December 13, 1986 was nothing more than a normal day on the campus of Southern Miss.
Perhaps, too normal for USM’s basketball team which was preparing to host Central Arkansas of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The Golden Eagles, at the infancy of their 1987 National Invitation Tournament Championship season, did not regard the Bears as a serious threat.
“That night when I think we played them, somebody had a party the night before,” said Casey Fisher, USM’s junior point guard in 1986. “We were hot stuff at the time. Central Arkansas, we were like, never even heard of the school."
"To play an NAIA school was like an easy victory in our mind,” said former USM forward Derrek Hamilton, a 1988 NBA Draft pick of the New Jersey Nets.
Southern Miss previously played Central Arkansas on December 6, 1984, beating the Bears 88-61 in Hattiesburg.
Their second meeting in ’86 featured one particular UCA player who had made significant strides in two years.
“Coach [M.K.] Turk puts up on the board 'Scottie Pippen' and beside it he had 'lottery pick,'” Fisher said. “We were like, 'Okay.' I said, ‘Scottie? Lottery pick?!’”
"And then this [6-foot-8], long guy comes out there in warmups,” Hamilton said. “We're like, 'Wow who is that?' Coach Turk told us he was an All-American and things of that nature. By the end of the game, I found out why."
"The ball went up and it was us against him,” Fisher said. “Back then, we didn't keep up with triple-doubles but I bet he had a quadruple-double. He did everything but mop the floor."
Pippen scored 24 points that night – and played all five positions – but the Eagles pulled away with a 95-82 win.
USM now knew the name Scottie Pippen, and so did Marty Blake. The NBA’s Director of Scouting at the time, Blake was ushered to Hattiesburg by Central Arkansas assistant coach Arch Jones.
In a 2010 article for the Chicago Tribune, sportswriter David Haugh cites what Jones told Blake to convince him of making a trip to Reed-Green Coliseum.
“[Jones] said, ‘Marty, I know you see a lot of big-time players, but you’ve got to see this Pippen kid nobody knows about,’” said Blake, in a phone conversation with Haugh.
After the December showing against Southern Miss, Blake invited Pippen to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April 1987. The pre-draft camp in Virginia is where Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause first saw Pippen play.
The same Pippen that Krause traded up for in the 1987 NBA Draft to pair with Michael Jordan. The rest is, well, six championships worth of history.
"[Blake] was pretty well-known as a guy that could find people where nobody else did,” Haugh said. “You couldn’t just go on Instagram or Youtube and find a video of Scottie Pippen playing at Central Arkansas. You kind of had to go see for yourself. Without Marty Blake, maybe Scottie Pippen doesn't become one of the 50 all-time greatest NBA players, maybe there aren't six championships in Chicago."
Just how significant was Blake’s visit to the Hub City in the winter of ’86? USM only needed 40 minutes on the court to know Pippen had a future in basketball.
"I never will forget going back up in the locker room, me and Derrek were talking,” Fisher said. “Derek said, 'Fish, we just played against a lottery pick.’”
"You could tell [Pippen] had a lot of talent and he was destined to go on and do great things, which he did,” said former USM forward Randolph Keys, who crossed paths with Pippen throughout his five-year NBA career.
December 13th’s meeting with Central Arkansas was a distant memory on March 26, 1987 as the Golden Eagles celebrated their NIT title.
But looking into the crowd of Madison Square Garden, Fisher spotted a familiar foe – there was Pippen, being courted by the New York Knicks.
“Jordan is Michael Jordan,” said Fisher, who played briefly with the Bulls as a free agent in 1988 preseason camp. “Jordan doesn’t win those rings without Scottie Pippen. Scottie Pippen was an absolute monster.”