Close to 30 years later, Toni Kukoc can joke about it.
“Was there any other player in the history of the world who had a Dream Team going after him?” Kukoc said, laughing, as he recalled the USA vs. Croatia matchup at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
That’s the game in which Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took turns hounding Jerry Krause’s prized, 1990 draft pick, who had yet to join the Bulls as he played professionally overseas. Kukoc didn’t score until late in the first half and finished 2-for-11 with seven turnovers.
“I didn’t know they were going to come like that,” Kukoc said. “I had no idea they were that hungry to prove a point.”
They were. As Jordan put it in NBA TV’s documentary “The Dream Team”: “We weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.”
Of course, Kukoc ultimately proved to be a critical cog in the second three-peat, earning the respect of Pippen and Jordan along the way.
“When I got there (in 1993), I understand the part because I had that privilege in Europe where younger players had to prove themselves and you give them grief. It’s just part of being a new guy,” Kukoc said. “My difference is I was getting into the world champion Chicago Bulls. Everybody is great. Everybody knows what needs to be done. It wasn’t easy. But I can honestly say, regardless of what Scottie said before, he was a huge help to me, especially that first year. He was absolutely awesome towards me.”
That first year followed the stunning first retirement of Jordan, who held a news conference in October 1993 just days after Kukoc arrived in the United States for training camp.
“That was really, really sad,” Kukoc said.
Jordan retired after his father, James, was murdered in a botched robbery attempt that offseason. He played minor league baseball to honor James, who loved the sport.
“I was lucky enough to meet Michael’s dad during the New York (Knicks) series,” Kukoc said, referencing the 1993 Eastern Conference finals. “I came for a physical and went to the Berto Center for the first time just to see the facility. MJ was there with his dad. He was passing him the ball. They were talking about the game.”
Kukoc returned to Europe to attend a different funeral in a summer of sadness. Croatian sensation Drazen Petrovic, then playing for the Nets, was tragically killed in an automobile accident at age 28 in June 1993.
“After that, I get here to Chicago and the whole idea of playing with Michael and maybe winning another title kind of drops the second I hear that he’s retiring,” Kukoc said. “I’m meeting my teammates for the first time. Everybody’s crying. I’m crying. I’m going, ‘Is this going to be how I imagined?’ It was just sad.”
Ultimately, that sadness turned to happiness. Krause has called the 1993-94 Bulls one of his favorite teams of all time. They won 55 games and lost to the Knicks in the second round, dropping one critical game on a controversial foul call on Pippen.
Then came the second three-peat and Kukoc earning Jordan’s respect.
“Scottie was just a different character than Michael. He was more the soft side. Every once in a while he would explode. But he would help me. Michael on the other end was almost always aggressive,” Kukoc said. “Every once in a while, he would come to me when he would see I was down. He would tap me on the butt and say, ‘I love you, my Yugoslavian brother.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. Croatia.’ Those are the things that stick with me that are fun memories.”