Sam Smith is an NBA writer, author, and publicist who’s been working closely with the Chicago Bulls for multiple years. Younger fans were able to see him in ‘The Last Dance‘ documentary, where he discussed several behind the doors stories from the Bulls first three-peat. Smith’s career took off after his incredible book ‘The Jordan Rules’ which was interesting because it was one of the first books that dealt with players off-court personality. It was also one of the first books that genuinely revealed what kind of person Michael Jordan was, especially towards his teammates.
We had the opportunity to organize an exclusive interview with Sam Smith himself. We discussed multiple things about the current status of the Chicago Bulls and the NBA in general. With Smith, we also touched upon the first European players that made a significant impact in the NBA, Drazen Petrovic, and Toni Kukoc. Smith explained why he thinks Kukoc is one of the most underrated players in NBA history and much more in this exciting conversation.
What was your overall view of “The Last Dance” and how people reacted to it?
It obviously was a raging success. Chicago fans, especially, were thrilled with the nostalgia of the greatest time in Chicago sports history, especially in view of the Bulls issues in recent years. I saw it as Michael Jordan for the first time telling his story his way. I felt it gave people a chance through the interviews to see the open, non-conflicted Jordan we saw in the 1980s when he first came to Chicago. For fans, it was a chance to truly see that behind the scenes story, they believed they knew but really didn’t.
What are your expectations from the Chicago Bulls new GM Arturas Karnisovas?
Well, he’s not playing, so I don’t expect any sort of miracles. This is his first time being in charge and making the decisions, so it’s a clean slate. He seems intelligent and intent on improving the team, but I have no expectations because he has no track record and want to give him a chance to show his abilities in this job.
Dennis Hopson came in as reinforcement from the New Jersey Nets for the 1990-91 season. He ended up having a subpar season. He claims that if he had stayed with the Nets, he would have another very good season. In your opinion, was he truly a bust, or would he have thrived if given the chance on some other team?
I believe Dennis would have thrived elsewhere. The story was Jordan wanted another player (Walter Davis) signed that offseason, and when management did not, he took out his wrath on Dennis. I believed it hurt Dennis’ confidence and resulted in a premature decline in his career. I believed Dennis was a big talent and could have been a much more successful player elsewhere.
Back in January of 1991, Walter Davis was traded by the Nuggets to Portland instead of Chicago. MJ was displeased because Krause didn’t land him Davis. What if Krause somehow pulled out the deal for Drazen Petrovic? How would MJ have reacted, and how would the team have functioned as a unit?
Petrovic was not highly regarded then. The NBA, especially some players, had a bias against European players then. Some was believed to be racial since the European players were predominantly white. Some NBA players believed managements wanted to push European players on the NBA to get more white players. I don’t believe at all that was true. Though there was a long–mostly accurate in the 50s and 60s–alleged search for a “Great White Hope.” Though fans obviously embraced success given the popularity of Michael Jordan on through LeBron James. Teams I know would take anyone who looked anyway for a chance to win. But people being people, there always are conspiracy theorists. The general consensus for whatever reason–and some still exists today–became European players were not tough enough, soft. Which, of course, was ridiculous since so many even went through actual wars growing up to survive. And were much tougher than most Americans.
Bearing in mind that the Bulls had late 1st round/2nd round draft picks throughout the 1990s, the Bulls had the hard task of getting big names in the draft. However, if you could turn back time, are there any players you personally think the Bulls could have gotten with the picks they had in their hands?
Perhaps only Michael Finley in 1995, a local Chicago guy, right before they selected Jason Caffey. But Jerry Krause believed it was too much pressure on players to play in their home town and didn’t want Finley as a result. Phil Jackson didn’t generally believe in young players and generally did not want them on the roster at that time as they were playing mostly each season for titles.
Before the 1990 NBA draft, did you know anything about Kukoc, and what is your opinion in regards to how well he would have blended with the rest of the team if he had come to Chicago in the 1990-91 season?
NBA interest in Europe then was almost non-existent. I had never heard of Kukoc.
Kukoc had obviously been an overlooked asset for the 1990s Bulls. How good was he, in your opinion, and how well would he have played if he was a starter on some other team, especially in the Western Conference?
