Toni Kukoc's favorite Bulls teammate? Scottie Pippen
“Scottie, to me, was as important as Michael." -Kukoc, who will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Remind Me Later •
When fans and media think about Toni Kukoc, they more often are reminded of Scottie Pippen.
Even in the Last Dance documentary last year, Kukoc's famous shot in the 1994 playoffs was once again merely the backdrop for Pippen's refusal to be on the court because the play wasn't called for him. And then with perhaps enough time having passed to remember Kukoc's magnificent effort, Pippen doubled down by proclaiming he'd do the same thing again. All Scottie, all the time.
It also was Pippen who initiated Kukoc's NBA initiation with that defensive double team on Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics, ostensibly a message to then Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause about whom to respect. And then when Kukoc finally showed up on the Bulls roster for the 1993-94 season, it was Pippen who left Kukoc standing in the rotation musical chairs, playing Kukoc's point forward position. It would result in Kukoc spending much of his Bulls career out of position as a power forward.
So who's probably Toni Kukoc's favorite teammate?
That's right, Scottie Pippen.
"I always say Michael probably was the best player," said Kukoc who is being enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. "Scottie, to me, was as important as Michael. Because of that idea that Scottie was taking care of the whole team and was guarding people. He would bring the ball up and would find the right people and then for Michael it was, ‘OK, take us home.'"
Jordan did, and that's what most remember. And, in the end, that is how the games are inevitably decided.
And perhaps because Kukoc was not that kind of player, the dominant scorer, that he came to appreciate Pippen as much as he does. It's ironic in a sense because Kukoc probably was never able to develop into the NBA player he was in Europe because Pippen was occupying his most natural position. More typical of European basketball than the NBA, players like Kukoc learn to play multiple positions more than developing a specific strength. In Europe you're generally not a shooter or playmaker or rebounder. You're asked to do all of that, which is why Kukoc could be as effective as he was for the Bulls at power forward. Especially in an era when the profile was Karl Malone. In this current era of the so called stretch four, Kukoc would have been a natural. Not so much then, but Pippen was parked in his space.
Pippen was asked to make the play and Jordan to finish it.
So Kukoc had to find an unoccupied space, which is not so easy in the big city. Kukoc did off the bench with more than 100 starts in three championship regular seasons and playoffs, sometimes at center or forward for Dennis Rodman or Luc Longley or point forward for Pippen, at guard for Ron Harper. But even as Kukoc rarely was able to control the game as he did leading eight championship teams in Europe—yes, he has 11 rings—he came to appreciate his teammates, and curiously Pippen despite all the reasons someone else might not have for not being so supportive.
"People these days see how (Luka) Doncic gets the ball and they say to me sometimes, ‘If you were that good, you would get the ball,'" says Kukoc with a sigh. "That first season I had the scoring games (averaging 15 points the first dozen games). It would only get better going forward. I don't know that we would win championships, but I would probably progress into a more dominant scorer (Doncic averaged about 18 points his first month in the NBA).
"That all said, I really, really enjoyed playing with Scottie and Dennis because they give me security with their physical dominance," said Kukoc. "They talk; you feel secure. If you make a defensive mistake, they cover it for you. You go for a steal and miss it and get out the position, they are there to cover (Kukoc's habit of poking at the ball drew most of Phil Jackson's wrath about defense, though it would create multiple turnovers as well as those drives to the basket).
"I really felt that first year Michael wasn't there, I felt we (with Pippen) are playing somewhat similar," said Kukoc. "I felt free playing with Scottie. I know what I am thinking, how to pass the ball, similar to what he was thinking about the game and everything. For me I was comfortable right away to play with Scottie because I knew he was going to see me every time when I was open; he's going to give me the ball, he'll get it back. He'll let me bring the ball up, he's not going to come to me looking for the ball like some point guards I played with. I'm not saying which, but not someone with us. I would get the rebound and going forward and he's like, ‘You are stealing my bread.' I'd say, ‘What are you talking about?' He's say, ‘You are taking my money with the assists.' I'd say, ‘You run up there I'll put cheese on the bread; you make a shot and score.'
"Not that Michael wasn't there to cover or couldn't, but he wasn't required to be that guy," Kukoc noted. "These two were so team oriented. Not to say Michael wasn't team oriented, but it was their nature. Like Scottie would just not miss a wide open guy regardless of who it was. Dennis would pass the ball to the right people. Michael we knew we needed him to score. It's a different idea of the people. Yes, sometimes when it comes to scoring points and sometimes when people are hitting shots, it was, ‘I wish he'd pass the ball.' But then there are games when you can't make a shot and the defensive is so hard and so physical. And then you say, ‘Michael, here's the ball, you score.'"
Which is how a group of people become a championship team. And now more than a half dozen regulars will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame with Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Krause, Jackson, Managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf and Toni Kukoc. It was an historic time.
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