“Without [Marty] Blake inviting Pippen to the pre-draft camp in April of ’87, would former Bulls GM Jerry Krause have fallen in love with Pippen’s talent firsthand? Without Krause discovering Pippen there and engineering a draft day trade…do the Bulls win six championships in the 1990s? Without Pippen, is there a statue of Jordan outside the United Center?” – David Haugh, Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2010
In 1987 Michael Jordan had just finished his third season with the Chicago Bulls and the organization found itself at a crossroads. It had confidence in first year head coach Doug Collins and though the Bulls possessed Michael Jordan, they remained a mediocre team. In 1987 the Bulls won forty games for the first time in six seasons and Michael Jordan had put up the best numbers of his career, but despite optimism, players, coaches, and the front office knew the Bulls could not be a true contender unless the 1987 offseason yielded more talented players. On June 19, 1984 the Chicago Bulls breathed new life into their franchise when they drafted Michael Jordan but while that pick thirty years ago was important, the more important draft came in 1987 that, through a combination of front office skill, luck, and chance, brought help from an unlikely place and set the Bulls on a trajectory that resulted in six championships in the 1990s.
The Bulls’ singular goal for the summer of 1987 was finding a scorer to take pressure off of Michael Jordan and diversify the offense. They had what many considered an excellent coach in Doug Collins who had been superb with what Jordan called “on paper…the worst talent around.” Plus, possession of Michael Jordan brought with it a sense of urgency best described by Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune who viewed goal of 46 wins in 1987-88 as not aggressive enough and that too much patience would waste “Collins’ vigor or Jordan’s magnificence.”
“Decisions are forthcoming. Is there a scorer out there in draft land? Can a big man be bought, begged for or stolen from another NBA team?…” – Bob Verdi, Chicago Tribune April 30, 1987
Scottie Pippen’s basketball story began in Hamburg, Arkansas where at just over 6 feet tall, he played point guard at Hamburg High School and though he led his team to the playoffs he was not offered any college scholarships. Pippen walked on at the University of Central Arkansas where coach Don Dyer kept him in the program as a manager as a favor to Pippen’s high school coach, Donald Wayne. While at Central Arkansas Pippen began to grow, eventually hitting 6’8″ and weighing 205 lbs. He averaged 24 points per game and 10 rebounds during his senior season, but since UCA was in the NAIA his success went largely unnoticed by NBA scouts. Pippen’s career path began turing toward Chicago in 1986 when Arch Jones, an assistant coach at the Central Arkansas, called Marty Blake, an NBA scout who, after seeing Pippen play, invited him to pre-draft camps. It was at these camps where Pippen’s impressive skills caught the eyes of the Bulls’ Jerry Krause, who was in his second year as head of basketball operations, and the rest of the NBA.
“I don’t know if we’ll do it through the draft , if we have to make trades, or sign free agents. Whatever is best for the situation. One thing I don’t believe in is giving up the future for immediate, short-range goals.” -Jerrry Krause Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1987
The draft took place on June 22, 1987. The David Robinson draft as it was called, was not supposed to be especially deep and in Chicago much of the conversation involved using their picks to trade for another scorer that could contribute immediately. However, Jerry Krause became captivated with Pippen who soon began moving to the top of Chicago’s draft board. Jerry Riensdorf remembered being confident that Pippen would be around by the time the Bulls drafted but as his stock rose the Bulls went into “panic mode” trying to move up in the draft. Jerry Krause worked late into the night before the draft and eventually secured a deal with Seattle who agreed to draft Pippen with their fifth pick and switch with Chicago who would draft Olden Polynice at number eight. The Bulls secured all of their major targets in the ’87 draft, which included Clemson forward Horace Grant, another central component of the first three-peat. The organization received universal praise for their success from players, coaches, and other NBA teams, and Bob Sakamoto in the Chicago Tribune, reported that Jerry Reinsdorf bought multiple bottles of champagne in the middle of the evening.
“This was Krause’s shining hour, his finest moment. After a week of never-ending phone conversations and countless trade proposals, the Bulls operations chief pulled off the league’s coup of the day.” – Bob Sakamoto, Chicago Tribune June, 23, 1987
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 draft and for Bulls fans the pick that brought Michael Jordan to their team cannot be under celebrated, but if the organization laid the foundation for the Bulls dynasty in 1984, the 1987 draft built the castle from which the Bulls ruled the NBA for the better part of a decade. The Bulls had a lot of options in the summer of 1987 but they chose to take their chances on a rookie and for a while success was up in the air. Pippen did not immediately become a superstar and it was another four years before the Jordan/Pippen duo produced Chicago’s first championship. In addition, the unlikely union between Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan had more to do with chance than with planned offseason moves by a skilled front office. Pippen’s journey from a walk-on at a small college to a lottery pick in the draft required a little luck along the way, especially since Pippen would have missed his senior season, perhaps never getting noticed, due to a stress fracture in his femur if it were not for a second opinion that cleared him to play. As far as the draft was concerned the Seattle trade could have fallen apart as reported in the Tribune,
“Lady luck was wearing a Bulls uniform all day. Seattle wanted either Nevada-Las Vegas forward Armon Gilliam or Georgetown forward Reggie Williams. If either were available when the Sonics picked fifth, the deal was off. -Bob Sakamoto, Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1987
The path that took Scottie Pippen from Conway, Arkansas to the Chicago Bulls was an unlikely one, full of as many plot twists as a hollywood script and any slight change in fortune could have sent both Pippen and Jerry Krause into obscurity while leaving the Bulls and Michael Jordan with much less hardware. In an alternate, Pippen-less universe Bulls fans would be on Twitter right now debating how Jerry Krause could have traded picks for Tom Chambers or signed the 7’4″ free agent center from Houston Ralph Sampson. Likewise, if Pippen had failed to emerge as a viable sidekick to Jordan, the vilification of Jerry Krause could have started years earlier as the guy that left Reggie Miller on the board while he wasted time securing a trade for an unproven college player who had a few good pre-draft workouts. In the end, the stars aligned and the Bulls, with Jordan and Pippen at the helm, would win six titles in eight years, breaking records along the way. For most Bulls fans the 1984 draft might always be the most celebrated, but while we revel in the event that brought Michael Jordan and celebrate the success thereafter, lets not forget the draft twenty-seven years ago that made it all possible.
Follow Lee Winningham on Twitter @jlw771