Commentary

Kukoc's stories have familiar rings

Like the sparkle of his bling, memories of Bulls glory haven't faded for Toni Kukoc

Updated: June 27, 2011, 11:13 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. -- The rings are pretty much the only physical evidence that Toni Kukoc has of three NBA titles.

"I don't have game [tapes], pictures, jerseys, nothing," he says.

It's not that he isn't sentimental. He is. And it's not that Kukoc's recollections of his six seasons with the Chicago Bulls, during which he was an integral part of their second three-peat (1995-'96, '96'-'97 and '97-'98), are not happy ones.

"Every once in a while, like if ESPN shows a game, I'll stop and watch a quarter or two," said Kukoc, now 42 and still living in the same suburban Highland Park home he and Renata, his wife of 19 years, purchased soon after they first arrived in Chicago in '93. "But to me it was fun when it was happening, and when I see stuff like that, like when I'm looking at the rings right now, I'm not thinking championships, I'm thinking about all the travels, all the practices, the little jokes, the late dinners and different stuff that happened. It's the little details you remember."

Kukoc jokes that his fingers are too chubby to wear the rings. But while they do stop at his middle knuckles, he is trim and in shape, about to head out on an overcast June morning for his daily round -- or two or three -- of golf, showing no outward signs of the hip replacement he received 18 months ago.

[+] EnlargeToni Kukoc
Charles Cherney for ESPNChicago.comToni Kukoc keeps his title rings locked away, but he readily accesses the fond memories he has of the Bulls dynasty.

An established star in Europe when he came to the Bulls, the native of Split, Croatia was not one of the first so-called "point-forwards," but he was certainly one of the tallest at 6-foot-11, a gifted shooter and passer blessed with the ability to play any position.

He was also a clutch performer, perhaps his most memorable big shot coming in his first NBA playoffs -- a game-winning, 23-foot fadeaway at the buzzer against the New York Knicks after teammate Scottie Pippen famously refused to re-enter the game following a timeout with 1.8 seconds remaining in regulation and the score tied.

Pippen was angered that Bulls coach Phil Jackson had picked the rookie to take the last-second shot. Kukoc calls it one of the "top five" things he is still asked about.

"You can't change. What are you going to say about it?" he said. "But it's fun when they say, 'I actually know what happened then.' When they say that, I let them say what they know and I say, 'Yeah, yeah, that's exactly what happened.' Somebody will say I was just sitting 10 rows up and I heard the whole conversation and everything that was going on. That's kind of funny. You gotta like that."

Kukoc recalled that the Bulls often struggled in games following the ring ceremonies, losing three of the six games, though the last, to be fair, was played without Michael Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman or Phil Jackson. But it was never easy.

"They were hard-fought games because obviously our mind was not there for the game after you enjoy the ceremony and everything is all festive and it's the last hurrah for the championship, and then you have to go play the game," Kukoc said.

If friends of his children -- son Marin, who sat out his freshman season at Penn with a back injury, and daughter Stella, who excels in volleyball and soccer -- ask to see the rings, Kukoc will pull them out of the normally locked wooden box he keeps at home but moves to a safer location when the family goes to Croatia for the summer.

"They want to see them," he said. "They ask for the key."

But he has never been tempted to flaunt the three sparklers, which feature nearly 200 diamonds all together, ranging in size to as large as one carat.

"They're just too big and I just don't see a point in wearing a ring," he said. He then joked, "I always thought the guys who didn't play much and didn't do much, they like to wear them so people [will notice]."

Told that somewhere, someone might have made a lot of money selling his Bulls jerseys, Kukoc laughed.

"Good for them," he said. "If they sold my jersey for, I don't know, 20 bucks, well, great. I love it."


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Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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