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Toni Kukoc talks about Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, The Last Dance and the Chicago Bulls – ESPN

April 27, 2020

A few days after the Bulls won their sixth championship, Phil Jackson organized a dinner for players, coaches, and their wives at a Chicago restaurant. Midway through, he gathered the players into a private area. They sat in a circle, drinks and cigars in hand. Each made one toast.

“It was so special,” Steve Kerr told ESPN. “That was the last moment we were ever all together.”

Kerr knew his subject right away.

“I said a toast to Toni [Kukoc],” Kerr said. “Nobody had to go through what he did — the pressure from Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen] to earn his keep. Michael and Scottie are all over him about being Jerry [Krause]’s guy. And Toni just [wanted] to play. And so I just said a toast to Toni, because I thought he was such a great player. I wanted him to know how much he meant to our team.”

MORE: Replay “The Last Dance” Episodes 1 to 4

Kukoc doesn’t remember Kerr’s toast, though others do. To a surprising degree, he has little interest in rehashing Chicago’s glory years. “I lived it,” Kukoc said. Living amid the drama of the “Last Dance” season — inside the storm — almost worked to insulate Kukoc from it. The Bulls were aging, injured, aware the gap between them and their fiercest challengers was perhaps the slimmest it had ever been. Kukoc battled plantar fasciitis.

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He felt the tension between Krause and the players, of the looming breakup. He didn’t have the bandwidth to devote emotional energy to it.

“Phil was good at keeping us in a bubble,” Kukoc said. “We focused on what was in front of us. By watching [‘The Last Dance’], I am going to find out things I had no idea happened.”

Even as a dominant teenager on probably the greatest non-American national team ever, Kukoc loved the group dynamic of sports. He experienced the powerful brew of friendship and chemistry with Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, and other stars in the former Yugoslavia. He sought that vibe in the NBA. Reliving the divide between Krause and the players hurts him now.

“I wish Jerry were here to say his part of the story,” Kukoc said. “It’s easy to like Michael and Scottie and Dennis and Phil, and I like them all. I love them. Scottie was the ultimate team player. Michael will always, to me, be the best player ever. He changed the game. He made it global. Every player today should tip their hat to him. But you have to hear the other side. Jerry built the six-time champions. You have to give him credit.”

Krause lusted after Kukoc, and selected him in the second round in 1990. Kukoc did not sign with the Bulls until 1993, fearing he would waste prime years on the bench. He was also making more money in Europe. “I was indecisive if I should come,” Kukoc said.

Krause enticed him with visions of running the break alongside Jordan and Pippen, but also spoke of the value in playing with grinders and leaders — John Paxson and Bill Cartwright — under “this great coach we have” in Jackson, Kukoc said.

“It was a courtship,” said Clarence Gaines Jr., a longtime Bulls scout who traveled abroad with Krause to watch Kukoc. “Jerry could be charming when he needed to be.”

Jordan and Pippen heard Krause’s adulation of Kukoc. They knew Kukoc stood to make more money than Pippen.

Still in Europe, Kukoc was unaware of any long-distance resentment from Jordan and Pippen. He had no idea they were arguing over who would guard him when the Dream Team faced Croatia during group play in the 1992 Olympics. Jordan and Pippen devoured Kukoc, holding him to four points on 2-of-11 shooting.

“I wanted to shut him down and embarrass him,” Pippen told reporters after the game. “I can’t put Krause out on the court.”

At the time, Kukoc chalked it up to a superteam targeting an opposing star. “We were playing the Dream Team,” he said. “To me, the best and only Dream Team.” Half his mind was back in Croatia, where his wife was about to go into labor. (Kukoc played much better in the gold-medal rematch: 16 points and 9 assists.)

Kukoc said he only learned the backstory two decades later, when he sat for an interview in “The Dream Team” documentary. “They said, ‘Did you know they were fighting over who was going to stop you?'” Kukoc said last week. “No. Thanks for sharing that with me 20 years later.” He added with a laugh: “At least I can say no player got as much attention from the Dream Team as I did.”

Kukoc faced lingering bitterness when he joined the Bulls. Jordan and Pippen referred to him as “Jerry’s guy,” according to Kukoc and teammates. Pippen poked at his defense, saying, “You can’t guard a chair,” according to Kukoc. (Pippen said he does not remember using this phrasing, but teammates recall much general criticism of Kukoc’s defense.)

