Renata Kukoc finishes dressing, kisses four-year-old Marin and
baby Stela, picks up a girlfriend, then starts negotiating her
way from her northwestern suburb to the United Center on
Chicago's West Side. The rush-hour stragglers are headed in the
opposite direction by the time Renata leaves home, but she never
quite knows what to expect once she hits the expressway. The
trip can take 35 minutes or it can take an hour, but if the
timing is right and the traffic cooperative, Renata will settle
into her end-court seat five or six minutes into the first
quarter, sometimes at the precise moment her husband is
stripping off his Chicago Bulls warmups.
Except for those nights when Dennis Rodman is serving a
suspension for having split the uprights or something, Toni
Kukoc is the sixth man for the NBA champion Bulls. Indeed, last
season Kukoc won the NBA's Sixth Man Award, a prize that left
him with a healthy ambivalence--as if someone had named him
smartest kid in the dumb row or funniest sitcom on CBS. Kukoc
received the Sixth Man Award at a ceremony in New York City
during the playoffs. He was stuck in traffic, arrived late,
offered his profuse and sincere thanks, then said if it were all
the same, he would rather start. Kukoc may have felt somewhat
like Abraham Lincoln, who when asked how he enjoyed being
president, said, in effect, that if it weren't for the honor of
the thing, he would just as soon have passed.
"That's the award I'm not supposed to care about," Kukoc says as
he walks into the kitchen of his expansive home, brandishing the
trophy. The Sixth Man Award has pride of place in the living
room; it's the first thing visible from the front door. Kukoc
is, in a measured way, truly flattered to have received it. But
to put his impolitic response at the ceremony in context, you
have to understand where Kukoc is coming from.
Europe. Kukoc has come from Europe. "He was the MJ of Europe,"
says Ivica Dukan, the Bulls' supervisor of European scouting and
a former teammate of Kukoc's in their native Croatia. Now Kukoc
plays with the MJ of the other six continents and--judging by
Space Jam--the galaxy as well. Like Bugs Bunny, Kukoc is a
member of the Tune Squad, just one more role player in Michael
February 24, 1997
It has been almost four years since Kukoc left finger-rollin',
zone-playin' Europe for the harder, richer life of the NBA,
where the statue isn't Michelangelo's David but Michael outside
the United Center. New culture. New language. New game. Kukoc
has been a qualified success. At week's end he was averaging
28.8 minutes per game, 13.7 points and 4.4 assists for the 45-6
Bulls. His defense has improved from clueless to ordinary, he
disappears on the road at times, and he still has trouble
rebounding in traffic. But Kukoc has progressed enough that he
is certainly one of the top 30 players in the league, one whose
deadly shooting and inventive playmaking opponents respect, even
fear. "If you put your big people on him, they can't handle him
on the perimeter," says Milwaukee Bucks forward Vin Baker. "If
you put your small people on him, he'll post them inside. He's a
"He's the X ingredient in our game," says Bulls coach Phil
Jackson. "If he has a great game, we're going to be unbeatable."
For the privilege of being an NBA enigma, Kukoc, in 1993, bought
out his contract with Benetton Treviso of Italy for about $3
million from his own pocket. Never mind the $4.4 million or so
Chicago will pay Kukoc each year through the 1999-2000 season;
$3 million is still a princely sum to spend to be abused. Since
Mike Ditka left Jim Harbaugh alone, has any Chicago athlete--or
any athlete anywhere--been yelled at as often as Kukoc? Jackson
has zenned in on him; Jordan has hectored him; Scottie Pippen
has goaded him. Kukoc has taken it well enough. "I think I'm all
right with everybody here," he says. But during his first two
seasons in Chicago, after a poor game or an unsettling practice,
Kukoc would storm into the house and say, That's it, who needs
it, we're going back to Europe.
"Our housekeeper, Zdravka, came to me in tears one time," Renata
says. "She says, 'Are you really leaving? Toni says so.' I told
her to leave him alone, that he would feel different tomorrow.
Toni has packed and unpacked a hundred times in his mind."
While the Kukoc family may very well pack and return to Croatia
when Toni's career is over, it has found a comfortable niche in
Chicago. Renata likes the area even though her circle of friends
is small. Marin attends nursery school and speaks English as
easily as he does Croatian. If anyone has a problem with the
routine, it is Toni, who despises NBA travel. "I don't have a
fear of flying," he explains. "I have a fear of crashing."
