Toni Kukoč expected to come to a championship team in Chicago, and on his first day there, Michael Jordan announced his retirement. It was good for Toni’s minutes and playing more as a small forward, but it didn’t turn out so good for winning championships.
The Bulls were still a good team after MJ left, they went 55-27 in ’93/’94 and 47-35 in ’94/’95, but it was obvious the Bulls were no longer favorites to win the championship. The window was opened for other teams with Jordan gone. As it turned out, they only had two years to make it happen – Hakeem and the Rockets won two titles in those two years.
During the All-Star weekend in Chicago, Toni Kukoč went down memory lane and shared the secret of Jordan’s return. We found out that MJ never really left. Throughout his entire two-year break, Jordan would practice with the team once a month. The players figured out that means he wasn’t gone forever, but there was no indication when would he return.
“One day I came to the locker room and Michael had dozens of shoes at his locker. Everyone knew he didn’t bring so much gear for just one practice. We weren’t allowed to talk about it until he announced it himself. All he did was send a fax saying ‘I’m back.’”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
The next game was in Indianapolis against the Pacers, and to manage the craziness that was about to happen, MJ didn’t travel with the team but took a private jet to the game. He helped the Bulls go to the playoffs but it still wasn’t the old Jordan. They lost in the Conference Semifinals against the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic.
That would be MJ’s last defeat in the playoffs. A second three-peat was about to happen, and Toni Kukoč was finally going to experience playing with the greatest. But it wasn’t the games that Kukoč remembers most about that time.
“I’m happy to have witnessed what he did on the practice court, which was at times more spectacular than what he did in games.”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
As Kukoč explains it, Jordan was difficult to play with because there are two modes of playing with MJ. If he is hot, Jordan couldn’t care less that you’re open – he is taking the shot. But you have to be ready for that fifth, sixth offense when you get the ball. If you don’t make it, there won’t be a second opportunity. Still, Kukoč concluded, he wouldn’t change playing with MJ for a thing.
“Michael once said that, if necessary, he will die on the court. But in that case, his opponent is dying first. He would do whatever it takes to win. I don’t believe anyone was physically and mentally strong as he was.”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
Toni and Michael remained close friends after their careers were over. They spent a lot of time on the golf course, where Toni can brag that he has a better handicap than MJ.