Pippen Ain’t Easy: Scottie’s underrated shoe game

As ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary captures the imagination of a basketball community removed from live games, a new generation of fans will come to realize how under-appreciated Scottie Pippen was on those Chicago Bulls teams. Cast as the diminutive Robin next to MJ’s Batman, it was perhaps inevitable, but make no mistake, Pippen was an all timer. There was a saying in NBA circles at the time (“Pippen ain’t easy”) that obviously played on a similar, less wholesome phrase but that seemed to capture the spirit of giving Pippen the credit he deserved.

Arguably the best perimeter defender to have ever played basketball, able to lock up the league’s best across all five positions given the need. He balanced this with a smooth offensive game, capable of switching from point forward, to open floor locomotive, to pure scorer if the team needed it.

If you want to know what an unleashed Pippen was capable of, you only need to look at his play during MJ’s baseball sabbatical. In the 1993-94 season, Pippen led the Bulls in points, rebounds, assists and was second in the NBA in steals. He was the All-Star MVP and finished third in MVP voting for the regular season – the only perimeter player to appear in a top five of Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing.

But the disrespect didn’t stop with his on court performance. In an age of super hyped re-releases of classic kicks, how the Pippen line hasn’t been more hyped or given a fully marketed re-release schedule baffles me.

Before he had a true signature line, Pippen was the face of several named lines such as the Air Flights. In my opinion the Air Flight Lites are some of the most under-appreciated retro sneakers. Some of the best shoes associated with Scottie actually came before the signatures.

Nike Air Flight Lite

While the Jordan commercials are (rightly) still lauded today as exceptional, Pippen also had some “sky and mighty” tv spots.

We were also gifted a line in another commercial that took basketball philosophy to the next level. “I jam, therefore, I am”.

As a side note, away from Nike’s influence, Scottie didn’t have the greatest track record with commercials.

After the Flights, Pippen also became the face of the Uptempo series. The Uptempo 95 made history, often cited as the first Nike shoe with full-length visible Air cushioning. The campaign for the shoe focused on making sure it was known that this was “the most Nike Air cushioning we’ve ever put into one sole”.

Nike Uptempo 95

The Nike More Uptempos that came afterwards became truly iconic. With their brash, unapologetic design they were delightfully 1990s in aesthetic. They also were a strong representation of Nike – an ascendent brand that was becoming the increasingly clear winner of the “sneaker wars”.

Nike More Uptempo

While many thought the huge lettering was gaudy and classless, it was also unmissable on a TV screen. Apparently inspired by Andy Warhol’s pop art, Pippen put that lettering on the biggest possible stage as part of ‘Dream Team II’ at the 1996 Olympics.

Pippen during the 1996 Olympics

Clearly convinced by Pippen’s ability to sell shoes by this point, Nike then launched his signature line. While acknowledging everyone’s tastes differ, I think the first was the best. Not only featuring a logo for Pippen himself for the first time, the wave design feature on the side of the shoe also was a subtle indication of his playing number (33). These shoes took what had made the Uptempo series so successful and refined them into a classic.

Nike Air Pippen

The Pippen line continued until the end of his career, with some nice looks, but for me, the original signature was the best.

As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, the Pippen sneaker line evolved. It became less bulky, lighter and shifted towards something more recognizable as a performance shoe today. Ahead of its time? Just like Scottie. But those big, brash, obnoxious 1990s joints were the ones for me.

What’s your favourite shoe from Pippen’s career? Picking ain’t easy.