Toni Kukoc

How Toni Kukoc knew Michael Jordan was going to unretire and rejoin Bulls

How Toni Kukoc knew Michael Jordan was going to unretire and rejoin Bulls

In the run-up to Michael Jordan breaking his first retirement to rejoin the Bulls, mystery, rumor and large swaths of media swirled about the Berto Center in force — all trying to catch a glimpse of Jordan sneaking in and out, or procure the soundbite that would foreshadow his ultimate return.

While mum was the word around the Bulls on Jordan’s plans, Toni Kukoc had a feeling he knew what was coming. He described the moment he realized for sure Jordan was planning a comeback on NBC Sports’ “Sports Uncovered” podcast.

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“It was time to go practice, and once I went to the locker room and I saw about 40, 50 pairs of Jordans at his locker,” Kukoc said on the podcast. “I said to myself there is no way he’s going to one practice with 50 pairs of shoes ready.”

Kukoc’s detective work rang true. On March 18, 1995, Jordan declared his return to the NBA and the Bulls with a two-word fax that changed sports history: “I’m back.”

“From that point on, it was like the Bulls were this American team that everybody wants to see, that everybody wants to talk to,” said Kukoc, who joined the NBA and the Bulls mere months before Jordan announced his first retirement in 1993. “I felt like we had fans literally every single arena we played.”

The reverberations of the impact of Jordan’s return echoed throughout every niche of the NBA world — from players to media to executives to fans, including LeBron James.

Hear more from those orbiting Jordan during that time in his career on the “Sports Uncovered” podcast here.

RELATED: Why Michael Jordan secretly practiced with the Warriors before NBA return

How Michael Jordan, 1997-98 Bulls concealed identities at hotels on the road

How Michael Jordan, 1997-98 Bulls concealed identities at hotels on the road

“The Last Dance” has sent any and everyone in the gravitational pull of the Bulls’ dynasty on simultaneous strolls down memory lane.

That includes Rusty LaRue, a reserve guard on the 1997-98 team. LaRue played just 140 total minutes that season (none in the playoffs) and hasn’t gotten a mention in the docuseries, but he’s spent the past few weeks sharing relics from the era on social media:

 

 

One post in particular, though, piqued our curiosity. On May 2, LaRue tweeted out a page of an old itinerary packet from an undisclosed road trip during the Bulls’ 1997-98 season. Amusing because, while some Bulls (including LaRue) had no objection with their real names being printed next to their hotel room assignment, most on the team opted for aliases on the written record of their whereabouts — a marker of how widespread the team’s fame was at the time.

 

The immediate follow-up: Who was who? It’s actually a more crackable code than you might think — and thank you to LaRue, Toni Kukoc, Joe Kleine and Bill Wennington for that. 

Take a look at the Bulls’ 1997-98 roster and LaRue’s call sheet side-by-side. See if you notice anything:

Via Rusty LaRue and Basketball Reference

It’s in alphabetical order! Now, these two tables don’t perfectly line up. There are 15 players on the Bulls’ hotel room assignment sheet and 17 on the Basketball Reference roster, which makes for a few crucial inconsistencies. As an example, Kleine is the eighth player listed on the red page, but the ninth on the official roster. And there are four players between LaRue and Wennington on the left while there are five on the right.

For explanation, look no further than the Bulls’ transaction log from that season. During the 1997-98 season, the Bulls made three significant roster moves:

  1. Feb. 19, 1998: Traded Jason Caffey to the Golden State Warriors for David Vaughn and two second round picks

  2. March 2, 1998: Waived Vaughn

  3. March 2, 1998: Signed Dickey Simpkins

Caffey, Vaughn and Simpkins all appear on the Basketball Reference 1997-98 Bulls’ roster because all three spent time with the team at some point during the season, but no two of them were employed by the Bulls at the same time. If we assume the game in question happened at some point after the trade of Caffey, the two lists line up as such:

