We all know the incredible talent and ease Michael Jordan had to trash-talk his rivals (and even teammates), as he almost made trash-talking an art. MJ not only did kill you with his game, he always tried to get under your skin and make you lose it. That was the Jordan way to beat his rivals and make it clear he was on a mission: destroy you.
However, when MJ didn’t deliver, he had the perfect tag-team partner to back him up, Scottie Pippen. Pippen and Jordan is arguably the greatest duo in NBA history, taking the Chicago Bulls to the promised land six times. In the 1997 NBA Finals, though, Pippen stepped up during a time when everybody thought Jordan was lost and had lost the first game of the series.
ESPN’s David Fleming recalls how Scottie came to the Bulls rescue during that series, delivering probably the greatest thrash-talk like in the history of the Finals.
With 35.8 seconds left in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz, the greatest player in NBA history actually just bricked what should have been the winning free throw. And now, for roughly 26 seconds, the basketball world is in chaos: Jordan is, for the time being, Err Jordan, a lowercase goat, and the voters who had narrowly selected Utah forward Karl Malone over Michael (986-957) for league MVP seem to have gotten it right. Meanwhile, the Jazz are poised to steal Game 1 along with home-court advantage, and Chicago’s fifth title and eventual second three-peat are suddenly in jeopardy.
And then, to the rescue steps Scottie Pippen. A future Hall of Famer, at this point Pippen remains something of an introvert, the guy who shrank from this exact kind of late-game spotlight in the 1990 and 1994 playoffs. But with 9.2 seconds left and Malone at the foul line with a chance to seal the win, Pippen conjures and delivers the single greatest line of trash talk in sports history.
During that first game, Karl Malone was an absolute beast, he was going off on the Bulls, dropping 23 points, 15 rebounds, 3-of-4 from the line. Malone, the Mailman, led the NBA in made free throws eight times, and in 1996-97 he led the league in free throws (521) and free throws attempted (690). Yet, that didn’t mean he taking a free-throw was the end of the game for the Bulls or the Jazz.
The people in Chicago made their job, too, preparing the stage for Scottie Pippen, who would end the Jazz’s chances to win the game.
“I used to say that 19,911 people could not make more noise than Jazz fans did, and it was like that in Chicago too. When Karl walked to the line, it was deafening in that stadium. My ears rang for days.” Brad Rock, Deseret News columnist, wrote.
“When Karl steps to the line, it was like Tupac’s song “All Eyez on Me”: You’ve got the whole world looking at you right there, right then. You’re on an island all by yourself,” Jason Caffey, Bulls forward said.
If there was a time for Scottie to appear in crunch time, this was it. The forward had been criticized for his behavior in prior years, creating controversies when his team most needed him.
Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune wrote:
“Scottie had so many tribulations in the playoffs. It was a rare opportunity for everybody to write about Scottie and quote Scottie with something humorous and elevated and something other than, “I’ve got a migraine” or the 1.8 seconds of “I’m not playing because Toni Kukoc got the shot” or how Scottie wasn’t a finisher and he never made the last shot. Nationally, that stuff was always hung around Scottie. So for him to provide this final blow to set up Michael, this was almost the perfect example of the way they were the ultimate tag team, the way they fit together: Scottie with the great one-liner and Michael with the last shot.”
With the game and probably the fate of the series on the line, Pippen stepped up and told a simple but strong message to Malone, who saw how the game and the series slipped through his hands after that missed free-throw.
Before taking his spot on the right block for Malone’s first free throw, Pippen slid past him at the line, pausing just long enough to deliver the six greatest words in trash-talk history.
Pippen: I just whispered in his ear, “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.”
Malone’s routine goes off without a hitch. Dribble. Twirl. Catch. Twirl. Catch. Bounce. “This is for Kay and the baby.” So far in the 1997 playoffs, Malone has made 78% of his free throws. And for his career, he turns out to be a 77% free throw shooter on Sundays — highest of any day of the week. But after digesting Pippen’s line, all the kinetic smoothness seems to drain from Malone’s motion. With a locked elbow, he jerks the ball off his fingertips and it clanks badly off the back right side of the rim, bouncing halfway down the left baseline.
Pippen immediately steps in front of Malone in the paint, apparently to remind him of what just happened. The Mailman scoffs back, “Yeah, yeah,” before walking away, hands on hips, toward half court to compose himself.
After that, everything was set up for the Bulls to take the lead and win the game, which they did with Scottie helping Jordan, who didn’t miss his chance to end the Jazz’s hopes.
Pippen inbounds the ball above the arc to Kukoc and sets a screen for Jordan coming up from the left block. At the top of the key with 1.7 seconds left, Utah’s Bryon Russell swats at the ball with his right hand, leaving him off balance, now totally at Jordan’s mercy. Jordan glides left to the top of the Bulls logo and elevates from 21 feet. The shot is so pure the net barely shivers. Jordan assumes his classic game-winner pose — upper lip tucked in, right fist punching air — when Pippen, the one who made it all possible, arrives and wraps him in his arms.
That has to be one of the greatest trash-talk lines ever. No doubt about it. Pippen changed the course of history with those words. The Bulls won their 5th NBA championship and that allowed them to have ‘The Last Dance’ the next season.