By Craig Kwasniewski
The last active player from the Chicago Bulls Dynasty of the 1990's is about to retire. According to yahoo.com, "NBA veteran Toni Kukoc is likely to retire after failing to interest the Milwaukee Bucks or Chicago Bulls in signing him."
This brings back some great memories from those Bulls teams. Immediately after Jordan announces his first retirement, Kukoc came to the Bulls in 1993-94 as a villain to Scottie Pippen. Jerry Krause paid more money to the unproven European player than the Bulls' All-Star forward. With Jordan gone, Pippen fuming at the front office and Phil Jackson's disdain for rookie players (and stereotypical Euro basketball traits), Kukoc's rookie season had the markings for disaster. So what did he do?
He responded and became the team's fourth best player (behind Pippen, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong) and the best clutch player by the time the season was over. Three key moments told me what kind of player Kukoc was:
Christmas Day 1993: With Chicago playing the Orlando Magic in front of a national TV audience, Toni Kukoc floats a six-foot jump hook over Shaquille O’Neal with two seconds left for the 95-93 Chicago win. This was Toni's coming out party in a game meant to showcase Shaquille O'Neal.
Reggie Miller takes a Bow: On Jan. 21, 1994, against the Indiana Pacers. Reggie Miller sank a jumper with two seconds left to put his team up by one. Then Miller felt compelled to sprint to center court and bow to the fans in Chicago Stadium. But with 0.8 seconds left, Kukoc banked in the game winner. "I didn't ask for the bank. I wanted a straight shot," Coach Phil Jackson said after the game, with a wry smile. (from The Ten Greatest Bulls Shots)
Pippen Sits for the Final 1.8: In Game 3 against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Scottie Pippen refused to take the floor with 1.8 seconds remaining after Phil Jackson designed a potential game-winning play for Toni Kukoc rather than Pippen. All Kukoc did was calmly hit a fade-away three off a curl from the top of the key for the win.
Those plays earned Jordan's respect not for the results but more for the willingness to take the shots. Given that most European players tend to fade or disappear in the clutch, Kukoc was willing to step in. Along with Dirk Nowitzki I'd say that Kukoc's one of the best European players in the clutch to ever play in the NBA.
Not known for his defense or rebounding skills, Kukoc played the role of offensive facilitator in the Triangle Offense. When Jordan returned in 1995, Kukoc became the first player off the bench, eventually winning the 6th Man of the Year award in 1996.
Kukoc's last memorable performance as a Bull was in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus Indiana. Kukoc, playing in the first Game 7 of his career contributed 21 points, including 13 in the third quarter when no one else was producing. He kept the Bulls in the game as they outlasted the Pacers 88-83.
The past few seasons in Milwaukee, Kukoc was relegated to 15-20 mins a game, filling the role of "the waiter" (his European nickname) and dictating the offense while on the floor. I saw him play the Lakers last season and the Bucks offense was fluid with Kukoc on the floor. He found the right spots and helped keep the game close.
I was slightly hoping that Jackson would convince Kukoc to play one season with the Lakers this year. Maybe his playmaking skills in the Triangle could rub off on the likes of Odom, too bad.
So with Kukoc gone, the Bulls Dynasty of the 1990's is finally closed.