John Thompson - Keith Booth

Fred Sanford ------ Randy Brown

Greg Noll ----------- Jud Buechler 

Tyson Bedford ---- Scott Burrell

Peter Parker ------- Ron Harper

Oscar Miles -------- Michael Jordan

Austin Powers ---- Steve Kerr

Joe Kleine ---------- Joe Kleine

Toni Kukoc --------- Toni Kukoc

Rusty LaRue ------- Rusty LaRue

Stagger Lee -------- Luc Longley 

Johnnie Walker --- Scottie Pippen

Brook Mason ------ Dennis Rodman

Bumpy Johnson -- David Vaughn/Dickey Simpkins (depending on if the game was before or after March 2)

Bill Wennington --- Bill Wennington

And if you’re still not convinced, I submit these nuggets as further evidence:

  • John Thompson served as Georgetown’s head men’s basketball coach for 27 years from 1972-1999, and became the first African American head coach to win a major Division I championship in 1984. Keith Booth grew up in Baltimore, Md. in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and attended the University of Maryland for college. He would have been well-acquainted with Thompson’s successes and pioneership. 

  • Born and bred in San Diego, Jud Buechler’s lifelong love of surfing is widely known. In fact, Luc Longley sustained a pretty serious shoulder injury body-surfing with Buechler back in Nov. 1996. Greg Noll was a trail-blazer in the big wave surfing game.

  • Ron Harper’s son, Ron Harper Jr., who currently attends and plays basketball at Rutgers, listed Spiderman (Peter Parker) as his favorite superhero for his athlete biography page. As far as hard evidence goes, I’ll admit this is pretty flimsy. But it’s something!

  • Who else but Michael Jordan would list an Illinois Golf Hall of Fame inductee (Oscar Miles) as their alias?

  • Joe Kleine is Joe Kleine.

  • Toni Kukoc is Toni Kukoc (and how perfect that Kukoc — certainly not not notorious in that moment in time — just could not be bothered with a road-trip alias. What the hell did he have to fear?).

  • Rusty LaRue is Rusty LaRue.

  • “I would sign in under aliases Bruce Doull, Norman Gunston, Stagger Lee, which you could get away with over there," Luc Longley once said. No, I cannot independently confirm this quote, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned working in sports media, it’s to believe everything you read on the internet. Blindly and all at once.

  • John Walker was a prominent civil rights attorney in Arkansas in the latter half of the 20th century. His career achievements include degrees from NYU (masters) and Yale (law), partnering at Arkansas’ first integrated law firm in 1965 and being elected a state house representative in 2010 before passing away in 2011. Scottie Pippen was born in Hamburg, Ark. in 1965. Johnnie Walker is also a famous whiskey brand, and "scotch" is pretty close to "Scott."

  • Bill Wennington is Bill Wennington.

The icing on the cake: The room assignment sheet LaRue tweeted lists Jordan's security staff as being rooms 1804 and 1810, with Pippen's detail in 1704. Oscar Miles was in room 1809. Johnnie Walker in 1709. Adds up.

All of the above doesn't represent iron-clad reasoning for every alias, to be sure, but it's certainly enough to validate the initial hypothesis. As for the rest, Fred Sanford and Austin Powers are both, of course, iconic pop culture figures; Tyson Bedford (could Burrell have meant Beckford? Or perhaps it’s an allusion to Mike Tyson’s Brooklyn roots?) doesn’t exist; Bumpy Johnson is an infamous New York mob boss, but has no apparent link to Simpkins or Vaughn; and, I’ll be candid, I’m not sure what to make of Rodman’s choice of Brook Mason, which turns up little to nothing on a cursory Google search.

It’s been a little over two months since the NBA suspended its season. It’s been a little over three days since the latest episodes of “The Last Dance” aired. It’s been a little over 20 years since the Bulls capped off the most iconic dynasty the sport of basketball has ever seen.

But this team will never stop providing us mysteries to unfurl. And we’re forever grateful for that.

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Ex-Bulls recount Bill Cartwright’s speech after Scottie Pippen 1.8 second game

Ex-Bulls recount Bill Cartwright’s speech after Scottie Pippen 1.8 second game

Normally, a buzzer-beating game-winner in the midst of a contentious playoff series is cause for unbridled celebration. But after Toni Kukoc hit a turnaround 22-footer to snatch Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals from the jaws of collapse, the air in the Bulls’ postgame locker room was thick with tension.