“They always gave him a hard time,” said Jud Buechler, who played in Chicago from 1994 to 1998.

“The [Krause] thing made it very difficult for him at first,” said Jim Cleamons, a longtime Jackson lieutenant. “It was unfair to Toni, honestly.”

Kukoc recognized any ill feelings were about Krause — not him. He was strong enough to play through it.

“Toni was just himself,” Cleamons said, “and that was his salvation.”

He didn’t mind the stray comments. Cutting humor was part of team culture. “He understood it was almost a hazing process,” Cleamons said.

As a rookie, Kukoc carried bags and picked up food for veterans.

“I understood I would have to earn respect,” Kukoc said. “I was coming to the best team in the world. You have to put aside all your accolades and pride. It doesn’t matter if you were good in Europe. I was OK with that.”

To say Kukoc was good in Europe is a massive understatement. He won essentially every team competition and individual award possible multiple times. He was a 6-foot-10 point forward with every pass in his bag, and the size to shoot over small players inside and outside. He earned the nickname “The Waiter” because of how easily he served up assists.

“He was Magic Johnson in Europe,” said George Karl, who coached against Kukoc’s teams during his time at Real Madrid.

Kukoc knew Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson were right about his defense: He had to improve, and get much stronger to guard power forwards — something he had never done — who outweighed him by 30 or 40 pounds. “I sometimes looked foolish guarding those guys,” Kukoc said. “Back then, they could almost pick me up and move me backward.” Sliding Kukoc down the positional spectrum would open the floor, and give Chicago a modern, ultra-switchable look on defense. It was on Kukoc to make it workable.

The veterans prodded Kukoc about his diet. Kerr, Buechler, and Cartwright recalled Kukoc ordering a glass of wine as part of pregame meals during their early preseasons together. “We were like, ‘Holy smokes, no wonder you’re not in great shape,'” Cartwright said. “He had to learn how to be an NBA player.”

(Kukoc insisted these stories are exaggerated. Wine is a through line, though. Billy King, who as Sixers GM acquired Kukoc from Chicago, said Kukoc taught him to stick to late-1990s vintages from Italy. Zaza Pachulia, who was 20 when he played one season in Milwaukee with Kukoc and counts him as a mentor, said the two went out to dinner often — and Kukoc always insisted on paying for wine. Pachulia thought it was because he was underage. He finally asked Kukoc. “It was because he only ordered expensive wine, and I was on a rookie contract,” Pachulia said.)

Kukoc compartmentalized the vitriol from Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson into two categories: Krause-related snark, and constructive criticism from competitors who wanted to win. He had faith that when Jordan and Pippen realized how good he was — that he could help them win, that maybe they needed him to win — the first would fade, leaving only basketball-related barbs. He could take that.

“Most players today would have been in their feelings,” said Dickey Simpkins, a Bulls reserve. “Toni took it. He knew he had work to do.”

Kukoc was right to bet on his talent. “Once Michael and Scottie figured out this guy was really freaking good, they embraced him,” said Cartwright, who played with Kukoc and Pippen in 1993-94 and rejoined the Bulls in 1996 as an assistant coach.

Kukoc took an immediate liking to Pippen. Beneath the “Jerry’s boy” jabs, Kukoc heard perhaps the greatest perimeter defender ever trying to help him. If he missed an assignment in games, he found Pippen behind him to clean things up — and instruct Kukoc so he would be better next time. Kukoc felt Pippen’s support, he said.

“I love Scottie,” Kukoc said. “The guy that helped me the most those first two years was Scottie. He is so easy to play with. I never really felt [the criticism] was mean. I felt like he was trying to point me in the right direction.”

Pippen has campaigned for Kukoc to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It is something Kukoc wants, and feels he deserves. (Lots of people in basketball agree — especially considering some of Kukoc’s international contemporaries are already enshrined.) Divac and Radja, both inducted in recent years, have each said Kukoc should already be in.