Since last season, when the Bulls went a record 72-10 and
regained the NBA championship, Kukoc has hardly talked about
leaving Chicago to play elsewhere. Not that he won't have
options after his contract runs out. He can do so much, this
6'11" magician with a feathery touch and sublime passing skills
and the size to be a good rebounder when he chooses to. But
there is just one ball, even in Chicago, and Kukoc doesn't have
first dibs. On the nights when Jordan or Pippen has hijacked the
game, Kukoc will anxiously stand on the wing, 22 feet from the
basket, a 28-year-old kid waiting for an invitation to play.
Everyone who knows Kukoc swears he is one of the funniest,
warmest men in the world. On the court he looks like a mope.
But Kukoc is fine, thank you, and he will be sticking around
until he proves to everyone's satisfaction--especially his
own--that basketball is basketball is basketball. The lachrymose
Zdravka can dab her eyes. Her boss will find fulfillment in
Chicago. No question.
His smile might be harder to locate.
A few weeks ago, Kukoc popped a tape into the VCR, a highlight
reel of his seasons in Europe. He was amazed, not at his prowess
but at his face. When he scored, he smiled. When he made a sweet
pass, he smiled. Even when he got hammered a few times, he
laughed. There was lightness. There was joy.
"When I decide to come here, I said to myself that you probably
are going to have to start from the bottom, same as a rookie
coming out of college," Kukoc says as he folds himself into a
chair one day after practice. "After playing nine years of
basketball in Europe...it wasn't always easy to accept that
whatever I did there was like, Who cares? This is NBA. When Pip
and MJ talk about things now, they say, This is your fourth
year; you're almost a rookie. And I say, O.K., we count three
years in Europe like one in NBA. I still have at least seven
Kukoc wouldn't still be trying to convert Euroball into NBA hard
currency, wouldn't still be calculating dog years, if he had
been, say, some big kid from Duke. Trouble is, his reputation in
Europe didn't so much precede him as retard him. Jordan declined
to look at tapes Bulls general manager Jerry Krause supplied of
the Croatian prodigy the Bulls drafted 29th overall in 1990, and
when the G.M. asked Jordan to call and encourage Kukoc to come
to Chicago, Jordan was quoted as saying, "I don't speak no
Yugoslavian." Jordan and Pippen finally faced Kukoc when he was
playing for Croatia at the Barcelona Olympics in '92, and they
not only had him for lunch, but they also looked as if they were
having a grand time playing with their food.
Pippen in particular seemed offended by the extended courtship
of Kukoc, not surprising when his own contract concerns were on
the back burner. "This club went out of its way to find Toni,
get Toni and pay him a lot of money," Jackson says. "At the same
time [it] couldn't find a way to honor someone [Pippen] who had
done the job [here] for years." This was business (Pippen's
salary is a paltry $2.375 million). So, apparently, was Pippen's
refusal to play the last 1.8 seconds of regulation in an Eastern
Conference semifinal playoff game against the New York Knicks in
1994 after Jackson designed the last shot for Kukoc--a shot
Kukoc sank to win the game. "No," says Kukoc, holding on to the
consonant in an English that he has fought hard to master and
pondering whether the resentment was mutual. "I like Scottie a
lot. For me, he seems closest in personality to myself." Pippen
denies he ever had a problem with Kukoc, saying, "Other than me
trying to push him [to succeed] when he first came in, we have a
great relationship....We have a lot of respect for each other."
Jordan, who does not speak to SI, seems more diffident. In Rick
Telander's 1996 book, In the Year of the Bull, Kukoc is Jordan's
biggest target. Jordan says matter-of-factly, "Toni likes to be
admired. It's the fame he loves, but he doesn't like to work....
You have players who have the heart but not the talent. And
players who have the talent but not the heart. I'm seeing it a
lot more as I get older, and I get frustrated. And that
frustration makes me just want to choke the s--- out of Toni."
Kukoc shifts on the chair when Jordan's rebuke is repeated. "I
like playing with Michael. I just can't get close to him as a
person," says Kukoc, a cloud passing over his face. "I can be
aggressive in a basketball way, but Michael wants me to be
aggressive as a person. I don't know how to do that. MJ tells
me, 'If you want to be mean and aggressive, eat red meat and a
pepper.' MJ is always going to say I don't understand. I think I
do understand. I'll be 29 [in September]. At this point, I think
I do get it."
