);
Chicago Bulls

The Last Dance: A look back at Toni Kukoc's rookie season as a Bull without Michael Jordan

"We were sure we could play in the NBA," Kukoc said. "But even when we came here people were like, 'They all are soft and don't play defense and they don't rebound.' Nobody said we had so many different skills other people don't. I wish I would have come here with a coach who said, 'Here is the ball, we trust your decisions.' Like you see now with (Luka) Doncic, with (Nikola) Jokic, Giannis (Antetokounmpo).

MORE: What happened to the NBA without MJ in 1993-94?

Although he was already a high-caliber player in Europe, in the United States, he was a nobody. Today, it is unthinkable for a European player, who has achieved as much as Kukoc did before he came to the NBA, to go in the second round of the Draft (like Kukoc in 1990).

His career in the best league in the world will always be remembered for being an important piece on Michael Jordan's second 3-peat. How would his career have turned out if he had more of the ball instead of sharing the team with Jordan and Scottie? Having said, the "what would have become" argument applies to a lot of former league legends.

"They weren't ready for us then," Kukoc says.

From the illusion of playing with Jordan to leading the amazing Bulls

After years of Jerry Krause chasing him for his signature and a year since Jordan's secret postgame message at the gold medal game of the 1992 Olympics, Kukoc finally made the leap to Chicago in the summer of 1993. It was something that was already clear. This was the next step in his career after succeeding in Europe and making good money with Benetton Treviso in Italy.

However, soon after joining the reigning 3-time champions, the misfortunes began for Jordan and the franchise. First, the tragic murder of Michael Jordan's father on July 23 and then, after a tearful funeral, Jordan himself announced his first retirement.

He did it on October 6, shortly before the 1993-94 season would begin. The Bulls went from winning 57 games with MJ in 1992-93 to having a squad for the 1993-94 season that had only a couple of major roster additions in Steve Kerr and Kukoc.

Although Pippen had a good reputation, he was nowhere near the recognized figure he is today. In fact, much of his reputation was built by being the Bulls' star without Jordan, finishing third in the MVP race in 1994. While Horace Grant and BJ Armstrong were the other recognizable faces, Kukoc demonstrated why they nicknamed him "White Magic. "

The sacrifice from a star, to a role player

"I had to change my game completely," Kukoc said. "I was what Scottie was. What he was doing here, I was doing in Europe. When Michael retired, I had a chance a little to be a secondary guy; I had some freedom (averaging his most points until after Jordan's second retirement).
As a rookie, Kukoc didn't have an immediate impact but with time, Phil Jackson began trusting him more and his role grew.
"I had never played the power forward position. I knew certain people would massacre me with their power. They could physically destroy me. So on the other end, I could do it to them."
When he came to the NBA, Kukoc was only 24 years old. Neither his teammates nor Jackson, who had only seen him play a couple of times, knew him. Back then, NBA scouts didn't look at foreign players the same way they do now.
Kukoc, a star in Europe, had won five Euroscar Player of the Year (1990, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998), four Mister Europa Player of the Year (1990-1992, 1996), three consecutive Euroleague titles and Final Four MVP in four seasons, the successes in the Yugoslav League and the MVP of the 1990 FIBA World Cup in Argentina.
MORE: Timeline of Jordan's 6 NBA titles
He stood out in his debut. Despite it being a completely new role for him, Kukoc came off the bench and in just 21 minutes had 10 points, five rebounds and one assist to beat the Charlotte Hornets. He scored in double digits in his first nine games and the Zen Master quickly recognised Kukoc's talent - one that was ideal for 'The Triangle'. He could pass, run the court, shoot and score from three-point range. The hidden pearl that nobody expected was for the Bulls to be able to replace Jordan between Pippen and Kukoc.
In his 12th game, he finished with 24 points, seven assists, four rebounds and three steals - his first game with 20 points or more. His role was different - it wasn't the main player but the pivotal secondary player that Pippen was when Jordan was present. Still, it was difficult for him to adapt to the physicality and in the 1994 Playoffs, he had more complications than at any other time with the Bulls.
He had to pass the biggest rookie wall that any European player had prior.

The two great moments of Kukoc's rookie season

January 21, 1994: Reggie Miller celebrates at the United Center with a great shot over Steve Kerr that puts the Pacers up by two points. That celebration would be costly, no matter how tough the shot was because Phil Jackson trusted Kukoc and drew up a play with less than a second on the scoreboard.

He had 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting and the Pacers defense forgot about him. After a terrible pumped pass, Kukoc would launch a shot that went in off the board. It added three points, gave Bulls the win and blew up the United Center.

The Knicks-Bulls rivalry was legitimate in the early 1990s. For several years, the Jordan-led Bulls dominated but without #23, Patrick Ewing's men had their greatest opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals. Behind a heroic Pippen and a European rookie named Kukoc, Jackson surprised all by leading the team to 55 wins.

However, they still entered this Conference Semifinals matchup as the underdogs.

The Knicks had won the first two games and were preparing to win Game 3 at United Center. With a shot-clock violation off Pippen and just 5.5 seconds to go, Ewing scored in the post to tie the game up at 102 with just 0.8 seconds left. The Knicks center was already celebrating, probably anticipating overtime, but Phil pulled out the board again.

The shot would be for Kukoc but that annoyed Pippen, who decided to stay on the bench.

MORE: Kukoc's game-winner should be more than a footnote

The Croatian's response was sensational, knocking down another impossible shot with just 1.8 seconds remaining. Chicago went wild again with Kukoc's game-winning shot, the second in a matter of months. He finished his rookie season with averages of 10.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals in just 24.1 minutes off the bench.

"I had to change my style," Kukoc acknowledged. "I think that is what also hurt me when they look at records. I was winning championships, but I am not scoring, 14, 15 points. Those other guys, Drazen, Dino, they say they scored more, that I am not an All-Star-by the way, how could a team with 72 wins have just two All-Stars when other teams had like three and four and we are winning everything?-but they are not even getting into the playoffs. It's OK. I am glad I got to be the one with the winner."

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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