It began on the bus ride to the arena. Actually, it began when the U.S. drew Croatia in the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball tournament. It got serious on the bus ride.
Michael Jordan spoke. The rest of the Dream Team was silent in its seats.
“He said, ‘Toni Kukoc, I got him tonight,'” Magic Johnson recalled in a 2012 NBC documentary. “‘He’s not going to get one basket on me.'”
That set the table for “the Kukoc game.”
In its second contest of the Olympics, the Dream Team spanked the silver-medal favorite Croatia 103-70. Kukoc, a 23-year-old considered the world’s best player outside of the NBA, received the brunt.
Jordan, and perhaps even more Scottie Pippen, ruthlessly defended their future Chicago Bulls teammate. They picked him up before halfcourt. They face-guarded him. They denied him the ball and, when he did receive it, made Kukoc regret it.
The result: the man known as the European Magic Johnson scored four points on 2-of-11 shooting, with seven turnovers.
“I’ve never seen that kind of defense before,” Kukoc said afterward, according to The New York Times, adding years later in Jack McCallum‘s 2012 book, “Dream Team,” “I thought that was the way they guarded everybody.”
It wasn’t. Jordan and Pippen, as another famous Chicago duo would have said, were on a mission.
Pippen hadn’t met Kukoc before Barcelona, but he despised him for years.
That’s because Kukoc was the sought-after prize of Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Krause and Bulls management had refused to renegotiate Pippen’s contract in part to save money to try and sign Kukoc, who wouldn’t leave his Italian club for Chicago until 1993.
“That’s like a father who has all his kids, and now he sees another kid that he loves more than he loves his own,” Jordan said in a 2012 NBA TV documentary. “So we were not playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatian uniform.”
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Jordan may not have been directly financially impacted by Krause’s pursuit of the kid from Split, but he of course sided with Pippen in the management battle. Krause, in trying to woo Kukoc from Italy, had asked Jordan to give the Croatian a phone call.
“I don’t speak no Yugoslavian,” Jordan told him, according to longtime Chicago Tribune Bulls beat writer Sam Smith.
Kukoc fared much better in the teams’ rematch in the gold-medal game.
Though the U.S. won 117-85, he had 16 points, nine assists, five rebounds and, reportedly and most of all, Jordan’s respect.
Still, the final word should be reserved for Pippen, who let his feelings be known after that first meeting.
“Toni Kukoc could be a good player. But he’s in the right league,” in Italy, Pippen reportedly quipped. “Now they can see he’s not ready for NBA competition.”
Kukoc would go on to become a key role player for the Bulls’ last three championships, earning NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1996.
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