Chapter 1: Hamburg CHAPTER 1: HAMBURG
I wish I experienced one of the idyllic childhoods so common in the small-town America of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But I didn’t.
I don’t recall the day when everything changed in our corner of the universe. All I know was that for the longest time my brother Ronnie, thirteen, wasn’t around to play anymore. He was in the hospital after being seriously injured in gym class. Attacked was more like it. I was three years old when it happened, the youngest of twelve.
Ronnie was waiting for class to start when, out of nowhere, this bully delivered a sucker punch in the middle of his back. He fell to the floor and was unable to get up. My sister Sharon, two years younger than Ronnie, rushed to his side when she found out, but the authorities quickly cleared the gym and didn’t allow anyone near him. The bully had been pushing Ronnie around in school for some time. Sharon urged him to fight back. He wouldn’t. That wasn’t who Ronnie was. I have never known a more gentle soul.
One day, after months in the hospital, he finally came home.
I remember feeling as if I were meeting my brother for the very first time. He was paralyzed from the neck down and would never walk again. Not until many years later did I learn the whole story of how my mother, Ethel Pippen, got Ronnie out of the hospital.
The hospital was a few hours from Hamburg. My parents visited him on the weekends. Mom had her hands full raising everyone, while my father, Preston Pippen, a veteran of World War II, cut logs at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Crossett, fifteen miles away, where they made toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. Everyone knew someone who worked at the mill. The mill had a distinct odor you could smell from anywhere in Hamburg. I can’t describe what the odor was like. Trust me, it was putrid.
Anyway, one Sunday when they arrived at the hospital, Mom and Dad were told they couldn’t see Ronnie. The doctors had put him in a new program and were concerned that if my parents continued to coddle him, Ronnie wouldn’t make any progress.
There is nothing wrong with your son’s back, the doctors told them. The problem is in his head. That is why he’s not walking.
The doctors had moved Ronnie from his bed in the main section of the hospital to the mental ward. Knowing Mom, who was tougher than any of the Bad Boys (the Detroit Pistons) from the late 1980s and early 1990s, I can easily imagine the look she gave the doctors when she found out what they had done. I saw that look many times growing up. It was scary.
“I’m not leaving the hospital without seeing my son,” she insisted.
“If we let you see him,” they warned her, “you will have to take him with you. We won’t want him anymore.”
No problem. Mom was more than happy to take Ronnie where he belonged. Home.
“Go ahead,” they finally agreed. “We don’t care. He is going to die anyway.”
“If he’s going to die anyway,” she said, “he’s going to die with me.”
My mother hardly ever brought up that day in the hospital. Whenever she did, she broke down. I wonder if a part of her might have feared the doctors were telling the truth.
Once Ronnie had been home for a while, we began to get a clearer picture of what they did to him at the hospital. No wonder he had nightmares for months.
Not from the accident itself. From how he was treated.
Every night, before going to sleep, we knew the nightmares were coming. We just didn’t know when. Ronnie would wake up in a sweat and start to scream. Mom along with my brothers and sisters did everything they could to get him to stop.
“You’ll never have to go back to that place,” they assured Ronnie.
After my brother calmed down, for the time being, Mom turned her attention to the rest of us. A number of my siblings had already moved out. Even so, there was still a lot of work to get done.
“You need to go back to sleep,” she would tell us. “You have got to get up early in the morning.”
No one woke up earlier than her. Lots of mornings, after I was five or six, she took off to clean other people’s houses. Every dime made a difference.
I only wish we had the money back then to go after the people who caused my poor brother so much harm. That includes the school, which should have disciplined the bully long before he attacked Ronnie. They did nothing.
The nurses at the hospital would leave a tray of food next to Ronnie’s bed, telling him he could feed himself whenever he wanted.
He couldn’t feed himself. He couldn’t move. He just lay there, helpless, hungry.
Ronnie was terrified of the dark. We had to keep the light on before he went to bed, turning it off once we were certain he had fallen asleep. After about a month, he grew secure enough to close his eyes with a small desk lamp on instead of requiring the light from the ceiling. His back was filled with ugly bedsores. Our task was to get them off and clean up the bed whenever he soiled himself.
