Kukoc finds playing with Jordan worth the wait
“We knew what it took and we knew how to do it, we just had to stay focused,” Kukoc said of winning the team’s sixth and final championship. “Everybody really bought into what we were doing for two and a half or three hours a day. It was like a family thing.” (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
It would be a couple years after he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1990 before Toni Kukoc would meet Michael Jordan, and even longer before the two became teammates.
“It was always a dream to come to the NBA,” said Kukoc, a native of Split, Croatia, and a three-time European Player of the Year. “When I was drafted by Chicago, I said, ‘Wow, it would be nice to play with those guys.’ I knew I’d have an automatic chance to win a championship.”
However, Kukoc elected to continue playing for Benetton Treviso in Italy, rather than joining the Bulls right away. During the summer of 1993, he decided the time was right to give the NBA a shot, and he signed with Chicago on July 19.
Besides taking on Jordan and the Dream Team the summer before, Kukoc had virtually no interaction with Jordan until the 1993 postseason, when he came to Chicago for a visit as the Bulls faced the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was gameday, and Kukoc was headed to the team’s practice facility, the Berto Center. He intentionally waited to go until after the morning walk-through, so that he would not be a distraction. Upon his arrival mid-afternoon, he was surprised to see Jordan and his father, James, shooting around. Kukoc’s English was not great at the time, and the two exchanged pleasantries before Jordan’s Bulls finished off the Knicks and then the Suns for the team’s third world championship.
When Kukoc arrived for training camp that fall, he was excited to finally team up with Jordan. However, that would have to wait, as Jordan announced his first retirement on Oct. 6, 1993.
It was a blow to Kukoc, even though Jordan’s departure meant he would be counted on to play a greater role in his rookie season. But Kukoc responded with 10.9 points per game and NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors. The Bulls went 55-27, winning only two fewer games than the season before, and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before falling 4-3 to the Knicks.
"The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Michael is how impressed I was with how he came to practice," said Kukoc. "Every single time, and every single day, he would come to practice and it would be a war."
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
“Even without Michael, we did really well my first year,” recalled Kukoc. “If it wasn’t for a couple calls in New York, we had a chance to play in the Eastern Conference Finals. That first year was an exciting time for me personally. To be in the NBA and get deep into the playoffs was a good experience for me. But, for the rest of the team, it was a bummer to not win another championship.”
While he wanted to play with Jordan all along, Kukoc believes that his absence at the beginning of his career may have made his transition a little easier on the court.
“I got the ball a lot and I could penetrate, shoot it, or find the open man,” said Kukoc. “With Michael, it probably would have been more difficult. That’s not to say he hogged the ball, but without him there, I was able to do so many more things, more so than if I was the third or fourth option.”
Instead, he quickly became the team’s second option behind Scottie Pippen, and despite his rookie status, he relied on his years of international experience to get him by.
“I’ve always said that besides the NBA, the Yugoslavian league and a Russian league were the best basketball leagues in the world,” said Kukoc. “For me, to play in all of those big games, in a world championship setting and the Olympic finals, it kind of prepared me for the big stage. All the national teams had American players on them. To come to the NBA and play in the playoffs, knowing the importance of winning those games, it wasn’t too big of a transition for me.”
When Jordan returned in the spring of 1995, a new process began, in which a team vastly different from when Jordan left following Chicago’s third championship welcomed him back to the lineup. Jordan was known for being very demanding of his teammates, and it took some time for Kukoc to adjust and reach the desired level of camaraderie.
“Someone can tell you something a million times,” Kukoc said. “But if you don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s hard to adjust and even more difficult to become a believer. The best thing that Michael told me after a bunch of talks would be when he said, ‘You just don’t get it. I’m not going to talk to you anymore because you don’t get it.’ In my mind, it was the biggest insult he could make.
“Michael also understood that everything came in time with practice and learning how to trust your teammates and coaches,” he added. “We played with each other and we helped each other. That was the biggest thing about those Bulls teams. We gave everything to each other for each other, and that’s what led to our success.”
Having Jordan back for a full season, and the addition of Dennis Rodman, meant Kukoc would return to coming off the bench. It was a move that Kukoc did not like at first—he preferred to start and said so publicly—but quickly embraced.
“Phil always said it wasn’t important who started the game, it was important who played that last quarter,” he said. “Especially in some of those important games, I played a lot in the fourth quarter. I realized that coming off the bench was actually a good thing, even though I wouldn’t likely become an All-Star doing it. I may not have always played 30 minutes a game, but at the same time, I would have never traded an All-Star appearance for a championship.”
The Bulls went on to finish with an NBA-best record of 72-10 and Kukoc was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, after averaging 13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 26.0 minutes per game during the 1995-96 campaign. Kukoc would remain in his reserve role the next two seasons, as Chicago won its fifth and sixth titles. In 1998-99, his last season with the Bulls, he led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists.
Kukoc said he always had a good relationship with Jordan—then and now: “We’re good friends and I see him every once in awhile on the golf course.”
Kukoc often talks basketball with his son, Marin, who is 17 years of age and playing for his high school team in Chicago’s north suburbs. He said Marin has a photo in his phone of him riding on his shoulders and high-fiving Jordan after one of the Bulls championships.
“At that time, he was only five or six and not that aware of what was going on,” said Kukoc. “But he knew the moment was a special one.”
When asked what his favorite story is to share with Marin, Kukoc found it difficult to pinpoint just one moment.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Michael is how impressed I was with how he came to practice,” he said. “With someone that good, you would think every once in awhile he would take a day off or not have that motivation when it came to practice. But with Michael, that was never the case. Every single time, and every single day, he would come to practice and it would be a war. You would quickly realize why the guy was as good as he was. He never took a day off and always wanted to get better. He practiced like that and he played like that, and it made everyone around him want to do the same thing.”
Kukoc will be among those in attendance at Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction in Springfield.
“I think that in a way, it will be a sad moment for Michael,” said Kukoc. “It’s almost as if something great for him is coming to an end. When you’re reading a great book and you don’t want it to end, you finish that last page and put it back on the shelf and you’re a little disappointed. I think it is the same thing for Michael. He was so into it and he got so much out of his teammates, and those had to be the best years of his life.”
Jordan led the original Dream Team to an easy gold medal during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, while Kukoc’s Croatian squad took the silver. “Reaching that point and letting the world know Croatia was a country that was a very talented one when it came to basketball, it was nice to get that recognition,” said Kukoc. “We knew we didn’t have much of a chance; we were more hopeful that we could come out and play a decent first quarter.” (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)