Maybe. His coach occasionally wonders. The schoolyard is
Jackson's equivalent of Jordan's red meat and a pepper. He has
asked Kukoc to study playground basketball, the implication
being that three guys named Charlie playing on a court with
chain nets have a greater natural affinity for the NBA game than
the most gifted European-trained player ever. Jackson doesn't
consider the suggestion demeaning, merely instructive. "I told
Toni at some point early in his career that he does so many
things that are incongruous in the context of basketball that I
was going to have to be the one to rescue him by disciplining
him," Jackson says, "before his teammates chewed him apart." In
January of last year Kukoc, feeling sufficiently masticated over
his casual defense and one-arm rebounding, finally asked Jackson
to back off a little. Jackson agreed to be less forceful, at
"Phil's not much of a yeller," Bulls guard Steve Kerr says, "but
Toni's his guy."
You try smiling--or hitting the three-pointer--when your own
coaches are trash-talking you. "The only ones who can stop me,"
Kukoc proclaims, "are Phil and Tex [Winter, a Bulls assistant
coach and defensive guru]."
"I gave him that line," Jackson says proudly.
Kukoc walks into Dukan's office at the Bulls' practice center,
his eyes quickly glancing to his right. There, on the wall, is a
travel poster of Split, Croatia, their hometown. The poster is
Kukoc's smile button. The sight of it bathes his face in a soft
light, and years seem to melt off. The shot is an aerial view of
Diocletian's palace, but it is the Adriatic in the background
that draws the eyes. Kukoc loves the sea. That shark tattoo on
his left shoulder, so anomalous to his nature, is his reminder
of the water.
If Kukoc has changed, maybe it is because Split has changed. The
city was mostly spared in 1991 during the civil war, when the
Yugoslavia that Tito once knit together unraveled. Kukoc was
already playing for Benetton Treviso when two days of fighting
erupted around Split. No one in his family was killed. Compared
with the devastation of, say, Dubrovnik, nothing happened. But
the war marked Split and its sons. "Before the war people were
always having fun, always laughing," says Kukoc, who returns
home every summer. "They used to say it is a city that you can
put a big plastic roof on, and it would be the biggest circus in
the world. Since the war people are just trying to stay alive,
"Phil sometimes says I'm not aggressive, I'm not a fighter. I
know this guy, a player back home I played on the [Yugoslavian]
national team with. I was always compared with this guy--the
same kind of mentality. The first year of the war, I see this
guy, and he is like commander of a thousand people. I talk to
him, and he says he came to the point where it didn't matter to
see people killed or to kill somebody. Like you just pulled the
trigger. Once you hear those things, it's not human anymore."
Maybe if you maintain your humanity, if you can choke back the
bile in your throat, the other things--shooting threes and
defense and being a warrior by Bulls standards--will sort
themselves out. "I often talk to Toni about what's gone on
there," Jackson says, "and the thing that strikes me the most is
his despair about the future. That this thing won't be fixed in
"I don't know how many guys on this team tried to put themselves
in Toni's shoes--having to learn the language, having to come
from where he has," Kerr says. "Maybe we should have. If it were
the reverse situation, it would seem like a lot of pressure."
If this were a perfect world--and few people realize more
profoundly than Toni Kukoc that it isn't--he would be starting,
playing 40 minutes, scoring 18 to 20 points per game, averaging
seven assists and seven rebounds and "doing all kinds of things
I used to over there." But this is the imperfect world of the
World's Greatest Basketball Team. "I have a middle line," Kukoc
says. "I am pretty much above that middle line, in between
perfect and bottom."
His play swings on both sides of that line. On Dec. 17 Kukoc
willed a 129-123 Chicago victory by scoring 23 points in the
fourth quarter and overtime--one more in that span than the
entire Los Angeles Lakers team. Then, on Jan. 19, Kukoc shot an
invisible 1 for 10 in a 102-86 Bulls loss to the Houston
Rockets. Kukoc followed that two nights later with a 3-for-9
stinker in an 88-87 home victory against the Knicks, a game in
which Jackson chose to start two less accomplished players,
forward Jason Caffey and guard Randy Brown, but not Kukoc. As
the lineups were announced, Kukoc turned to press row and
shrugged. He was smiling.
"Once, early in my NBA career, somebody asked me, 'When are you
going to smile like you did in Europe?'" Kukoc says. "I said
when I reached the point where I feel about my game in NBA like
I felt in Europe, I'll smile all the time."