Day by day, with a lot of effort and a lot of love, we all nursed him back to health—and I mean all of us.
We bathed him. We fed him. We helped him exercise. It took years, but we got Ronnie to where he could move around with two canes, earning the nickname Walking Cane. He learned how to ride to the grocery store on a specially fitted bicycle.
Now in his midsixties, Ronnie still lives in Hamburg on the same plot of land where he grew up. My sister Kim takes care of him. The nightmares are long gone. I see him as often as I can. He has inspired me like no one else. Ronnie had every right to give up, to curse the fate he was handed. He didn’t. He fought hard to build a productive and happy life. I’m not the biggest success story in the Pippen family. He is.
Ronnie kept believing in himself no matter what the obstacles were. He has spent many evenings on his precious CB radio, speaking for hours to truck drivers across America. That’s his bridge to the outside world.
I should probably hate the bully who did Ronnie and our family so much damage. I don’t. He was a kid, and kids do horrible things to one another. At the same time, I don’t understand why he or anyone in his family didn’t apologize to my brother or parents. Last year, the bully, who is still hanging around the area, reached out to see if he could visit Ronnie.
My brother wasn’t interested. I didn’t blame him. Too late to apologize now.
I have never asked Ronnie about the day in gym class or what they did to him in the hospital. I see no point in rehashing those painful times. For him, and for us.
Roughly ten years after Ronnie was attacked, my family was dealt another shock. That day I remember. All too well.
Dad was sitting on the sofa, enjoying his dinner. He liked nothing better than to watch a baseball game on television. He was a heck of a player in his day. By this time, Dad, who was about sixty, was on disability from the mill due to arthritis. The arthritis bothered him so much he would sit in his truck in the parking lot instead of on the bleachers when he showed up at my Little League baseball games.
On this particular night, Mom was at church down the block, rehearsing for a revival. Her faith meant the world to her.
All of a sudden, Dad dropped his plate and slumped toward the edge of the sofa. A deranged look was in his eyes and he was throwing up, food coming out of his nostrils. I didn’t know what to do. Kim, who had brought him his dinner, ran out to have a neighbor go to the church to find Mom, who made it home before the ambulance arrived.
Dad was having a stroke on the right side of his body. Somehow I assumed he would be fine. I was too young to understand what a stroke can do to a person. He would never be able to walk, or really speak again. He could say yes or no, but he couldn’t put together a full sentence, except, strangely enough, this one: “You know what I mean.” We never understood why that sentence and no others. He was aware of what had happened to him, and that had to be the cruelest part. I can’t imagine the despair and frustration he must have felt, day after day, a prisoner in his own body, no hope of escape.
Once again, everyone came together to help out in any way he or she could. Such is one of the countless blessings of belonging to a large, loving family.
We fed Dad, we carried him into the shower, and because he couldn’t control his bodily functions, we cleaned up his messes. Another brother lifted him as I slid a diaper underneath or vice versa. I wondered years later whether the back problems I suffered my first season in Chicago were from lifting weights or picking up Dad and Ronnie. Both were heavy.
Mom, as usual, knew how to handle the situation. She made sure Dad never felt left out of any gathering. He sat in his wheelchair with the rest of us at the dinner table, having learned how to feed himself. At times I almost forgot about his disabilities.
The strength Mom showed was remarkable. Her faith had a lot to do with it. Never once did she feel sorry for herself.
What good would that have done?
Her mother, Emma Harris, was even tougher. The word on the street was Grandma could work as hard as any man. I believed it. She, too, didn’t engage in self-pity. Perhaps it was from growing up in an era when black folks in the South didn’t complain about their fate. They simply accepted whatever the Good Lord gave them and did their best to improve their circumstances, one day at a time.
Mom grew up in Louisiana, picking cotton with her mama when she was a little girl. At the end of each year’s harvest, the owner of the farm was supposed to reward the workers with a bonus. One year, the bonus didn’t come, and they got by, barely, by eating food from their own garden.