Kukoc is one of the more underrated players in NBA history because of the team he played with. With his ball-handling abilities and shooting, he could have been an all-time great. But he sacrificed his individual game and even played out of position as a rebounding power forward to accommodate the Bulls. Plus, the NBA still was uncertain about giving European players a prominent role in the 90s.
What is your opinion on why Kukoc is still not in the Naismith Hall of Fame? If there is a reason, is it in some way connected to the relationships within the Chicago Bulls in the late-1990s?
Because he sacrificed individual statistics for the team and thus became the Sixth Man. The Hall of Fame doesn’t enshrine many reserve type players even though Toni often started. Toni was much better and more successful than his fellow players who are in, like Radja, Divac, and Marciulionis. Toni may be the best player ever from overseas to come to the NBA in his prime, unlike Sabonis. I believe he will get into the Hall of Fame within the next two years. He should have been inducted well ahead of players like Radja and Divac based on international accomplishments.
There was a lot of controversy lately with Jordan calling Horace Grant ‘a snitch’. While writing ‘The Jordan Rules’ did you have more than one source from the Bulls locker room?
I feel that kind of question is embarrassing for the questioner. How would someone write a 100,000-word book based on the information from one person? It suggests to me an ignorance of reporting and how journalism works. There were more than 100 sources for The Jordan Rules and dozens of Bulls players over the years as I had worked for years on the book even before Grant came to the Bulls. Michael didn’t like Horace because Horace stood up to him. It was a Jordan flaw like with Donald Trump. If you’ve done something wrong, point to someone else and hope people believe it. And that you would ask that question suggests you fell for it, also.
What are your thoughts on how many of MJ’s teammates have a decent relationship with him today?
I think one sad thing that came out from the documentary is how few true friends Jordan has among former teammates. I don’t believe he has any, which is understandable given his status as a world icon. His friends are world leaders and celebrities. I don’t know of any reunions those Bulls teams have had. BJ Armstrong probably still is closest to him, though not personally friends. Jordan occasionally chats with Phil Jackson and Jerry Reinsdorf, but not likely many former teammates.
What is your estimate of the extent of how much Michael Jordan is concerned about civil issues in relation to corporate issues?
Probably as much as most other corporate top executives. Not less and not more.
During the 1992 Bulls’ visit to the White House, Craig Hodges took an activist stand wearing a dashiki and delivering a letter to President Bush. How did the Bulls view his activism during his tenure with the organization?
The Bulls didn’t have an issue with it as far as I knew, Craig was discreet and wouldn’t even share the contents of the letter with the media. Craig felt the Bulls cut him for that reason, but to me, it was more his age and defensive abilities at that time as if you’ll see they annually went through a lot of veteran players.
Was Hodges deliberately banned from the NBA for the 1992-93 season – would he possibly have made a difference for some teams?
Crag believes he was. Obviously, I would not know. He might have helped some teams, but the issue then was the three-point shot wasn’t as favored as it is today, and Craig’s legs were going as far as defense. Today, yes, he would have made a big difference the way he could shoot. Back then, there was more defensive focus, and he probably wouldn’t have played as much.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, during Stern’s meeting with Bora Stankovic (FIBA), there was a lot of talk of NBA teams playing in Europe, eventually forming a European Conference? None of that happened. Was this a realistic vision, and do you see it coming in the future?
I do not because of the arena issues (too small). They always talked about that. Plus, NBA players are not going to be willing to travel to that extent, especially now with so much rest worked into the season for “load management.” Now with the virus issues, I doubt it will be discussed again.
Compared to David Stern, Adam Silver is a lot more conciliary and player-friendly, always looking for consensus and concerned about players’ feelings and happiness. How do you see him handling the return of the season – a situation in which someone will surely be unhappy?
I believe he did the best he could in his view. But his decision to eliminate eight teams from at least playing a few games is devastating to those teams and the legacy of the NBA as a welcoming and open and fair league. It’s branding a quarter of the league as irrelevant, and I predict one of the biggest mistakes the NBA ever will make. Having some player families attend in Orlando and eliminate some teams is unfair. Plus, Silver attempted to eliminate older coaches, which is ageism and discriminatory and against the values of the Constitution of the United States. Overall, I believe the NBA’s reaction to restarting has been unfair and unequal and not in the best interests of the sport and what the NBA long has stood for.