Frank Thomas says his forced departure from the White Sox could have been handled better, but how? Should the Sox have retired his number on the spot? Should they have had a shivery ceremony at The Cell in December? Designed a parade route? Asked that government offices be closed?
No. It doesn't work that way in sports, which brings us to Scottie Pippen, who represents the answer to painful goodbyes: time. Time not only heals all wounds, it actually has been known to warm a frozen heart or two.
Time has been very, very good to Pippen, and that was to be on display last night at the United Center when the Bulls were to retire his number and raise his jersey to the rafters, right near Michael Jordan's, where it belongs. Time and its cousin, distance, have allowed appreciation for Pippen to grow.
Since he left the Bulls in 1998 - angrily, I might add - very few NBA players have consistently been able to match Pippen's overall game. Who scores, passes, runs the floor and defends the way he did? Maybe a handful. Kobe Bryant. Kevin Garnett. Tracy McGrady, some nights. Dwyane Wade? Who else? Somebody help me here.
We knew Pippen was great when he was a Bull, but Jordan, The Best Who Ever Was, overshadowed him. That tends to happen when you're playing with a human eclipse. But better to be overshadowed by a Jordan than a Shawn Kemp, I always say.
In 1996, the NBA named Pippen one of its 50 greatest players of all time. There was much debate about whether he belonged on the list or whether he was an offshoot of Jordan's greatness, a pale reflection of MJ's brilliance.
And I questioned it, too, especially when Pippen went to Houston and Portland and was merely good. But he was in his 12th year when the Bulls traded him to the Rockets and starting to show signs of wear. It was true that he wasn't playing with Jordan anymore. But when he got to Portland, he was playing with Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Ruben Patterson and the rest of the prison team.
The better gauge of what Pippen was came in 1993-94, after Jordan had retired to chase a baseball. Pippen averaged career highs in scoring (22 points per game) and rebounding (8.7). The Bulls won 55 games.
Time has helped quiet the debate about Pippen's place in history as players have come and gone. Time and distance, Frank. Time and distance.
The difficulties fade. The attitude softens. Pippen had his share of problems on and off the court, just as Thomas has had his share on and off the field. We all can cite Pippen's past transgressions, the biggest being his refusal to come back on the court with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game because the final play wasn't designed for him. There were paternity suits and a bitter split from the Bulls.
But those are not the first things that come to mind anymore. What comes to mind is how hard he played. What comes to mind is a 6-foot-8-inch forward bringing the ball up court. What comes to mind is a player who averaged almost two steals a game.
The other day, Pippen said he wanted to be remembered for the suffocating defense he played, and somewhere, Bulls coach Scott Skiles was getting weepy at the sentiment. Sometimes Skiles can't get Ben Gordon even to acknowledge the existence of the defensive end of the court.
The Bulls brought back Pippen for the 2003-04 season as a player/father figure, and I thought it was crazy, given his checkered past. But he turned out to be a positive influence.
Say what you want about Bulls and Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, but he treats former players well. If Thomas waits a bit, he will find that out. He's upset now about the way his career in Chicago ended, the way most veterans are upset when they're told it's over.
And say what you want about Pippen, but he was one of the few people who didn't try to grab credit for the Bulls' six NBA titles. While Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause played tug-of-war over the past, Pippen understood that it was Jordan who deserved most of the credit. But more than that, Pippen was comfortable with what he was and what he had accomplished. He knew where he fit in the equation and what he had meant to the franchise.
Last night, as the Bulls played host to Jackson's Lakers, Pippen's jersey would have fit perfectly alongside Jordan's. He will be home. It's about time.