“It’s very important to me,” Kukoc said. “I don’t know what the criteria is, but I hope one day they find a reason to put me in.” He hopes it is soon. His father, Ante, is 82. He introduced Kukoc to sports. “If I ever get in, I hope it happens while my dad is alive,” Kukoc said. “It would mean even more to him.”

There were so many reasons for the Kukoc-Pippen relationship to go the other way — so many moments when it could have turned. “It didn’t because they are both really good guys,” Cartwright said.

Pippen infamously refused to play the final seconds of Game 3 in the 1994 conference semifinals after Jackson designed Chicago’s final shot for Kukoc — and not Pippen.

“It’s just something that happened,” Kukoc said. “Everyone has an ego. Even someone that doesn’t play one minute has an ego. I don’t take anything away from [Pippen] for that.”

Kukoc made the shot, of course. He made big crunch-time shots that season. He averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists — and hit 40.3% from deep — in winning Sixth Man of the Year for the 1995-96 Bulls team that won 72 games and has a claim as the greatest ever.

“And if those guys had one iota of a thought that anyone would ever break their record, those sons of bitches would have won 76,” Cleamons said.

The 73-win Warriors lost the 2016 Finals. The ’96 Bulls defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in six games. “Our scouting was that Kukoc was a huge key,” said Karl, who coached Seattle then. “He made a lot of their pieces fit.”

He provided crucial shot creation when one of Pippen and Jordan rested. “Everybody loved to play with Toni because he was such an incredible passer,” Simpkins said. He could play any role within the triangle offense.

Jackson appreciated his derring-do. “Toni is sort of a maverick,” he told Rick Telander during the 1997-98 season. “That irritates me, but I think in a way, we need a maverick. His biggest tendency is to look for a different play than the obvious one.”

In the most important game of the “Last Dance” season — Game 7 of the conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, the only time in six title runs any opponent really had Chicago on the brink — Kukoc scored 21 points, second on the Bulls only to Jordan’s 28, and hit five straight third-quarter jumpers to stake Chicago to its biggest lead.

Kukoc knows those moments resonate. They obliterate any “what ifs” for him, he said.

“I truly believe if I went somewhere where I handled the ball more, I would have easily averaged 20 [points], 7 [rebounds], and 7 [assists],” Kukoc said. “But I would never, ever change my time with the Bulls for All-Star Games or anything. If people say my numbers aren’t enough for the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with that. Every player would give up anything to be a part of those teams. It was the best time of my career.”

Kukoc cherishes the camaraderie at least as much as the wins. Team dinners ran deep, though it was mostly impossible for Jordan to dine in public. When asked for a flashbulb memory, Kukoc brought up a hotel breakfast when Kerr convinced other meal regulars — Kukoc, Buechler, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, maybe others — to order blueberry pancakes. Somehow, a blueberry became lodged in Kukoc’s nose. As he wound up to sneeze it out, everyone made a big show of hiding behind napkins or ducking under the table.

“For some reason,” Kukoc said laughing, “I remember stuff like that.”

On some nights, Rodman would approach one of the regulars and almost sheepishly ask if he might join for dinner. Sometimes, he would invite them to whatever he had going on after. Buechler recalled ending up in the same rooms as Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan on separate Rodman adventures. Most times, Rodman would leave dinner and vanish into the night.

Rodman had trouble verbalizing his guilt when he knew he had strayed too far, teammates recalled. “Dennis was shy,” Kukoc said. Sometimes Jackson would do it for him. Other times, Rodman might buy everyone gifts. Just before Christmas one season, Rodman left each teammate a necklace to give to their wives — a silent apology.

“We were like, ‘You’re killing us, Dennis, because this is nicer than what we are getting our own wives,'” Kerr said.

Kukoc said he hopes the rest of “The Last Dance” focuses more on the joy the Bulls experienced together, and brought to fans, and a little less on the breakup. He reminds people there was a lockout before the next season. “There was no guarantee next season was going to be played,” he said. (Jordan was also recovering from a severed tendon in his right index finger — the result of a cigar-cutting mishap — and might have missed much of that season had he not retired.)

“Whose fault is it we broke up?” Kukoc asked. “That’s trivial. We made everyone happy. That’s the part I like to remember. And every once in a while, when it’s rainy and cold, I can get on YouTube, and watch, and reminisce about the old days.”

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