Toni Kukoc was an invaluable member of the second Chicago Bulls three-peat. From 1995-98, Kukoc averaged 13.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and four assists per game as a forward who complimented both Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen beautifully. It says a lot about Kukoc that he was able to turn into such an important contributor to the team, because his first introduction to Jordan and Pippen could not have gone much worse.
Kukoc led Croatia into the 1992 Summer Olympics. Of course, that was the summer that NBA players joined forces to participate in the games as members of the Dream Team, which rolled through the competition en route to a gold medal. This included a pair of games against Croatia, the first of which Jordan and Pippen used as a chance to make Kukoc’s life hell.
As episode five of The Last Dance explained, the Bulls drafted Kukoc in 1990. He opted to stay in Europe, both due to the country’s War of Independence and the fact that he was making good money where he was, but Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was enamored with bringing him over.
“Jerry went over to watch Toni play in what was then Yugoslavia, and said, ‘Toni Kukoc is gonna be the future of the Chicago Bulls,’” longtime reporter David Aldridge said.
“Jerry was fawning over Toni so much while our team here was winning championships, and it just rubbed a lot of the players the wrong way, unfortunately,” according to Bills executive Jim Stack.
Two of those players were Jordan and Pippen, the latter of whom was especially ticked off, because Krause cut short negotiations with him over an extension to go negotiate with Kukoc in the hopes of bringing him to the States.
“At that time, I had no idea what was going on with the Bulls,” Kukoc said. “I don’t know the frictions in between Scottie and Jerry, Michael and Jerry. So going to the Olympics, I kinda thought everything was ok.”
Unfortunately for Kukoc, this meant that Jordan and Pippen got the chance to introduce themselves to him on July 27, 1992, when the Dream Team squared off against Croatia. Jordan apparently told his teammates before the game to “leave him for Scottie and me,” and for the entirety of the game, the pair made it a point to hound their soon-to-be teammate.
Kukoc ended with four points, five assists, and seven turnovers as Croatia lost, 103-70. The entirety of the game, one of Jordan or Pippen — then the two-best perimeter defenders on earth — were on Kukoc’s hip.
“Toni Kukoc became a great teammate and I love Toni Kukoc for who he is,” Jordan said. “But the way he was introduced to me and Scottie, I didn’t appreciate that. It had drove my energy.”
“Jerry paved a way for a lot of hell for Toni Kukoc,” Pippen said. “Not only was it me and Michael, but every guy on the Olympic team looked at that kid and felt like he may not even think about coming to the NBA after he played against us. It wasn’t anything personally about Toni, but we were gonna do everything that we could to make Jerry look bad.”
Much of this ground was covered in NBA TV’s excellent Dream Team documentary a few years back, with this shining more of a light on the Bulls-specific tensions that existed heading into that game. The two sides would square off with a gold medal on the line, and while Kukoc had a much better game (16 points, nine assists, five rebounds, three turnovers), it was nowhere near enough, as the Dream Team came out on top, 117-85.