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Pippen, the other Bull, has come into his own

MIAMI - Three years ago, Scottie Pippen would not have thought all this to be possible. He played his college basketball at Central Arkansas, an NAIA school, for goodness sakes. Recruited as a 6-foot-1 point guard, Pippen grew into a 6-8 point forward.

But here he is, three years later, starting for the Chicago Bulls and three days removed from his first NBA All-Star Game.

"I guess this is something that most people look at as a longshot," Pippen said during All-Star Weekend in Miami.

"There's always the thought in the back of your mind: 'Does everybody think that?' It's sort of settling in on me that I'm an All-Star player."

If the Bulls are indeed Michael Jordan's team, then where does that leave Pippen, who is second on the team in scoring, steals, assists and first in blocked shots?

Like everyone else, Pippen shakes his head in wonder when Jordan makes one of his lunar leaps to the basket. But Pippen also knows that Jordan can't do it by himself, all the time, 82 regular-season games a year.

Finally, Pippen said, the other Bulls' players are becoming secure enough to fill in for Jordan when the superstar's load becomes too heavy.

Pippen, only 24, has become one of Chicago's new take-charge players.

"Michael's been a great leader for the team," Pippen said, "but I think it's become more of a team thing. The team I came to in my rookie year, there's more maturity now. Everybody is on a different level and looking to take the big shot.

"There are a lot of situations where we do want the ball in Michael's hands," Pippen said, "but we've got guys that want to step up on the court. Everybody has a lot of confidence in each other."

Chicago, which plays the Orlando Magic tonight at sold-out Orlando Arena, is currently second behind Detroit in the Central Division. To have any chance for their first division title since 1974-75, the Bulls must play more as a unit.

Which means more of Pippen and Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright - and less of Jordan. The more Jordan has the ball, the easier it becomes to defense the Bulls.

Of course, Jordan makes a great fourth or fifth option when the shot clock is ticking down. And he's probably the best first option in the league.

Top secret, this is not. The Bulls, for better or worse, are committed to becoming a team that can advance beyond the first or second round of the playoffs. In other words, a team that can win without Jordan at his best.

"We're a team beginning to get some years behind us," Pippen said. "We're getting used to playing together."

Pippen, who averages 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists a game, has become essential to the Bulls' success.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," said Pippen, who was selected by Seattle in the first round of the 1987 draft, then traded for Olden Polynice and a draft choice. "I feel more relaxed, everything seems so different than two years ago. I have a different feel for the game."

Two years ago, Pippen would have passed up an open shot and passed instead to Jordan.

Not any more.

"Michael's been a great leader for the team," Pippen said. "But the team keeps growing and growing. Michael has all the honors he'll ever want and probably anyone will ever get. It's time for him to move to that next level and win a championship."

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