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Truth or Dare?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was emotionally wounded when a last-possession play was designed for Toni Kukoc and threw a hissy fit. He was upset another time and threw a chair. And look what Scottie Pippen apparently is ready to give the heave now.

It’s the Chicago Bulls, 2-1 leaders over the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals, no small thanks to Pippen.

But in a couple of weeks he becomes a free agent and can help dynamite the dominant team of the decade.

“If Scottie doesn’t come back, then the whole outlook changes,” teammate Steve Kerr said.

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Michael Jordan has moved, at least slightly, from his previous hard-line stance: retirement if Phil Jackson doesn’t remain as coach. But the departure of Pippen, the team’s second-best player, as a free agent would signal a rebuilding process, and Jordan definitely wouldn’t stick around for that. If Pippen stays, though, Jordan may too, and guess which might again be the team to beat in the East next season.

OK, but will he stay? Pippen is leaning heavily on the “last dance” angle these days, often talking about his Chicago run in the past tense, so it doesn’t look good. But check back at the end of the day. By then, things might have changed dramatically.

That’s the way it works around here:

* Jordan is leaving. No, Jordan is staying. Jordan will wait to see what Jackson does.

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* Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and right-hand man Jerry Krause announce that Jackson has re-signed for 1997-98 only, and then will definitely be done. Reinsdorf says he’d like to bring the whole lovable crew back.

Pippen plays the Chicago game very well. Sitting out because of a foot injury, he says he’ll never play for the Bulls again. When the injury heals, he’s back.

He says he’d like to join the Phoenix Suns, which is very possible, or the Lakers, which isn’t because their salary cap already fits snugly. He has added the Houston Rockets to his list of favorites.

But then, he would love to stay put too. Just before the trade deadline, amid speculation that the Bulls would move him rather than risk losing him as a free agent, a reporter asked if he would be interested in sticking around for another season with Jordan.

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“That would be great,” he said.

The latest? He’s heading for the door. Pippen is leaning so hard on the “last dance” angle that he has handed out berets and other gear with that very inscription. And, according to one man-about-town Chicago columnist, Pippen has already booked a farewell-to-Chicago party June 17, a week from today, at Navy Pier--500 guests at $150 a pop. June 17, of course, is the date of a possible Game 7 against the Jazz.

Timing. It’s a big thing in Pippen’s decision. There are the off-season labor relations to consider, because Jordan has said he won’t make his retirement decision until late in the summer. That leaves Pippen to consider whether he should wait for a sign or play his own hand and skip out on a team that now has only Ron Harper, Kukoc, Randy Brown and Keith Booth under contract.

And in these recent weeks, on the verge of free agency, he has offered a vivid reminder of the capabilities still there at 32. In a phenomenal playoff defensive run, he has handled a shooter, Charlotte’s Glen Rice, in the second round, and a point guard, Indiana’s Mark Jackson, in the third.

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Against the Jazz, he has inflicted heavy damage on what until a few days ago was an extremely proficient offense, assigned to one of the centers, Greg Foster or Greg Ostertag, and then floating away to shut down a passing lane or double team, knowing his man isn’t much of an offensive threat.

“Scottie’s been a key to this team the last two, three years and he’s been bartered a little bit here and there,” Jackson said. “Management has made no ifs and buts about it. And it’s been a lot of insistence from Michael and myself that’s said, ‘You know, this guy is too valuable a player, too irreplaceable for us to win the championship if he’s not here.’

“I think we probably could play pretty well with a replacement, but this guy just does something that’s in another dimension. I don’t know if there’s a better defensive player in understanding visualization of what the opponent’s about. He’s a one-man wrecking crew.”

Against the Jazz, certainly . . . and shortly, maybe against the Bulls?

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“It’s just a great feeling,” Pippen said of his pending free agency. “It’s an opportunity that I’ve sort of waited for the last three or four years. It just so happens that when my time comes, there may be a lockout, but I’m looking forward to going out and exploring my free agency to the fullest.”

So says the man who rents downtown and no longer owns a home here, who has good friend Horace Grant in Orlando, a roaming eye and a welling of frustration in his heart.

In April, he offered for public consumption:

“I feel like it’s time for me to move on,” then added in reference to Reinsdorf’s consideration to keeping the team together, “If he wants to insult me and offer me a one-year deal, then he can go to hell. It’s just a matter of me going somewhere and being happy, feeling like I’m part of the franchise.”

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Could Jordan persuade him to change his mind?

“I doubt it,” Pippen said. “Pretty much, it’s time for me to move on. This is not the place for me. I’m sure there are other teams that could use a complementary player.”

So he’ll finish the finals, plan to be at Navy Pier a week from today, and then wait until July 1 or whenever labor peace comes.

Of course, that’s subject to change.

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