BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: SCOTTIEMay 21st, 2012
Journalists are often asked: How difficult is it interviewing superstars? The answer is: Not difficult at all. The only “difficult” is getting them to sit down in the first place—negotiating with their “people,” waiting for return texts, emails and calls, arranging times, making sure no else is around trying to get their attention, negotiating for a two-hour sitdown when they want to give you 15 minutes, etc. etc., all the behind-the-scenes prep stuff.
Here is the first in a series that will appear from time to time about the backdrop to the player interviews that took place for the writing of Dream Team.
Pippen was the first Dream Teamer I interviewed, which is surprising because (A.) he can be elusive and (B.) I didn’t know him as well as I knew many of the others. That speaks to my own failing but mostly to the power of Michael Jordan. Pippen is a Hall of Famer, one of the 50 best players of all-time and the second-best player on the most transcendent team of the 1990s, but when the time came for an assignment about the Bulls it was almost always Michael-centric. Indeed, the best feature I can remember about Pippen was Scott Price’s 1991 piece, by which time Scottie was playing for the Portland Trail Blazers.
During my years of covering the NBA I interviewed Pippen frequently, but we never went all that deep. Either the interview was going to be about Pippen’s own failings (like coming up short in big games, not providing sufficient support for Jordan, or other variations on the same theme), or it was going to be about Jordan. I felt for Pippen, who was uncomfortable, as anyone would be, with being the second wheel.
One night I was interviewing Jordan before a Bulls game against the 76ers in Philadelphia—in the early days of his career the best time to get Jordan was before a game when he was loose and talkative—and he drew Pippen into a conversation about which of them was the better pure athlete. Jordan managed to be both complimentary of Pippen and emphatic on the point that, he, Jordan, was superior. He could do that. One of the things that Jordan went on about was how adept Pippen was at dunking the ball with his off hand, his left, though Jordan made clear his feelings that his own bad self was the better all-around dunker.
What I remember was how little-brotherish Pippen seemed around Jordan, shy about the compliments, waving away those moments when Jordan stuck the knife in just a little, happy just to be breathing the same air as His Airness. Those feelings evolved as time went on, of course, but I don’t think Pippen ever really got over being The Sidekick. Yet in many ways his toughest season was 1993-94 when Michael was away playing minor league baseball and he was the Franchise Player; he just couldn’t do it as well—who could?—and he probably knew it.
I called my chapters about Pippen in Dream Team “The Shadow Man.”
Anyway, I was able to get Pippen early through a bit of harmless subterfuge. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame wanted me to write one of the introductions for the Class of 2010, and I said, “I’ll take Pippen.” Getting into the Hall is something every player takes seriously, so I knew Pippen would respond. I left a message that the call was about the Hall, and he got right back.
“I want to come down to Florida and talk to you in person about the program piece,” I said.
“Okay, but we can just do it on the phone,” Pippen said.
“Nah,” I insisted. “I’d rather come down.”
He said fine.
Rule No. 1 about interviewing: Never, ever, do a phone-er when you can do it live. When you’re there in person, looking across the table at your subject, he’s on your ground. But when you talk on the phone, you’re on the subject’s turf; you’re giving him the opportunity to check his email, sneak a look at Sport Center, hell, eat his dinner, which has happened more than once to me on phone interviews. My SI colleague, Jon Wertheim, once did a phone interview and later found out that he hadn’t even been talking to the subject, Jason Terry, who had deputized one of his boys to pretend to be him on the phone.
(Sometimes, during those moments when I watch the cluelessly self-involved Terry stick out his arms and do his “Jason the Jet” thing, I wish his phone proxy could be playing for him. But the Jet can shoot the jumper.)
One of the challenges in talking to Pippen about the book was the old one—how to get him to riff on Jordan when he, Pippen, is the primary subject. But it was different, too, since Pippen’s own story would be important both for the program and the book.
And it’s a compelling story. I go into it in great detail in Dream Team and come to this conclusion: Given his background, no one was a less likely Dream Teamer than Scottie Pippen.
Pippen talked openly about everything, and it was easy to turn the conversation to Jordan, which I did so this way: “You and Michael were among the best defensive duos ever. How did you work it?”
One of the differences between print and TV journalism is that the way you phrase a question—the whole dramaturgy behind it—is part of the deal for TV and is not for print. The TV question is usually thrown out there for dramatic effect, to elicit the passionate answer, and, on the best of days, tears. Lots of tears.
Yes, yes, dammit yes! I was there that night!
The print interview, by contrast, is a private conversation. The only thing that matters is what the interviewer can elicit in the way of response. So whether you get to the point circuitously or directly doesn’t matter.
Pippen was eager to talk about how he and Michael worked as a tandem. It was fascinating for me to hear how much joy he seemed to get out of remembering it. And when I asked him: “So, who was the better defensive player, you or Michael?” it opened up an interesting conversational thread.
I can’t give it all up here, but having a chance to get into Pippen was one of the most satisfying aspects of writing Dream Team. Here’s one thing I did include in the book. After the interview, as we waited outside for a valet to fetch his Rolls, a man walked up to Pippen, smiled, stuck out his hand and said, “No Scottie … no rings for M.J.”
Trust me: That made Pippen’s day.