“The Last Dance” series has shed more light into the Chicago Bulls dynasty, exploring the background behind the franchise’s two three-peats under coach Phil Jackson and star players Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Without a doubt, Dickey Simpkins was among the less-heralded players of the Bulls team in the ’90s. His NBA stat line is far from impressive (4.2 points, 3.6 rebounds), but being part of the NBA’s “Winningest Team Ever” in the 1995-’96 season and staying there for six years, including his six-month stint with the Warriors in 1997, is no small feat.
A Providence College graduate in 1994, Simpkins was drafted 21st overall by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA draft that same year. When his time in Chicago was over, he packed his suitcase and traveled all around the globe. By 2006, when he retired, the forward-center from D.C. had played professional basketball in various countries and regions including Germany, Greece, Lebanon, Lithuania, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia and Spain.
Over the last decade, the now 48-year-old has served as a Charlotte Hornets/Washington Wizards Scout, TV Analyst and Public Speaker. In 2006, Simpkins founded Chicago-based “Next Level Performance”, a basketball skills development training organization, giving young student-athletes the opportunity to showcase their skills and obtain a college athletic scholarship.
After the first four episodes of “The Last Dance” were screened, Dickey Simpkins discussed with TalkBasket.net his experience of playing with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan’s attitude, Toni Kukoc’s underrated talents, the advice that the late Jerry Krause gave him, his views on modern NBA and his memories of international basketball.
“Last Dance is a good docuseries. It’s good to see the world in the early and mid-’90s; what it took to win championships and get a chance to see the best player who ever played the game; see Phil Jackson and how he coached. So, when everybody is dealing with the coronavirus it’s good to see a documentary like that,” Simpkins comments.
Q: To what extent is “The Last Dance” similar or different to your experience and recollection of the facts?
A: So far, everything has been pretty accurate to my recollection of the facts, from the post that I was involved with the Bulls. I enjoy watching it. The last episodes were kind of funny about Dennis Rodman going to Vegas. There were times when Phil, MJ and Scottie would have talks with Dennis, so that he could be himself, but also understand that he needed to care of business, which he did.
Q: Knowing that the 1997-98 campaign was going to be the last one for Jackson and the main core of players, how hard was it for you to deal with it?
A: I started off the season in Golden State. I was traded in September 1997 for Scott Burrell. Halfway through the season, the GSW waived me. My agent called me and said Jerry Krause called him and told him that Phil and MJ wanted me back. When I got there, Phil met with me and caught me up to speed with the Last Dance. He showed me everything and it kind of blended back in like I never left. Everybody was focused, embracing our last moment all together and making sure that we stayed focused on the common goal: winning the championship for the last time.
Q: Did MJ’s use of language and the way he was getting on at temmates ever bother you? Did it come across as bullying?
A: No, there’s a price to pay to winning. In order to win an NBA championship, your leader has to set the tone. MJ was not only our leader, but is and was the best player to ever play the game. When he performs at practice and games, you just have to make sure you do your job. That’s the price that comes with being a winner, a championship team.
Q: Do you believe that competitiveness in practice lacks in modern NBA? Has the game become less physical over the last years?
A: I think there’s a decrease in the physicality of the game. The biggest thing is back then MJ held everybody accountable. Accountability in today’s game is lacking. Players shy away from it or they get mad. Nobody wants to be held accountable. Back then, you had no choice when you played for the Bulls. The game now is more fluent. Furthermore, the competitive mentality amongst the collective group of guys on the court seems to not be at the same level as it was. The result is teams and players don’t achieve their potential a lot of times.
Q: What was the “breakfast crew” that Bill Wennington refers to in his book?
A: MJ would have guys over to his house to work out. Mostly Scottie and Ron Harper would go over there and they would grab breakfast after the workout. On occasions, I’d meet them for breakfast before we went to practice. They did it most of the time and every once in a blue moon I would meet them.
Q: How did it feel being so close to finishing the season and suddenly getting traded before the dynasty’s final run?
A: I was young in ’96 and ’97. Phil and management made the decision to go with more veteran players for the play-offs, something I had to deal with and -being a team player- I understood. I did my role, helping the team prepare for each opponent. It felt great that I had matured. Phil and MJ had confidence in me, knowing that I knew the triangle (offense) and played my role to the best of my ability. In 1997-98, I was still young, but I had seen and experienced that environment. The grass is not always greener on the other side. So, I left for a little while, seeking for an opportunity, but that didn’t actually happen. Things changed when I was in Golden State, which was a different environment. It was actually the season that Sprewell choked Carlesimo. I was gone for a short time, but I appreciate the fact that Phil and MJ respected my abilities and my work and wanted me to come back.
Q: More than 20 years after the second three-peat, how would you describe your presence and your role with the team to your children or to someone who knows nothing about you as a player?