In 1940, when she was sixteen, a hurricane caused flooding in much of the Southeast. Mom moved with her family to Arkansas. As a kid, I used to visit the relatives who stayed behind. I was always amazed that three families lived on one plantation. Our race had come a long way by the late sixties and early seventies, with desegregation, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. We still had a long way to go.
I was in eighth grade when Dad suffered his stroke. From then on, he could never be the father I needed him to be or show me what is required to be a man—a black man, especially, in a white world.
With guidance from my older brothers, I found my way, though the void I felt would remain no matter how hard I tried to fill it over the years with older men, black and white, whom I held in high regard. That included my basketball coaches in high school and college. I didn’t see them necessarily as father figures. Though, from each person, I picked up values that would mean so much to me for the rest of my life.
Also missing was the freedom other boys my age experienced.
Most days, when they returned home from school, they went out to play, to explore, to be… kids. There was no agenda other than having a good time. When I got home, I went to work, ready for whatever chore Mom or one of my brothers or sisters might have in store for me. Even my homework would often come in a distant second.
By any standard, we were poor. Our house when I was born in September of 1965 had only four bedrooms, and for many years we shared one bathroom. One of us might be at the sink, another in the tub, another on the toilet. No one gave it a second thought. For the longest time we didn’t have a phone. People would call Grandma, who lived next door, and she would come get us.
In spite of everything, I never felt poor. I felt blessed.
There was plenty of food on the table. We grew squash and corn and other vegetables in the garden and raised hogs and chickens. There was no shortage of love, either. Many black kids never had a father in their lives or a mother as devoted as Ethel Pippen was to her children.
Unlike many boys I knew, I stayed out of trouble. Mom made sure of it. When I wanted to go outside to play, I asked her first, and if one of the youngsters she saw me with mixed with the wrong crowd, I was told in no uncertain terms to avoid that kid from then on. Disobeying her was not an option.
Nor was missing curfew. When Mom locked the door to go to sleep, it would remain locked for the night. With another long day ahead, she wasn’t about to tolerate someone waking her up because the person failed to follow the rules. Sleep was the only break Mom got, and it never lasted long enough.
She was stricter with me than she was with my brothers and sisters. They didn’t have to go to Sunday school and church as I did. I resented it at times, feeling as if I were being punished by having to sing hymns and listen to sermons I didn’t understand while my friends were out playing. Looking back, I couldn’t be more grateful. The Lord is a powerful presence in my life today, and that’s because of her.
She wasn’t the only person who kept me in line. So did my brothers and sisters, and so did our neighbors. Someone’s eyes were always on me. If you screwed up in any way, the news of your mistake would beat you home. As the folks down the block used to tell me:
“You do that again and I’m going to tell your mama.”
I felt a wonderful sense of community in Hamburg. Everyone was always willing to help one another. When a friend needed a couple of bucks, I gave it to him and vice versa. Regardless of whether it was the only money either of us had.
Back then, people pretty much left you alone. If you didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother you.
With one exception that remains fresh in my mind more than forty years later.
It was June 1, 1979. Charles Singleton, twenty, a guy I knew from the neighborhood, was walking down the street in front of our house. I thought nothing of it. I used to run into Charles all the time. I would say hello and he would say hello back.
Charles was on his way to York’s Grocery Store, a half block away. I shopped at York’s just about every day. Mrs. York was a nice lady who let my family buy supplies on credit. She lived in a small house in back of the store.
Mrs. York was stabbed twice in the neck. She died in the hospital. Before she did, she told the police Charles was responsible. It blew me away to realize I had seen him only moments before he took the life of another human being.
Once word got around town, the police searched everywhere for Charles. Hamburg is a small place. He wouldn’t be able to hide for long.
Singleton was incarcerated for twenty-four years before he was executed in 2004.
While Charles was still at large, my brother Jimmy headed toward our front door. Jimmy had a light complexion, and in keeping with the times, had an Afro similar to Charles Singleton’s.
“Son, I don’t think you need to be going out there, because you’re looking like Charles Singleton,” Dad said. This was about a year before the stroke.
The key to avoiding trouble for someone of my color was simple: stay on your side of the tracks.
Yes, it’s a cliché. It also happened to be true.
