of basketball ever played. Is that a fair description?
They were pretty special. It’s not often you walk on to a court and see 10 hall of famers. That lets you know the level of play was very intense and hugely competitive.
Have you seen or played in better?
Never, I’ve never been on court with so many talented guys at once playing as hard as they can.
One of the things that add to the legend is only a handful of people actually got to watch. Would you be happy if footage of those scrimmages got out?
Sure. There’s nothing to embarrass us, we all acted professionally.
Those Olympics came at the start of the Bulls dynasty did you feel a new pecking order was being established?
I did. The East had won the last couple of championships and we felt there was a changing of the guard. There were a few coming to the end of their career and we were coming into our prime. To an extent we were moving out Magic and Larry and it was time for Michael and Scottie.
The Dream Team were blowing teams away by 40-50 points. By the time you won your 2nd gold in 1996 the winning margins were beginning to close and have continued to ever since. Is this a sign the rest of the world is catching up?
The Europeans are closing the gap, they’re definitely getting better but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Firstly the subsequent teams were not as good as the Dream Team. Secondly I don’t think the mindset is the same as the guys of ’92. The ’96 team had a different feel to it. The players were not as complete. There were a lot of younger players who hadn’t had success, they hadn’t won championships so they were trying to use that Olympic stage to announce and build themselves. The team was a little corrupt, not in a bad way, but it was different. The original dream team never bickered about how much playing time people got. We had none of that. The experience of the ’96 Olympics just went to show me how special the ’92 team was. Charles Barkley and a few other guys from the ’96 team had played in ’92 and as Charles said ‘that ’96 team wasn’t even that good’ and there were player complaining about their minutes. It made me take a step back and think ‘wow that was a pretty good team I was on’.
You’re heavily involved in continued globalisation of the game. When was the last time you went somewhere and weren’t recognised?
It just doesn’t happen any more. I’m a big man so I don’t disappear in crowds too easily. I don’t mind it though it’s a warm feeling for me. I feel that I’ve earned it. I’ve put myself in a position to be successful playing basketball. That along with the NBA’s marketing and Nike has made me known globally, which is a nice feeling.
You played a few games in Scandinavia after the NBA. Did you get a sense of that global respect?
It’s a great feeling knowing people love what you do.
You’re going to Manila next month to play in a game with amongst others your old Bulls teammates Dennis Rodman and Horace Grant. Do you see much of the old gang?
I run across them here and there. We see each other at events and such and there are guys I stay in touch with by phone.
Do you still go to (Chicago Bulls stadium) the United Arena?
I still live in Chicago so I go down and see Luol Deng every night.
Could you begin to describe what it’s like to see your shirt hanging from the rafters?
It’s great man. It’s a dream, no that doesn’t even do it justice it’s beyond a dream and now it’s reality.
It’s been 25 years since you were drafted. Is there anything that these young guys get and you feel ‘that would‘ve been cool’?
Not really, I have no regrets from my time in the league. We were part of a group that evolved the game's reach and look. We brought in a lot of the things associated with the game like the long shorts and stuff so I have no regrets.
Is there anything that goes on now that you’re glad you didn’t have to deal with?
There are a few things that were being implemented when I was still there. The officiating is different now. Players aren’t allowed to react or show emotion on the court. I played with a lot of emotion and in today’s game that would hurt you.
Just before he missed a crucial free throw in game one of the 1997 Finals you famously said to Karl Malone ‘the Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday’s’. That sounds quite gentle when it comes to trash talking. Were you one to talk much smack on court?
Not really. I was friends with Karl, we’d played on two Olympic teams together. My brother was a postman, Karl was called the mailman so I just told him ‘the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.'
Is it fun to play a talker?
If you win it is.
Talking of the Mailman. A couple of weeks ago Karl Malone named you as his first choice in his fantasy starting five. Of the players you’ve played against who would be in yours?
I’ve always wanted to play with a centre so I’d have to say I would have loved to play with Hakeem Olajuwon in his prime.
You put a few people on a poster. Are there any posterizings you handed out that stick long in the memory?
Only one, Patrick Ewing but I can’t get him to sign it.
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