A: I would describe myself as a team player who did my job: rebounding and playing defense. When I had the opportunity to score, I tried to score. I would explain my role as a loyal teammate who did whatever needed to be done. I understood my role, embraced it and tried to star in it, which is what MJ wanted everybody to do. I was one of the youngest guys on three championship teams. I listened, I played and learned my role.
Q: The 1998-99 season was a strange one: the lockout, Tim Floyd stepping in and star players gone. Does the 13-37 record reflect what the Bulls team was back then?
A: No, I wouldn’t say it necessarily reflects what the team was. Like you said, it was a strange season. There was the lockout, then we went right into playing 50 games. The team had been dismantled. At that point in time, there was a few veteran players. The organization had made the decision to rebuild the team and it was a transition year that involved a shortened season and a new coach who was learning his way in the NBA. I wouldn’t say our record reflects the talent, the professionalism or where we were.
Q: If someone was to ask you about the overall appreciation and legacy of the Bulls phenomenon, how do you think that “The Last Dance” series will do justice to it?
A: I think the younger generation now will get to see the competitiveness of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and everybody who was on that team; the focus and the desire to finish off what was going to be the last season; and see history. It will help the younger and the older generation get a perspective on the debate they always have about who’s the best player that ever played the game. I think the documentary will do justice and it will go down in history like those championship teams have.
Q: What’s your take on the GOAT debate?
A: I had the opportunity to see LeBron play. He’s unbelievable. I played against Kobe. He was probably the closest anyone has ever come to MJ. I just think this documentary does not intend to define whether MJ is the greatest of all time, but it does a great job of giving a perspective to his mindset.
Q: Who was the best teammate on the Bulls team?
A: We all kind of vibed together. The team was mostly veteran players that had been in the NBA for a while. We all understood each other on and off the court. Everybody was a good teammate, but I think that Toni Kukoc might be the most underrated star on those championship teams. That’s because of all the things that he brought from a versatility standpoint: scoring, passing, just being an unbelievable teammate. I don’t think he gets talked about enough. When the other stars were gone, he was able to show his ability to be the main guy. It was fun playing with him.
Q: You were fifteenth on the Bulls’ salary cap breakdown in the 97-98 season, receiving a five-digit paycheck. Did it bother you?
A: That was because I was still under contract with the Warriors. I got a pro-rated minimum contract. When you come back to a team in the middle of the season, that’s pretty much how it works. So, it didn’t bother me at all.
Q: Is it true that Tex Winter valued your basketball I.Q. because you understood the triangle offense?
A: (smiles). Yes. Tex appreciated my ability to pick up the triangle offense pretty well and have a very good basketball I.Q. and I think Phil Jackson valued that also. That made it easy for me to come back. I could read plays, react and make passes.
Q: Although you didn’t get to play for the Lakers in 2001, how was seeing so many familiar faces again, like Jackson and Winters?
A: I was there for training camp and everything was familiar. At the end of the day, Mitch Kupchak was the general manager and decided to go in a different direction. But it was a good experience and got to spend some time around Shaq and Kobe who asked me questions about the Bulls. So, it was cool.
Q: However, Bill Wennington wrote in his book that by 1997, you were bitter about your Bulls experience, playing behind Rodman and Kukoc. What’s your view?
A: Naw, I wasn’t bitter. I just wanted to find an opportunity to expand my role. That’s a part of the business. I communicate with Phil on a regular basis from time to time.
Q: After the 1998-99 season, when you posted career-highs in playing time, points, rebounds, did you ever think that your NBA time would practically include one more year?
A: No, I actually thought that I had gotten the opportunity to show what I can do. Coach Tim Floyd gave me the chance to perform. He appreciated my hard work and professionalism. I thought my NBA career would expand for longer, but sometimes in life it doesn’t work like that. I still was able to play six years in Europe as a professional.
Q: How was it playing for Providence after the Rick Pitino era, which lasted until 1987? Would you trade the Big East championship for a Final Four appearance?
A: Playing for Providence was great, coming in after Rick Pitino had built some buzz about the college. It was in the Big East, which is where I always wanted to play. Playing for coach Barnes, we grew and learned. We came in as one of the top recruiting classes in 1990. To finish up with the Big East championship that Providence had never won before -and winning it at the Madison Square Garden- was a great feeling.
Would I have given that up for a Final Four? As a kid, you always dream of making it to a Final Four in the NCAA. I don’t know if I’d give it up because I really enjoyed the experience of playing with those guys at Providence. People always ask me would I’ve given up on NBA championships to play more in the NBA and I say: “No, I’ll take championships any day”.
Q: Working as a college basketball TV analyst, what do you think of top High School players flocking to the G-League instead of going to college?
A: I think it’s good. It gives High School kids another outlet and another opportunity to explore what they’ll make after they leave High School. You can either go to college or not go and try a Post-Grad High School and play one year. Now that you have the G-League as an opportunity, there’s five different options that you can choose from for your path to the NBA. So, I just think it’s great to bring another option that they can explore. Obviously, it’s going to be the first year of this and we’re going to see how it plays out. You’ll see changes in decisions that parents and High School kids are making now, as far as their future. It’s a fluent evolution of how people can get to their ultimate goal of playing in the NBA. There’s a big difference of physicality and experience from the High School to the G-League, but now players have another path to the NBA.
