Jordan talks with teammate Scottie Pippen during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers in 1992.
'Horrible': Scottie Pippen blasts Michael Jordan on podcast
00:58 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the founder of the late sports website Deadspin. He is the author of six books, including the new novel “The Time Has Come.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Basketball legend Scottie Pippen just can’t let it go. The Hall of Fame forward, who won six titles with the Chicago Bulls, came out last week and blasted none other than Michael Jordan, widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time and the man Pippen won those six titles right alongside.

Will Leitch

On a podcast hosted by his fellow former Bulls teammate Stacey King (who was only around for three of those six titles), Pippen cut loose on Jordan in an unprecedented way — downright vicious, really. “I’ve seen Michael Jordan play before I came to the Bulls. You guys have seen him play,” Pippen told King Friday. “He was horrible to play with. It was all 1-on-1, shooting bad shots. All of a sudden, we become a team and we start winning. Everybody forgot who he was. He was a player who was really not at the top of his category. It was scoring.”

It should be said that there is a little bit of truth to this — but just a little. Jordan was known more for scoring than winning before players like Pippen joined the Bulls, but the reason for this was less Jordan being selfish and more Jordan being surrounded by terrible players (like, ahem, King) and thus understanding the only chance his team had at winning was him personally trying to score every point. Jordan became a better player because he had better players around him, which makes him like every other human who has ever played any sport, ever.

Pippen’s comments were yet another example of his increasing crankiness in his post-playing career. (A post-playing career that has been going on for nearly two decades; Pippen, now 57 years old, retired in 2004.) In the wake of ESPN’s monster-ratings documentary series “The Last Dance” — which seems to have particularly stuck in the former forward’s craw — Pippen called Jordan’s attitude toward him in the documentary “condescending” and maintained that Jordan “demeaned” him by not giving him the appropriate credit for the Bulls’ dominance.

Previously, Pippen has not been shy in his criticism of teammates or other NBA players. For example, he said it was a disappointment, during a late-career run with the Houston Rockets, to play with a “diminished” Charles Barkley, that LeBron James doesn’t have the “clutch gene” and that his former coach Phil Jackson was “racist.” (Jackson never formally responded to this accusation, but many of Jackson’s former players, most notably Shaquille O’Neal, leapt to Jackson’s defense.)

Pippen’s greatness as a basketball player was largely underappreciated when he was active and is perhaps even more so now. Pippen played with the sort of wide-open, triple-threat style that’s more prominent in today’s game, and he was terrific the year after Jordan retired – he nearly won a title himself that first season, and how differently we would talk about him now if he had. Unfortunately (if understandably), he appears to have become increasingly embittered as he enters into his golden years at the same time that his and his fellow 1990s NBA stars’ legacies are debated.

Pippen, unlike Barkley or Shaq, who is also his contemporary, does not have NBA television shows to use as a global platform. So his every utterance seems designed to earn him splashy headlines for aggregated news stories.

Jordan, who is smart enough not to engage these comments, or really anyone’s, is able to stay above it all. Besides, he surely knows better than anyone else that it’s just sort of Scottie being Scottie. So the real question may be why we let ourselves get drawn in every time, rather than why he can’t let go of his former court rivalries.

There is something about the life of a retired star athlete that is inherently sad. These are men and women who have been raised since they were children to do one specific thing, all the time, every day, at the highest level. They do this in front of the whole world to endless acclaim and incredible fortune for every minute of their life until, usually sometime in their 30s, their bodies break down. So they retire. And that, right there, is almost always the only thing we will ever know them for.

Pippen has been retired for almost 20 years — two more years than his entire NBA career lasted — and just about the only time any of us have ever thought about Pippen in those 20 years is when he has commented on his playing career. It’s a bummer, when you think about it, to be only in your mid-30s and reach the point in your life when the only thing you will ever be remembered for has already happened.

Scottie Pippen is no longer a basketball player. He’s a man in his late 50s grousing about his co-workers from two decades ago. He is a man stuck in his own past.

Get our free weekly newsletter

• Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
• Join us on Twitter and Facebook

Of course, even if sad, it’s reasonable for retired players to constantly think about The Way Things Were. But there’s no reason the rest of us should. Our nostalgia for that era, brilliantly dramatized by “The Last Dance,” keeps bringing us back to it, continues to make us try to recontextualize it, to add intrigue and “controversy.” This is not because there is some new angle we hadn’t seen before. It’s because we don’t want to let go; we don’t want those memories to die. The Bulls of the 1990s were incredible, and hypnotic. That’s why so many of us watched a 10-hour documentary about them 25 years later, after all.

Getting all fired up about Pippen going after Jordan — to grasp at every straw we can — is to try to make that past feel more current than it actually is. It’s hard to blame Pippen for hanging onto his last moments of relevance, but it shouldn’t be so hard for us not to. There’s a great game happening on the court right now, with today’s players making new memories every night. Pippen has to live in the past. We don’t have to.