In the cafeteria at our grade school, with few exceptions blacks sat with blacks, whites with whites—whites making up roughly two-thirds of the school population. It seemed normal to me.
My parents, you see, never sat me down for a long discussion on race in America. Nothing had to be said. It was understood.
No matter how many championships I have won, and millions I have earned, I never forget the color of my skin and that some people in this world hate me just because of that.
For a long time, I didn’t reflect on how my upbringing shaped me to be the person I am today. I focused on the future, not the past.
My approach these days is different. Being in my midfifties, I want to take a deeper look at why I made the decisions I did and what that might mean for me going forward.
Take the decision to sign the five-year, $18 million extension with the Bulls in June of 1991, a week or so before the franchise won its first championship. The ESPN documentary made me seem naïve given how much more money players would eventually earn under the revised collective bargaining agreement with the owners.
Do I wish I hadn’t signed the extension?
It cost me millions of dollars and had a negative effect on my relationship with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause for the rest of my time in Chicago. My mindset would have been entirely different. Who knows? I might have played my entire career with the Bulls.
That doesn’t mean I have any regrets. I made the decision with the information I was presented with at the time. I have no doubt it was the right decision for me.
I wasn’t like other players, white and black, who came from stable backgrounds. Because of what happened to my brother and father, I learned early on how everything in your life can be taken away without the slightest warning. I couldn’t afford the risk I would get injured and end up with nothing.
If I needed any reminders, I had only to consider the fate of former NFL wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who often sat behind our bench at Chicago Stadium.
Darryl, the first-round draft choice of the New England Patriots in 1973, was living his dream. Until he wasn’t. During an exhibition game in 1978 against the Oakland Raiders, he was hit by defensive back Jack Tatum, one of the most ferocious tacklers in pro football.
One hit is sometimes all it takes. Darryl would never walk again.
He and I became friendly in the early nineties. After games, we’d meet for dinner or a drink. He wanted to feel he was one of the guys in spite of his limitations. How well he adapted to his circumstances was more inspiring than anything he accomplished on the field. Darryl reminded me of my brother. I admired him tremendously and was deeply saddened when he passed away in 2007.
What I endured in my childhood also affected how open I was with other people. I could never be certain they wouldn’t leave me, whether they meant to or not. Developing trust takes time. Which explains why, except for my brothers and sisters, my best friends have always been my teammates. If I could count on them on the court, I could count on them in the areas of life that truly matter.
A basketball team is no different from a family, each person assigned a specific role. Failing to fulfill that role will have an adverse effect on everyone else. That was true in the Pippen household and on every team I played for in high school, college, and the pros. I could tell, almost instinctively, growing up in a different group of twelve, what each teammate needed at any moment. Just as I sensed what any of my brothers or sisters needed.
Maybe a pass to a shooter in his favorite spot to rebuild his confidence after missing a few.
Or a compliment after a coach, or Michael, was too hard on them for committing a turnover or failing to box out.
Or simply taking the time to listen to someone vent about one slight or another.
The interest in helping others went far beyond the basketball court. As I grew older, I found myself bonding with those who required the most nurturing.
One example is Amy Jones, the daughter of Arch Jones, one of my assistant coaches in college. When Amy was two, she bumped her head, which caused a blood clot on the frontal lobe of her brain. The doctors removed the clot, although it would lead to Amy’s being developmentally disabled for the rest of her life.
I met her when she was eleven. Whenever I was around Amy, I didn’t see a girl who was limited in any way. I saw a girl to joke with, to embrace, to treat as normal as anyone else. The way she treated me. The two of us became friends.
Believe me, I’m not trying to come across as a saint. By helping Amy, I was helping myself. I was better able to understand what I went through as a child. To this day, the rush I get when I can be there for someone who has faced tremendous hardships is more fulfilling than anything else, and, yes, that includes winning an NBA championship.
Seeing the smile on Amy’s face lifted my spirits for the rest of the day. I feel the same whenever I spend time with Ronnie. Not for a moment do I treat him differently because he’s confined to a wheelchair. I make fun of him and he makes fun of me.
Neither of us would want it any other way.