Friday, June 11, 2010

International Relations


When Jerry Krause drafted Toni Kukoc with the second pick in the second round of the 1990 NBA draft (29th overall), the Chicago Bulls general manager thought he had pulled off his greatest coup. After all, Kukoc was widely acknowledged as the best player in Europe with guard skills packaged in a power forward’s frame.

But Krause’s torrid infatuation with Kukoc also served to foment dissension against team management by the Bulls’ greatest stars, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Jordan disliked Krause’s groveling over an unproven player. Pippen was furious with contract figures being bandied about in hopes of luring Kukoc across the pond. Pippen was undoubtedly one of the top 10 players in the NBA at the time, but he was being paid like an average journeyman, and was stuck with an underwhelming long-term deal.

So when Kukoc’s Croatia team was placed in the same group as the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, it provided some extra motivation for Dream Team members Jordan and Pippen. Croatia was the second-best team that summer, with Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Stojko Vrankovic. But the U.S. wasn’t going to lose, the scores weren’t even going to be close, so any edge to get up for a game would be exploited.

The Americans and Croatians first squared off during group play. Chuck Daly put Pippen in the starting lineup and tasked him with guarding Kukoc. Pippen had made his first NBA all-defensive team that season, but you might be hard-pressed to find a game that season where he guarded someone harder than he did Kukoc.

Pippen was even more infuriated defensively after Kukoc got a rebound and a nifty assist to give Croatia a 4-2 lead. Pippen hardly left Kukoc’s hip after that, and was inordinately physical. Kukoc was visibly frustrated, constantly slapping Pippen’s hands away.

Jordan was locked in defensively as well. He stole a Kukoc pass, leading to a breakaway dunk and a 9-6 lead for the Americans. After Kukoc got by Magic Johnson on a drive, Jordan was there to swat the shot attempt that turned into a Pippen dunk and a 42-18 advantage.

The constant harassment had broken Kukoc’s will. He missed his first four shots of the game, getting his only basket on an uncontested layup right before the halftime buzzer that was made possible by Arijan Komazec’s penetration. Kukoc seemed to shut down, offering no signs of competitiveness. That lack of fire was contrasted by Petrovic, who met the challenge of facing the Dream Team head-on. He scored 11 straight points in the first half to keep the score to a somewhat respectable 54-37 at the break.

Kukoc had a little more breathing room in the second half, being guarded mostly by Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler. Here, without the stultifying length of Pippen, is where one saw why Krause held Kukoc in such high esteem. With his height advantage at 6 feet 11 inches, Kukoc could see over his defenders on the perimeter. He had a well-honed anticipatory sense about where his teammates were going to be. He had only five assists in the game, but several of his nicest passes were met with blown layups or fouls by the U.S. Pippen’s initial defense also left Kukoc a little gun shy, and the Croatian star finished 2 for 11 from the field in the Americans’ 103-70 victory.

After the game, Pippen was scathing in his view of Kukoc. Pippen said Kukoc didn’t have the mentality to make it through the 82-game grind of a regular season. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley echoed those sentiments. Jordan took a more diplomatic approach, saying Kukoc’s skills would be better highlighted when playing with teammates of a higher caliber.

Kukoc gained a measure of revenge in the gold-medal game. He had 16 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the 117-85 romp by the U.S. Kukoc was infinitely more aggressive in going after Pippen, hitting several three-pointers over the long arms of one of the world’s top defenders (Kukoc was 3 for 4 beyond the arc in the game).

Kukoc finally made it to the Bulls after the 1992-’93 season, just in time for Jordan’s first retirement. Kukoc and Pippen coexisted uneasily before Jordan’s return prompted the second three-peat. But Kukoc never seemed comfortable in his own skin with the Bulls, probably because of the rude introduction by Jordan and Pippen at the Olympics.

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