Toni Kukoc had one prevailing reaction as he watched the first two episodes of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary about the 1997-98 Bulls.
“I’m hoping the other episodes are brighter and more of a celebration of basketball instead of who is guilty or to blame, and why didn’t they win eight championships or 10,” Kukoc said in a phone interview. “The world was so happy when that was happening. So I don’t know what people are mad at.”
Kukoc, who is currently a special advisor to Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf, played a critical role in the Bulls’ second three-peat. His memories of even that final season are primarily fond ones. He laughed when told a scene in an upcoming episode will depict Michael Jordan teasing Bill Wennington for filming everything on his personal camcorder, as Kukoc reads a newspaper on the team bus nearby.
“I cherish the things we did in practice, that we did on the road,” Kukoc said. “That team worked so hard and was committed and devoted. We’re talking about people who won six championships in eight years and we’ve got to find a way to find a dark note?”
During a lengthy phone conversation, Kukoc grew most animated defending Jerry Krause, the late general manager who became a target for Jordan and Scottie Pippen for various reasons, and who endured contentious contract negotiations with Phil Jackson and Jackson’s agent, Todd Musburger.
Krause drafted Kukoc in the second round in 1990 and spent three years wooing the Croatian matchup nightmare to jump to the NBA. Kukoc won Sixth Man of the Year honors in 1996.
“Those three years that he was pursuing me and saying you gotta come, his pitch to me was, ‘You have no idea. We have this incredible coach. We have awesome older players who lead like Pax (John Paxson) and (Bill) Cartwright. We have these amazing athletes like MJ and Scottie who can do anything.’ He had so much joy when he talked about that team,” Kukoc said. “He told me how crazy good it would be with me flying on the break or leading the break with MJ on one side and Scottie on the other. He was never like, ‘Oh, I built this team and I did this.’ He just talked about what a great organization the Bulls were.
“People who weren’t there are assuming and saying, ‘Oh, his ego got in the way. That’s why he destroyed the dynasty.’ Not that they don’t appreciate what he did, but you always put him down? Of course it’s going to affect someone. He’s not here, but I don’t even want to say he can’t defend himself. There’s nothing to defend. He’s the GM of the six-time champs. Name me another five people in the world who did what he did — in any sport.”
In fact, Kukoc said he never knew how frayed the relationship was between Krause and Jackson until he watched the first two episodes.
“Maybe I was ignorant. Maybe I was caught up in my own stuff. You knew there was stuff going around. But when you practice every day and go home to your family and you own business, you don’t pay attention to that stuff that much. Plus, Phil always made this kind of bubble where players were on their own,” Kukoc said. “You knew Michael wasn’t going to be there for the other coach. Scottie wasn’t going to be there. That was the end.
“I was hoping that the minds of people would agree we should come back and defend the title. But now I hear some relationships were to the point of no return. That’s a sad part. But the run was awesome.”
The 1997-98 Bulls went 15-6 in the playoffs and endured their only seven-game series of the second three-peat. Kukoc came up huge in that Eastern Conference finals Game 7 against the Pacers, scoring 21 points to help send them to an NBA Finals rematch against the Jazz.
He acknowledged the difficulty of making three straight runs to a title.
“We were exhausted. We were hurt. There was plenty of plantar fasciitis going around. We were changing shoes. People were battered. It gets harder and harder every year,” he said. “You can’t just walk into the Finals.
“I always say the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers probably did the same thing we did — practice like crazy, love each other, devoted everything to winning. And then lost to us. And nobody says things about Indiana and Utah. It’s that close, that fine a line between winning and losing. And you win and 25 years later, you have 10 (TV) episodes about you.”
Here’s Kukoc on principals from the documentary:
On Phil Jackson: “Really smart. Very good teacher. Pays attention to the little details. Does not take people as just players but likes to get into personalities to try to understand how to make them go.”
On Michael Jordan: “The ultimate sports figure. The ultimate competitor. Great person. I consider him my friend. I wouldn’t be that good if I was Michael Jordan. He dealt with so much. And all he cared about was practicing and competing and winning.”
On Scottie Pippen: “He was the ultimate teammate. I loved the way he approached the games — unselfish, ready to sacrifice for the good of the team. He helped me the most.”
On Dennis Rodman: “Same as Scottie. Awesome teammate. Absolutely understood every part of the game. Very high IQ basketball-wise. Sacrificed the offensive part of the game just to give himself for defense and rebounding. Very shy as Dennis Rodman, as himself. But very crazy and fun guy whenever he wanted to be someone else.”
On Ron Harper: “That was my close friend. I loved Harp. We would talk about things on the side. He wasn’t Michael or Dennis or Scottie but he was a veteran of the team who had been through a lot and knew what was going on, understood everything. He’d calm me down when I needed to be calmed down.”