- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
- 0 Shares
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. -- Toni Kukoc isn't surprised he's still here, golf club in hand, dog at his feet, same house in the suburbs.
But of all the Chicago athletes who have settled in the area after their playing days are over, Kukoc, who owns three Bulls championship rings, may have been the most overlooked.
While the NBA-watching public has been fixated on the Miami Heat's Big Three of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, it's easy to forget that the superior, more consistent trio was Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman of the Bulls' second three-peat teams from 1995 to 1998.
And, oh yeah, the third-leading scorer on those teams behind Jordan and Pippen was Kukoc, one of the most talented players to ever come off the bench and the last to win the NBA's Sixth Man Award and play for a championship team in the same season.
Kukoc came to the Bulls unwanted by both his teammates and his head coach, suppressed his game for the good of the team and never did reach his full potential.
"I know I have a prejudice," said his Chicago-based agent Herb Rudoy, who later represented Arvydas Sabonis and was one of the early agents to recognize the pipeline of talent from Europe. "But if Toni had been drafted by a team out West, say the Phoenix Suns, we'd be talking about him as a 6-11 point guard and perennial All-Star because his skill set was so high. He had the good fortune to play with really talented players, but it overshadowed that incredible skill set."
Kukoc says he has never been sorry. Not with three rings to show for it.
"In the end, everything worked out," he said with typical understatement.
But it wasn't easy.
The day Kukoc arrived in Chicago to sign his contract in May of 1993, he remembers walking into the Berto Center gym at 2 or 3 in the afternoon "just to mess around and shoot a little" and seeing Jordan and his father James.
"The Bulls were in a playoff series against New York and they had a game that night," he recalled. "I walked in thinking, 'OK, I'm going to be alone,' [but] there was Michael and his dad just talking. Michael was shooting and his dad was passing the ball back. So I had the chance to say 'Hi,' and they were very nice and stopped a little bit and talked to me, and then continued getting ready for the game."
A month after the Bulls defeated the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals, James Jordan was murdered in a robbery attempt.
The day after Kukoc returned to Chicago for good that fall, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball.
Rudoy remembers the phone call he received from Kukoc while Rudoy was on vacation in Israel.
"Toni said, 'You're not going to believe this,'" Rudoy said. "Then he said, 'Do me a favor, go to that wall and make a prayer for me.'"
Rudoy evidently slipped a well-worded message into "that [Wailing] Wall," but it would take a little while for the prayer to be answered.
Kukoc had become a pro as a teenager, a multimillionaire endorser and a bona-fide star in Europe, where they called him "The Waiter," for his ability to serve up the perfect pass. When he arrived in Chicago in '93, he was a grown man of 24, but still baby-faced and without a firm grasp of "American English."
Worse than that, he was Jerry's boy, the dream acquisition of then-general manager Jerry Krause, who ruined any chance Kukoc had to become one of the guys with Jordan and Pippen by bragging endlessly about Kukoc, whom he had been courting for years. Signing Kukoc to a then-impressive contract averaging $4.3 million per year while both Jordan's and Pippen's were below market value at the time did not help.
"I was coming in here with an idea that 'OK, once I become part of the team, I'm part of the team,'" Kukoc said. "I guess I brought that mentality from Europe because during my time, when you played for one team that was it. There was no trading of players. You have your contract. You're taking bad and good together, and the coaching staff and players are trying to fight your way through that. Then when I got here, you realize it's a different way, a different mentality."
Kukoc already had a taste of what to expect from the unfriendly treatment he received from Jordan and Pippen during the two games in which his Yugoslavian team lost to the Dream Team during the '92 Olympics in Barcelona.
"I was one of the main guys on my team and you always want to check people that you're bringing in," Kukoc said. "Are they tough enough physically and mentally? Can they respond when you need them to respond? So at that point, I realized of course these guys [feel like that]. I don't think they have anything against me personally. They're just testing me. And I later realized that Michael does that [to everyone] on a daily basis."
It was actually Bulls coach Phil Jackson who was toughest on Kukoc initially. While Kukoc understood most of what was said to him, it took him a while to mentally translate English to Croatian and then respond back to English. And there was also the little matter of American and NBA jargon.
While Kukoc tried to figure it out, Jackson screamed. He didn't like Kukoc's defense, his body language, and even when the coach was joking, his razor-sharp humor didn't translate.
