Maligned by his teammates and troubled by concerns for his embattled homeland, super sub Toni Kukoc has persevered
by Michael Farber
Renata Kukoc finishes dressing, kisses four-year-old Marin and baby Stela, picks up a girlfriend and then starts negotiating her way from her northwestern suburb to the United Center on Chicago's West Side. By the time she leaves home, the rush-hour stragglers are headed in the opposite direction, but Renata never quite knows what to expect once she hits the expressway. The trip can take 35 minutes or it can take an hour, but if the traffic is cooperative, Renata will settle into her end-court seat five or six minutes into the first quarter, often at the precise moment her husband is stripping off his Bulls warmups.
Except for those nights when Dennis Rodman is otherwise engaged, Toni Kukoc is the sixth man for the NBA champion Bulls. Indeed, Kukoc won the league's sixth-man award for the 1995-96 season, a prize that left him with a healthy ambivalenceas if someone had named him smartest kid in the dumb row or funniest sitcom on CBS. Kukoc received the award at a ceremony in New York City during the '96 playoffs. He got stuck in traffic, arrived late, offered his profuse and sincere thanks, then said that if it were all the same, he would rather start. Kukoc might have felt somewhat like Abraham Lincoln, who, when asked how he enjoyed being president, said, in effect, that if it weren't for the honor of it all he would just as soon have passed.
"That's the award I'm not supposed to care about," Kukoc says as he walks into the kitchen of his expansive home, brandishing the trophy. The sixth-man award has pride of place in the living room; it's the first thing you see when you enter the house. Kukoc is, in a measured way, truly flattered to have received it. To put his impolitic response at the ceremony in context, you have to understand where Kukoc is coming from.
Europe. Kukoc comes from Europe. "He was the MJ of Europe," says Ivica Dukan, the Bulls' supervisor of European scouting and a former teammate of Kukoc's in their native Croatia. Now Kukoc plays with the MJ of the other six continents and the rest of the galaxy as well. Like Bugs Bunny, Kukoc is just one more bit player in Michael Jordan's universe.
It has been almost four years since Kukoc left finger-rollin', zone-playin' Europe for the harder, richer life of the NBA, where the local statue of note isn't Michelangelo's David but the United Center's Michael. New culture. New language. New game. Kukoc has been a qualified success. In 1996-97, he averaged 28.2 minutes, 13.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, although a foot injury limited him to 57 games. His defense has improved from clueless to ordinary, he disappears on the road at times, and he still has trouble rebounding in traffic. But Kukoc has progressed enough so that he is certainly one of the top 30 players in the league, one whose deadly shooting and inventive playmaking opponents respect, even fear. "If you put your big people on him, they can't handle him on the perimeter," says Milwaukee Bucks forward Vin Baker. "If you put your small people on him, he'll post them inside. He's a matchup nightmare."
"He's the X-ingredient in our game," says Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "If he has a great game, we're going to be unbeatable."
For the privilege of being an NBA enigma, Kukoc, in 1993, bought out his contract with Benetton Treviso of Italy for about $3 million from his own pocket. Never mind the $4.4 million or so Chicago will pay him each year through the 1999-2000 season; $3 million is still a princely sum to spend to be abused. Since Mike Ditka left Jim Harbaugh alone, has any Chicago athleteor any athlete anywherebeen yelled at as often as Kukoc? Jackson has Zenned in on him; Jordan has hectored him; Scottie Pippen has goaded him. Kukoc has taken it well enough. "I think I'm all right with everybody here," he says. But during his first two seasons in Chicago, after a poor game or an unsettling practice, Kukoc would storm into the house and say, That's it, who needs it, we're going back to Europe.
"Our housekeeper, Zdravka, came to me in tears one time," says Renata. "She says, 'Are you really leaving? Toni says so.' I told her to leave him alone, that he would feel different tomorrow. Toni has packed and unpacked a hundred times in his mind."
While the Kukoces may very well pack up and return to Croatia when Toni's career is over, they have found a comfortable niche in Chicago. Renata likes the area even though her circle of friends is small. Marin attends nursery school and speaks English as easily as he does Croatian. If anyone has a problem with the routine it is Toni, who despises NBA travel.
But since the 1995-96 season, when the Bulls went a record 72-10 and regained the NBA championship, Kukoc has not talked much about leaving Chicago. Not that he won't have options after his contract runs out. He can do so much, this 6'11" magician with a feathery touch, sublime passing skills and the size to be a good rebounder when he chooses. But there is just one ball, even in Chicago, and Kukoc doesn't have first dibs. On the nights when Jordan or Pippen has hijacked the game, Kukoc will anxiously stand on the wing, 22 feet from the basket, a 28-year-old kid waiting for an invitation to play. Everyone who knows Kukoc swears he is one of the funniest, warmest men in the world. On the court he looks like a mope.
But Kukoc is fine, thank you, and he will be sticking around until he proves to everyone's satisfactionespecially his ownthat basketball is basketball is basketball. The lachrymose Zdravka can dry her eyes. Her boss will find fulfillment in Chicago. No question.
His smile, however, might be harder to locate.
Kukoc pops a tapea highlight reel of his seasons in Europeinto the VCR. As the early parts of his career pass by, he professes amazement, not at his prowess but at his face. When he scored, he smiled. When he made a sweet pass, he smiled. Even when he got hammered a few times, he laughed. There was lightness. There was joy.