The Toni Reward
The 76ers are a snappier act since the arrival of battle-tested Toni Kukoc
The ball movement improved immediately. The big men began sprinting to the blocks, and the guards ran their curl patterns with conviction. All forward Toni Kukoc had to do was don his new jersey on Feb. 18 and he instantly became the most popular guy on the 76ers. "His teammates love him," says Philadelphia coach Larry Brown. "He's so unselfish, they just know he's going to give them the ball."
It's a gratifying time for the 6'11" Kukoc, who was acquired from the Bulls in a three-way trade with the Warriors for Larry Hughes. Kukoc wasn't always beloved by teammates in his 6� seasons in Chicago, where he was perceived as the pet of general manager Jerry Krause, who fawned over him in public and paid him more than he paid Scottie Pippen. Other Bulls questioned Kukoc's toughness and defense. He was the whipping boy of coach Phil Jackson, who periodically wanted to trade him.
Yet when the Bulls decided to deal Kukoc, among his most ardent pursuers was Jackson, who's now in charge of the Lakers. "I always had respect for Phil as a very good coach who understands the game," Kukoc, 31, says. "At the same time I thought, He's lucky to have such a good team. He treated players very differently. I think he saw me and said, Here's another European guy. Let me shut him down as quickly as possible before he becomes a pain in the rear.
"I talked to him about that. I told him, 'Instead of yelling at me all the time during the game, you could show me before practice or after practice what I should be working on. The way you are treating me, it's dragging me down.' One day I realized that every time he needed a bucket or something to happen, he called my name. All he wanted was for me to play at the same level and intensity every night."
Philadelphia management figured that a proven winner such as Kukoc would have a settling influence on the team, and he has: At week's end the 76ers had gone 17-9 since his arrival, and Kukoc was averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Sixers management also hoped that Kukoc's spread-the-wealth approach would rub off on scoring machine Allen Iverson, who says, "You better have your hands up and ready with Toni, or you'll get a ball in the face and you'll be off to the sideline with a bloody nose."
Still, when he penetrates, Iverson forces shots against multiple defenders instead of kicking the ball back to a wide-open Kukoc. "I think it's a matter of trust," Kukoc says. "Allen's still not a mature NBA player. He's great—every day he amazes me with the amount of talent he's got—but he doesn't yet have the total understanding of NBA basketball. When the game gets tight, he says, 'I'm not going to look for anyone else, because I trust myself more than anyone else.' There's only one guy in the league, Shaquille O'Neal, who should say that. There used to be another guy, but he's gone."
Michael Jordan, too, was brutally tough on Kukoc during Kukoc's early years in Chicago. The relentless criticism from a certified icon was devastating at first, then merely tiresome. Now, how could anything bother him? When Brown told Kukoc last week that small forward George Lynch, who was returning from a sprained right knee ligament, deserved to have his starting job back, Kukoc shrugged off the demotion. "I'm better prepared now to handle such things," Kukoc says. Whether in the long run he can flourish alongside Iverson, whose indifference to team rules and to Brown's exhortations in the huddle remains a gnawing problem, is another story.
Kukoc will be a free agent this summer, and he says he would prefer to re-sign with Philadelphia, which has players—and a coach—who appreciate his skills. But what if Jackson came calling? What if Jackson said he was sorry for all the rough treatment in Chicago? "In the first place, he would never apologize," Kukoc says. "He would just give me one of those smiles and say, 'You know who I am, and I know who you are, so let's not pretend.'
"I would think about it," Kukoc says. "The Lakers are going to win a championship in the next couple of years. That's a definite. I won three championships with [ Jackson]. Each year he showed more and more trust in me. It would be easy for me to go to L.A., where I know the system so well." Kukoc pauses, grinning at the prospect of Jackson's asking him to play on his team. "I guess," Kukoc says, "that would mean he would actually have to give me the satisfaction of being needed."