Though Steve Kerr logged just 22.4 minutes per game for the 1997-98 Bulls (and didn’t make a start in his five-year tenure in Chicago), his penchant for big shots, dry humor and decorated resume as a head coach make him one of the more notorious faces from the Bulls’ second three-peat.
That name-brand recognition translated into Kerr being featured in a number of promotional materials for “The Last Dance” in the run-up to its debut. As an example:
For your planning purposes... pic.twitter.com/yrcnIg0L8Y— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 19, 2020
As it turns out, Kerr agrees with that sentiment. On the most recent episode of "The Lowe Post" podcast, Kerr admitted to ESPN’s Zach Lowe that he doesn’t feel deserving of his place on said graphic alongside the likes Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson. In fact, he said the prospect almost embarrasses him.
“Even today, I’m almost embarrassed, I see these graphics for "The Last Dance," these promos, and they have Michael, Dennis, Scottie, Phil and me,” Kerr told Lowe. “I understand it. The reason I’m on there is because I’m the one who’s famous because I’m the coach of the Warriors, and so people recognize me, and maybe people wouldn’t recognize Toni Kukoc or Luc Longley or Ron Harper. Or maybe their faces wouldn’t mean as much to a young generation because this was 22 years ago.
“But that should really be Toni (Kukoc) on that photo, on that promo,” Kerr said. “Because he was an incredible player.”
Indeed, Kukoc was a crucial yet underrated cog in the Bulls’ second three-peat. In the team’s 72-win 1995-96 campaign, he won Sixth Man of the Year. In 1997-98, he averaged 13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 45.5% from the floor and 36.2% from deep, and notched 14 double-digit scoring performances in the postseason. His unique blend of outside shooting, playmaking, passing and defensive versatility was a huge part of what made those Bulls teams so ahead of their time.
“When you had Harper, Pippen, Jordan, Kukoc, Rodman (on the floor). Five guys who were all 6-6 to 6-10, all could handle the ball, all could pass, all could guard multiple spots,” Kerr told Lowe. “It’s what we’re all trying to accomplish today in the NBA.
“And by the way, Toni Kukoc, he was so good, and I’m glad he’s getting his due, or I assume is going to get his due, in the documentary… He was so good and so skilled at 6-11 as a dribbler, passer, shooter. You know, his nickname was "The Waiter" when he was over in Europe because he was such a good passer, he would serve everybody. I hope people are able to recognize the brilliance of his game. Because if he played today, he would be an All-Star. He would be so well thought of because his game is perfectly suited to what we’re seeing now.”
Kerr closed his interview with Lowe by recounting the last time the 1997-98 team all assembled together under one roof — a team dinner with players, coaches and wives shortly after the championship parade. Jackson set up the event, and at one point gathered all the players for a last drink and cigar. While indulging, Kerr said, the team went around and toasted each other in a final, emotional and “surreal” gesture of farewell.
Kerr’s toast? To Kukoc, of course.
“I said a toast to Toni Kukoc because of what he faced coming over. It wasn’t common back then for European players to come over to the league, and nobody had had to go through what he did,” Kerr told Lowe. “The pressure from Michael and Scottie to earn his keep with the Bulls and, you know, to be Jerry's (Krause) guy because Jerry had drafted him in the second round and touted him. So all of a sudden, he shows up to practice and Michael and Scottie are all over him about being Jerry’s guy. And poor Toni just wants to play basketball. So I said a toast to Toni because I just thought he was such a great player.
“That night, I just wanted him to know how much he meant to our team.”
22 years later, Kerr continues to cape for Kukoc, and he’s a real one for it.