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Throwback Thursday: Toni Kukoc

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

For any NBA fan who grew up watching the game in the ’90s, Toni Kukoc might be one of the biggest stars who never played on an All-Star team. The 6’11” forward from Croatia was one of the first of his kind in the league; he had the skills of a guard but in the frame of a forward. Kukoc was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the second round in 1990 and was finally dragged over from Europe to play for the Bulls in 1993-1994.

Most know where the story goes from here. He won three championships with the Bulls, moved on to play for a few other teams and rode off into the sunset. But his name is back in the news for a positive reason, having just been hired by the Bulls as a special assistant to team president Michael Reinsdorf. Scottie Pippen, a former teammate of Kukoc, has held a similar job for the last few seasons. If Kukoc’s duties are anything like Pippen’s, it means we’ll see a lot of courtside shots of Kukoc and Pippen laughing and drinking beer.

For a Bulls organization that went straight to “NBA Hell” after Michael Jordan retired in 1998 only to resurrect and be placed in “NBA Purgatory” six years later, this really can’t be bad at all. The Bulls have been mired in mediocrity since the championship days of the 1990s, and a fresh reminder of the glory days at every game or on every broadcast seems like a smart move from a public relations standpoint.

But the story reminded me that things between Pippen and Kukoc weren’t always so chummy. It all started when Kukoc was drafted. Pippen wanted to renegotiate his contract, but general manager Jerry Krause wanted to save the money under the salary cap for Kukoc. The youngster ended up staying in Europe for three more years and Krause renegotiated with Pippen, but the whole process rubbed Scottie and MJ the wrong way.

Pippen got to avenge his perceived slights by Krause during the Olympics in 1992, and Kukoc was the victim. An article from Philly.com by Diane Pucin from July 28, 1992 has the story of the Dream Team matching up with Croatia:

“Last night, Pippen made a rare start for the U.S. team, and he clearly relished his defensive assignment: Kukoc. The Croatian was hesitant all evening about challenging the NBA stars. Once Kukoc seemed headed for a driving layup, until he looked up and saw Charles Barkley waiting near the basket. Instead of trying to use a fake or a quick dribble, Kukoc just gave up and went backward.

“He’s right where he belongs,” Barkley said later, meaning that Kukoc should stay in the European leagues and forget about the NBA. Kukoc finished with only 4 points and 5 assists and was overshadowed by teammates Drazen Petrovic and Stanko Vrankovic.

“The defense the U.S. played, it was amazing,” Kukoc said afterward. “It was like nothing I have ever seen or imagined.”

Mostly it was Pippen’s long arms that made the impression. And Pippen, who is usually wordless, was positively a non-stop talker. His aggressive play was nothing personal. At least not against Kukoc.

“I can’t put (Jerry) Krause on the floor, can I?” Pippen asked. “So my message was to Jerry, not Toni. Toni is an OK player. He could play in the NBA.”

Kukoc had been embarrassed, but it likely was a good experience for him in the long run. He finally did come over to play in the NBA the very same year that Jordan shocked the world and walked away from basketball, eventually replacing it with minor league baseball. It was Krause’s dream scenario: with Jordan, a star he’d inherited, out of the picture, he was free to build up a championship contender around the remaining players and his European sensation in Kukoc.

Kukoc had an okay first season, stat-wise. He averaged 24.1 minutes, 10.9 points and 3.4 assists on 43.1 percent shooting. It was obvious that Kukoc was blessed with talent, though he did begin to tire as the season hit the stretch run toward the playoffs. In the final month of the season, Kukoc averaged just 7.1 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Nevertheless, the Bulls won 55 games and headed to the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the East.

After sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers in three games, the Bulls drew the second-seeded New York Knicks, and the two teams added another chapter to the storied rivalry. The series went the full seven games, with the Knicks finally getting past the Bulls (albeit without Jordan) and eventually advancing to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Houston Rockets.

The Bulls played a tough series with the Knicks, and most of the games were close throughout. The Knicks took the first two games in New York, sending it back to Chicago and putting the Bulls in a “must win” position in Game 3. Pippen shot just 12-34 in the first two games of the series as the Knicks players forced him into bad and uncomfortable shots. Kukoc put up just 16 shots, knocking down seven of them.

Game 3 saw the Bulls build up a 19-point lead heading to the fourth quarter, and they looked to be on their way to Game 4 down just 2-1 in the series. Pippen shot 10-20 in the game and scored 25 points, and this time he had some help from fellow 1994 All-Stars B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant, who combined to shoot 14-19 from the field.

But the Knicks stormed back in the fourth quarter, tying the game with just 1.8 seconds remaining on a running hook from Patrick Ewing. The Bulls called timeout to set up a final play before heading to overtime, but Pippen wasn’t on the floor. In a moment of selfishness that would haunt Pippen for the rest of his career, he removed himself from the game because he was unhappy that Phil Jackson’s designed play was going to Kukoc.

In the end, Kukoc sank a miraculous 20-footer and the Bulls won the game:

But Pippen and Kukoc were further tied together in a less than gracious way. They were teammates, but at the time it wasn’t out of line to wonder if Pippen needed a change of scenery.

Of course, it all worked out in the end. Jordan returned in 1995, and the Bulls retooled their roster with Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper in the starting lineup and Kukoc coming off the bench. Kukoc won Sixth Man of the Year in 1995-1996 and played a huge role in the Bulls’ record-breaking 72-10 season. They won three straight championships from 1996-1998, after which Jordan retired again, Pippen was traded to the Rockets and Kukoc was left on the Bulls with a roster resembling the NBA version of the Cleveland Indians from Major League.

Winning heals all wounds in the NBA, and it seems that Pippen and Kukoc were able to patch up their relationship along the Bulls’ wild ride in the late ’90s. And now, nearly 20 years after Kukoc won his first NBA championship, he can also choose to sit on the sidelines and watch the Bulls play. It would be fitting if Pippen sits with him after sitting alone back in 1994.

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