Q: As a Charlotte Hornets scout from 2010 through 2018, how was teaming up with Michael Jordan again? Which are his trademarks as an owner?
A: It was great. He called me one day, talked to me on the phone and said he wanted me to come work for him in Charlotte. He’s as competitive an owner as he was as a player. He wants to have a winning team and everybody to do their role and be good at it. If you do your role, he’s going to appreciate your hard work. My friendship with him continues to be strong and good. I appreciate him calling me to work for him.
Q: Being an NBA scout reminded you of Jerry Krause’s role? Were you influenced or inspired by him in any way?
A: That’s funny … I guess (I was influenced) a little bit by some of the things that Jerry would tell me, as far as how he evaluated a player or looked at him. I remember Jerry sharing a couple of stories with me back in the day. I remember having a conversation with Jerry Krause a year before he passed away. It was about growing in the front office business. We talked for a good five or ten minutes. He gave me a couple of perspectives on growing into business. It was good. That was my first time talking to Jerry in a long time. 2006 or 2007 had been the last time before that.
Q: Nevertheless, you were not quiet at all talking about him in 2000, when you left the team. “Now we can see what he’s made of. He could have made sure that guys who did their job well were taken care of. Players don’t feel he’ll be loyal to them”, were some of the things you said. How did you feel back then?
A: Yeah, I kind of remember some of that stuff. I expressed my thoughts and feelings. As I matured, I did understand he had to make the business decisions that he felt were best for the organization, regardless of whether they were popular or not. At that time, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t treated with what I thought should be fairness. But not everything in life is fair. Growing up, I understood it was just business and nothing personal.
Q: Let’s get to the overseas chapter. How did the offer from Greece and Makedonikos come about?
A: It just came out of the blue. My agent called me and said: “There’s a team in Greece that would like you to come and play”. I was open-minded to coming and playing internationally in Europe. I had heard so much about Europe. It was a young team trying to stay in the top division. The coach and the owner were cool. My career in Europe went from there. One of the things that made an impression was the pastry that I used to eat every morning when I drank coffee. It had cream inside and it’s called “bougatsa”. I love it! In terms of basketball, I loved the competitive fire in the fans. They loved their teams. Those are the things that I remember the most.
Q: How did you manage the transition from playing for the Bulls to trying help a little-known team in Greece avoid relegation?
A: It was tough at first because I had to figure out how to make the transition to playing in Europe, which was a different situation. I learned it was more mental than physical playing internationally. It was tough at first because I’m a competitive person. So, I was trying to do everything I could to help the team stay up, but it was also good to learn quickly in my first experience how to operate playing basketball in Europe. I had to adjust as far as environment, language, practicing twice a day, style of basketball and the refereeing.
Q: Were you aware of the fact that another Bulls ex-player, David Vaughn, who didn’t finish “The Last Dance” season with the team, was also playing in Greece at the time?
A: Yeah, he was with the Bulls for a couple of days. They let him go and I came in. That’s all I remember.
Q: What did you pick up from playing in different places?
A: I remember winning the FIBA Cup North title (with Unics Kazan in 2003) and having a very good team. Lithuania was nice, playing for Rytas. Euroleague, Spain, Germany and the Philippines was a good experience. All in all, I enjoyed seeing different cultures.
Q: Do you wish you could have played the Euroleague at a younger age instead of 34?
A: No, I’m happy I was in the NBA when I was younger. The Euroleague is a very good, competitive league and I enjoyed playing in it while at Bamberg. I’m fine, comfortable and happy with how things played out for me.
Q: In your short stint with Maroussi BC in Greece in 2002, do you remember a young guy named Vassilis Spanoulis?
A: No, I don’t really remember anyone except for the American guys: Jimmy Oliver, Patrick Burke and Martin Conlon, who played at Providence before I got there. But I don’t remember that other guy.
Q: Right now, he’s considered one of the top players to have come out of Europe over the last 15 years.
A: Oh, OK. Didn’t know that.
Q: Do you follow the Euroleague and international basketball?
A: A little bit. We have international scouts on our team (Washington Wizards) and they keep us updated on Euroleague and what’s going on.
Q: If the NBA season was to resume, who would win the championship and who would get the MVP award?
A: Hmm, the championship would probably be between the Lakers and the Clippers. One of those two would win it. The MVP would be LeBron. He’s been playing at an unbelievable level for ages. He’s proven that he can carry a team. Whatever team he’s on, he makes them a title contender. He was showing that this season again, until the shutdown. In my opinion, LeBron is the MVP of the league.
Q: Do you think Giannis Antetokounmpo deservedly won the award last year?
A: Yes, I think he deserved it. The “Greek Freak” is evolving as being the next big star LeBron will pass the torch to.