Too many stats, not enough anecdotes make ‘Unguarded’ a thin recipe of revenge
Dear Michael Jordan,
I resent you. I resent you a lot. We were teammates and we won six championships together, but we’ve never been friends, and we never will…
No, this is not how Scottie Pippen’s book begins, but it should.
Let’s backtrack. Back in the beginnings of the pandemic, much of the world tuned to ESPN’s The Last Dance, which chronicled the Chicago Bulls’ two three peats in the 90s. Meanwhile, Pippen watched in horror–and stewed. Last Dance focused mainly on MJ and relegated himself and his former teammates, to mere footnotes. Last Dance was MJ’s universe and everyone else was allowed to exist in it, even Pippen, a two-time Dream Teamer and NBA Hall of Famer.
Unguarded is Pippen’s answer to Last Dance, his chance to set the record straight.
In Unguarded, Pippen reiterates that basketball is a team game, and that the Bulls of the 90s were not a one man show. Of course, MJ was the undisputed star who scored the most – and took the most shots as Pippen pointedly notes. But there were other crucial players like Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman and himself, among others, who did the little things like set picks, block out and fetch rebounds which made the championships possible. Ultimately, Pippen claims that he was a better all-around player than Jordan. He also claims that he was a better teammate. MJ believes that the Bulls succeeded because he bullied his teammates into being champions. Pippen snaps back that they succeeded in spite of this.
Pippen doesn’t restrict his resentments to MJ. Here are just a few of his other targets. Pippen resents the Bulls organization, specifically GM Jerry Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf who he believes underappreciated him, not paying him nearly enough and often placed him on the trading block. He resents Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer for their dirty play. And he resents Phil Jackson, his longtime coach, for not allowing him to have his MJ moment, which was prominently featured in Last Dance. Let’s step back once again. In 1994, Jordan had retired after his father’s tragic murder and was off playing baseball.
Alas, the Bulls were Pippen’s team.
In a crucial playoff game, the Bulls and the Knicks were knotted with 1.8 seconds left on the clock. The Bulls were inbounding for the final shot, and Pippen figured his coronation moment had arrived. Hold on, not so fast. Jackson wrote up a play, calling for Toni Kukoc – someone who had a knack for such heroics – to take the shot. Pippen was appalled and wound up sitting out the play. Kukoc hit the game-winning shot. Now, Pippen is horrified that this episode is included in Last Dance. Pippen believes that this segment doesn’t advance the story and that MJ kept it in just to make him look bad. Pippen remains unapologetic.
Unguarded doesn’t tip off in such hostile territory. Pippen began his journey in Hamburg, a small Arkansas town. Pippen’s family didn’t have much and his innocence didn’t last long. His father and his brother, one of Pippen’s many siblings, were both wheelchair-bound. As far as basketball, he wasn’t one of the chosen. He had to walk on to his college basketball team. Pippen is easy to root for.
After he begins his NBA ascent, Unguarded feels, well, very guarded. Pippen barely mentions his children. We relive an awful lot of games and there’s a lot of who scored and who didn’t. It’s fine if you’re a basketball junkie, but if you’re not, it often feels like the grind of an NBA season.
Besides Pippen’s resentments, we don’t get a lot of inside cheddar on what it was like to be on one of the greatest sports franchises with arguably the greatest player. Sure, MJ was a win-at-all-costs type, as he freely admits–but Unguarded is frustratingly sparse on details, anecdotes and insights. As far as revealing personal details, Pippen doesn’t really go there. Even after Unguarded, Pippen remains what he doesn’t want to be: a shadow.
Ultimately, Unguarded is a missed opportunity and doesn’t do justice to Pippen’s Hall of Fame career.