"[Jackson] would challenge me in different ways and just kind of push me to see if I could handle it," Kukoc recalled. "Then the next morning, I would read in the papers that he would say 'I thought Toni played a good game because he talked to his mom yesterday on the phone.' Stuff like that. Or when we went to the West Coast and everyone was getting books [from Jackson], well my first book was a comic book, barely written in English, just pictures. He would say 'I wasn't sure if you could read any English.' It was his way, I guess, to get to the player."
There was only one sure way for Kukoc to win over teammates and coach, and he did it with his unselfishness and skill. Simply, they learned soon enough that they could rely on him, never more than in his first NBA playoffs, when he hit the game-winning jumper against the Knicks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Chicago Stadium in the spring of '94. If Kukoc is remembered for nothing else, it will be that shot at the buzzer after Pippen, angry that he wasn't asked to take the last-second shot, refused to enter the game following a timeout with 1.8 seconds remaining.
"That is probably one of the top five [questions he is asked]," Kukoc said. "You can't change. What are you going to say about it? 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."
Asked who he felt closest to during that time, Kukoc mentions Pippen first. "Especially that first year when Michael wasn't around, Scottie was really helping me, pushing me during practice and games," he said.
As he looks back at his years coming off the bench for the Bulls, Kukoc admits, "You always think you could do more and I thought if I was somewhere else, instead of averaging 14, 15, I'd probably average 22, 24, because I always thought I could score.
"But then again, once you get into the 'Let's get in the playoffs, let's win a championship' mode, then you don't really care. There were games I would score five and games I would score 30, and sometimes the five points were way more important than the 30."
He watches the Heat and sees certain similarities to his situation with the Bulls as he learned to fit in with Jordan and Pippen.
"They couldn't find a way to play together the first games they played," he said of Wade, James and Bosh. "But the more you play together, the more you find your spots, the more you understand each other and how to move out of each other's way."
Kukoc was traded a year after the championship core broke up, doing short stints in Philadelphia and Atlanta, then spending four seasons commuting to Milwaukee from Highland Park before retiring in 2006 after averaging 15.9 points and 5.1 assists over 13 NBA seasons.
By then, there was no question where home was. The wars in Yugoslavia had taken their toll on everyone there. And while Kukoc remains fiercely loyal to his homeland and returns each summer with his family to Split, where his wife Renata is also from, the Kukocs are now all U.S. citizens.
Both their kids are gifted athletes: Stella, 14, is a graduating eighth-grader, excelling in volleyball and soccer. Marin, 18, was a star basketball player and student at Highland Park High School before enrolling in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania last fall. He sat out his first collegiate season with a back injury.
"Right now, I'm looking at half of my life in Chicago, so I take this as home," he said. "Chicago is one of the greatest places when it comes to sports. It kind of reminds me of my hometown in Split. It doesn't matter how bad the soccer team is, everybody worships the soccer, the players and the games."
He is still surprised people recognize him on a daily basis.
"And it's always nice and they always remember," he said. "I kind of expect that the people wouldn't know me. I know I'm tall and I cannot escape that. But I didn't think the people would know me being somewhere downtown. But it's really been great."
At 42, he is back to his daily golf game 18 months after hip replacement surgery and tries to ignore his "back issues."
"I told the doctor, 'As long as I can walk OK, do some exercises and play golf, that's all I'm looking for,'" he said.
A 2- or 3-handicap, Kukoc is the preferred golf partner of Jordan when he is in town, particularly after the two won Jordan's tournament in Las Vegas a few years ago, the first in 10 years for Jordan.
"We'll play for $2 [against a variety of regular opponents] and it is still as competitive as it can be," Kukoc said of Jordan. "I need a chiropractor after because if he's here, we play all day. Because of my hip and back, I get a little stiff. But it's fun. You're talking a little trash, you're talking memories, you have a cigar, just walking when it's nice outside. So it's all great and fun and you're playing golf, so what's better than that?"
Kukoc has definitely improved in the trash-talking department.
"I told Michael, 'When I first got the ball from you after so long, I thought somebody was throwing stuff from the crowd, so I threw the ball back in the crowd and they said, no, no, we play with that,'" he said.
OK, so it might need just a little more work.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Former Bull Toni Kukoc is quite content in his post-NBA life.