Ren has been asking me to write something for Dat Winning for a long time. So I figured what better way to contribute to the blog than by intersecting the two things I love the most anyway, namely, the NBA and superhero comics.
As you can see to your left, Dat Winning and The Nerds of Color are going to be companion sites going forward. At the NOC, a group of us blog about all things pertaining to comics, movies, and TV. It’s pop culture with a different perspective. But since we don’t really cover sports, that’s when I’ll pop up over here (and the occasional Joy Dunk Club ep too).
Anyway, for my debut on DW, I wanted to talk about the four figures that most informed my growing up: Batman, Superman, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen.
I originally wrote this when Scottie Pippen had his #33 retired and hung from the rafters of United Center. I did so because in the buildup to Scottie’s retirement ceremony, all of the retrospectives and tributes to Pippen focused on his partnership with Michael Jordan.
I’m not here to debate Pippen’s place in the annals of basketball history; instead, I want to focus on a misplaced analogy many sportswriters and talking heads have always used to describe the Jordan/Pippen tandem.
For decades now, articles commemorating Pippen’s career always refer to him as the ultimate sidekick. The Robin to Jordan’s Batman. And the title of “Dynamic Duo” actually followed the two throughout their career. And while Jordan and Pippen were indeed a “dynamic duo,” the Batman & Robin analogy just never worked for me. I guess it’s the fanboy in me, but the implication that Pip was Robin doesn’t do justice to the role he actually served on those six championships. Pippen wasn’t Jordan’s “sidekick” so much as he was his complement. He had skills that Jordan didn’t have but were able to blend into his game. Rather, I always saw the two as the “World’s Finest,” the moniker given to the two greatest superheroes of all time: Superman and Batman.
Pippen, you see, is the Batman to Jordan’s Superman (with apologies to Shaq and D12).
Batman is the alter ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne, who became the Dark Knight in an effort to rid his city of crime. After losing his parents on the streets of “Crime Alley” in a botched robbery attempt as a child, Wayne vowed to avenge his parents’ murder and eventually became the Batman to instill fear in the hearts of criminals. Flash forward 20 years and Wayne has mentally and physically trained himself to be the only superhero without any super powers. Only through sheer will and cunning is he able to become the caped crusader.
Some years later, the young acrobat Dick Grayson also witnesses the murder of his parents as a result of a mob deal gone bad. The Flying Graysons are murdered in the middle of a circus act, with Bruce Wayne in attendance. Seeing that young Dick Grayson is in the same position Wayne was as a child, the billionaire offers to take in the now-orphaned acrobat and decides to give his young ward a path toward heroism. Through hard work, training, and dedication, Bruce is able to mold Grayson into his crime fighting partner.
So without Batman, there would never have been a Robin. Who knows how Dick Grayson would have developed without the presence of Batman to guide him along the way?
Many may argue this is reminiscent of the Jordan/Pippen relationship. That it was the years of tutelage in practice that made Pippen into one of the best all-around players to play the game. There’s probably some truth in that. But you don’t become the fifth pick in the draft (especially coming out of Central Arkansas!) without having some talent of your own. Like Bruce Wayne, Scottie Pippen willed himself into being one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time through sheer hard work and dedication. I suspect Scottie would have still become a great NBA player had he stayed in Seattle and was never traded to the Bulls. (Coincidentally, so did Bleacher Report).
I think Scottie more than proved himself to be a capable NBA player without Michael Jordan by his side. Hell, he should’ve been the MVP during the 1993-94 season — the season after Jordan’s first retirement — since he single-handedly led a totally revamped Bulls team to a 55-win season and was one bad call away from taking his team to the Eastern Conference Finals and subsequently the Finals. In 2000, Pippen got even closer to the Finals until his Blazers self-destructed in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Many people like to point out that Pippen never won a championship without Michael. But he’s definitely come a lot closer than Michael ever has without Scottie.
Though this is not to belittle Michael Jordan. God knows I’d never do that. For all intents and purposes, Jordan is Superman. His athletic abilities (or should I say super powers?) are inherent. He flies through the sky at ease and saves the day at the end of games. He was also the public face of the Bulls and the NBA itself. Like Superman, Jordan was the ultimate superhero of the NBA and his name ultimately became the metaphor for greatness beyond basketball. You know, like how anyone who excels at his or her particular field is called “the Michael Jordan of…” said trade. As in “Rust Cohle is the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch.”
Conversely, this makes Scottie Pippen even more like Batman. Whereas Superman does his acts of heroism in broad daylight to the cheers of thousands of adoring fans, Batman mainly operates in the shadows.
The citizens of Gotham aren’t even sure he exists, preferring to think that stories of the Batman are just urban legend, and he prefers it that way. Similarly, Scottie always operated better underneath Jordan’s undeniable shadow. That way, opponents never knew what hit them. Just as the Justice League relies on Batman’s cunning and intellect to bring down their enemies, so too did the Bulls unleash Scottie as their secret defensive weapon. Need to shut down Magic Johnson, the greatest point guard to ever play the game? Sic Scottie on him like in the 1991 NBA Finals. Remember who led the Bulls’ rally from 15 points down in the 4th of Game 6 of the 1992 Finals while MJ cheered on from the bench? When the Bulls were desperate for a defensive stop in Game 7 against the Knicks in 1993, who blocked Charles Smith’s layup attempts? Twice?! To me, Pip’s enduring legacy is that he actually made defense fun to watch.
Moreover, Pippen’s demeanor also more closely resembled the dark and brooding Batman. Sullen and contemplative, Pippen never received all the accolades and praise that was showered on Jordan. However, his skills were recognized by his peers and basketball aficionados. In 1996, Scottie Pippen was deservedly named one of the 50 Greatest Players of all time though he never led the league in scoring or rebounds or assists, most purists recognized his skills went beyond the stat sheet.
Even non-comic fans understand and perceive Superman and Batman as equals. This despite the fact that one is a super-powered alien from Krypton, while the other is no more than a well-funded human being with a lot of will and determination. Still, no other two fictional characters have ever had such a profound effect on the zeitgeist of popular culture.
Similarly, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are equals in more ways than many people imagine. When they were in their primes, during the championship seasons, these two forces were arguably the two best players in the game.