That had less to do with the shot as it did with the events that transpired moments before it. Knotted at 102 with 1.8 seconds to play, coach Phil Jackson drew the winning play up for Kukoc instead of Scottie Pippen — a slight in the eyes of the latter. Asked to assume the role of inbounder — a decoy — on the most crucial play of the Bulls’ season to that point (they trailed 2-0 in the series), the MVP candidate’s response was simple: “I’m out.”

So, when Kukoc splashed that turnaround, it was off a pass from Pete Myers, not Pippen. He spent the final 1.8 ticks of the game on the bench. After a burst of ebullience by the team on the court, they trickled into the locker room, uncertain.

“We don’t know how to act because Scottie’s one of our favorite teammates, one of our favorite people in the world,” Kerr said of the postgame vibe. “He quit on us. We couldn’t believe that happened. It was devastating.”

In that moment, it was the sage Bill Cartwright who came forward, delivering an impassioned speech on behalf of his teammates who felt betrayed by Pippen. Though Will Perdue was left off the Bulls’ postseason roster that year due to injury, he was in the locker room to absorb Cartwright's comments. 

Here’s his account of Cartwright's raw, unfiltered and tear-filled comments, given on the most recent episode of the Bulls Talk Podcast:

“I had always known Bill as soft-hearted, but a hard-a**. He didn’t really say a lot, he talked with his eyes.That was really the first time Bill had expressed anything from an emotional standpoint. He had talked to officials with displeasure, he had talked to his opponents with displeasure, but never to his own teammates, especially having a direct conversation with Scottie in front of the whole locker room.

“And as you heard Steve (Kerr) talk about (in ‘The Last Dance’), it was one of those instances where he (Cartwright) was so angry and so frustrated, he was talking about opportunities and how we were blowing opportunities. ‘You guys don’t understand where I’ve been, what I’ve dealt with.’ He had tears rolling down his cheeks. I think it was one of those things where he wanted to grab Scottie by the neck, choke the crap out of him, throw a few body punches, throw him on the ground and tell him to straighten his a** out, but he knew he couldn’t do it. So it was almost like that anger turned into raw emotion, and the tears about what we were doing. The whole team was moved. 

“You heard everybody talk about, we came into the locker room — even though we won — we came in the locker room, it was dead silent. Phil didn’t even know what to say… But the one thing we did do is, guys rallied around him and almost won that series.

“Even though we didn’t get by the Knicks, we still made them earn it, and we were still a pretty good team that won 55 games.”

Cartwright’s rallying rant, and the emotion it was delivered with, is corroborated in “The Last Dance” by multiple teammates, including Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, John Paxson and Bill Wennington. Pippen, also with emotion, apologized in response.

“Scottie was in tears, and upset, and he realized, ‘I made a mistake,’” Wennington recalled in the documentary. “‘I thought I was bigger than the game and I’m not.' And he apologized to us.”

RELATED: Scottie Pippen: If I could do 1.8 second game over, ‘I probably wouldn’t change it’

Jackson said in "The Last Dance" that he briefly addressed the team after the incident. But in Cartwright’s eyes, his was the way the team's message should be delivered. Man to man. Player to player. Teammate to teammate.

“There’s times where the coaches don’t speak, because ultimately, look, we’re playing,” Cartwright said in a recent interview with Perdue and NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. “This is our team, and our team is gonna be what we make it. Coaches are gonna teach you, they’re gonna hold you accountable, but ultimately this is us. 

“So at that point in time, I didn’t feel like Phil should be saying anything. This is on us. This is all us.”

Ultimately, Pippen bounced back. Three games later, he uncorked his legendary step-over dunk on Patrick Ewing. The Bulls went on to fall to the Knicks in seven games, but there remained three titles in Pippen’s future and a restoration of his status as a trusted leader alongside Jordan after his return.

“It (the 1.8 second game) was a learning moment in his life,” Jackson later told the New York Times before Pippen’s Hall of Fame induction in 2010. “He came back as a leader of teams for another decade.”

To this day, Pippen insists he wouldn't have done things any differently, even if given the chance.

“It’s one of those incidents where I wish it never happened,” Pippen said in “The Last Dance.” “But if I had a chance to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”

Believe him or not, there’s no changing the past. And Pippen’s features many more peaks than valleys, even if the valleys often echo the loudest.

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