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Brett Favre appeared at Soldier Field this month like a figure out of the Iliad. In addition to taking the Pack to two Super Bowls and one championship since the Bears’ last title 20 years ago, Favre had beaten the Bears in front of their home fans 11 straight times. Yet this season found the Bears resurgent and the Packers on the wane, with Favre sometimes looking like the only real player left on his team. Bears fans had little sympathy; they wanted him laid low, preferably his carcass tied through the heels with ox hide and dragged across the stadium turf. When Favre led the blocking on an end around in the first half, was knocked to the ground, and got up patting the nearest Bears player on the rump, WBBM AM color analyst Tom Thayer, a former Bears guard, reacted with disdain. To adapt (Richard Lattimore’s) Homer, as there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions, but forever these hold feelings of hate for each other, so there can be no love between Bears and Packers.
Favre proved he was still dangerous, taking advantage of a roughing-the-passer penalty to march the Pack to a go-ahead touchdown early on. He refused to submit even after Mike Brown sacked him savagely in the first half and Charles “Peanut” Tillman blindsided him in the second. Grizzled, beaten, injured when he bashed his forearm on a helmet throwing a pass, he nevertheless fought on, and it took all that the Bears’ defense could muster to halt his Chicago win streak by a score of 19-7. At the end it seemed every player on each team was limping or favoring an arm or shoulder, and when the final gun sounded the Bears defenders, led by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, surrounded Favre–not to drag him across the turf, but to congratulate him. The fans might have wanted Favre, breaker of Bears, humiliated, but the players knew better.
Sometimes a great hero suffers but is ultimately absolved, like Oedipus at Colonus. Such is true of Scottie Pippen, whom the Bulls honored by retiring his number at the United Center last Friday. Pippen, a key player in the Bulls’ six championships–which dwarf the Bears’ 1985 title–was nagged for years by his early reputation for soft play, typified by his migraine in the seventh game of the Bulls’ playoff series with the Pistons in 1990; by his refusal to take the court with 1.8 seconds to go in a 1994 playoff series with the Knicks when coach Phil Jackson assigned the last shot to Toni Kukoc; and of course by the often repeated assertion that he simply rode Michael Jordan’s coattails. He was never the warmest or most eloquent of athletes, and fans tended to dwell on those shortcomings even in his best times.
At halftime of Friday’s game (which was little more than a sideshow that the Bulls were in the process of losing, to fall to 9-9 on the season), the sellout crowd roared as a figure emerged from a corner entryway. Pippen? No, it was Jordan, of course. But Pippen did get his due, first in taped remarks from old friend and rival Charles Barkley, acting the mixer when he said, “Michael Jordan should be kissing the ground that you walk on.” Jordan rolled his eyes and smiled, but when he addressed Pippen’s role in the way they drove each other to greatness, he all but acknowledged Barkley was right. Jackson, in town to coach the night’s opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers, gave a glimpse into the dynamics behind the scene when he said Pippen and Jordan played good cop/bad cop with teammates in practice: “Michael was giving the guys hell, and Scottie was patting them on the back.”
As usual, Pippen in the spotlight lacked Jordan’s flair for saying just the right thing at the right time, but it hardly mattered. The fans barely let him speak at all, so vociferous was their applause. Highlights from his career played at halftime and during time-outs throughout the evening. None was better than the sight of Pippen flying in over the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing to deliver a crushing slam dunk, swiping at Ewing as he tumbled to the ground and standing over him afterward like a victorious gladiator. It was a vision from 1994, the gutty mirror image to the 1.8-second misjudgment.
Those highlights aroused a cherished personal memory from the early days of the Bulls’ dynasty. It was a rare occasion when I happened to be seated in the front row of the press section on the floor, and Pippen was preparing to deliver an inbounds pass from the baseline. He was the smartest player I ever saw in terms of pure court sense, and Jackson typically assigned him to inbound the ball. At this moment, in a nothing game during the regular season, he turned to a ball boy sitting near the baseline and said, “Watch this.” Then he took the ball from the referee and made a perfectly timed alley-oop pass to Jordan for a slam. I felt as privileged as that ball boy to have been in on it–and as I watched Pippen last Friday I felt privileged anew to have watched him all those years. What a beautiful, intelligent, supremely skilled, and–in the end–driven and gritty player he was.
Last week was also the Chicago swan song for another great, Frank Thomas, formally set loose by the White Sox. No Greek tragedy, this simply reflected the current business of baseball. In a previous era he no doubt would’ve been kept on as a reward for services rendered, for he is probably the greatest hitter ever to play for the Sox. Yet when the Sox traded for designated hitter Jim Thome and re-signed first baseman Paul Konerko, no room was left for the “Big Hurt”–not for his salary nor his bat. Still, he hopes to play two more years and reach 500 homers, having finished the season with 448. He hit 12 in a mere 34 games this season, and the Sox were 24-10 in those games, so his teammates allowed him a full share of the championship pot. But at this point Thomas is a big man with weak bones in his feet–a bad risk–and over the years he’s developed a thorny relationship with both fans and teammates. Something of Albert Belle’s bad attitude seemed to rub off on him in the mid-90s, and a nasty divorce did nothing to improve his mood. Yet on Memorial Day, when he belatedly returned to the Sox, the fans welcomed him warmly, and I have no doubt that someday he’ll receive the same affirmation as Pippen. I only hope in the meantime he doesn’t sign with, say, the Minnesota Twins and become a nemesis along the lines of Brett Favre.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tom Hauck–Getty Images; Garrett W. Ellwood–NBAE via Getty Images; Jonathan Daniel–Getty Images.