In a recent interview, Toni Kukoč chose Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as his favorite teammates. This list has a glaring omission that didn’t surprise anyone who closely followed the career of Michael Jordan. The Bulls were his team, and every game and practice were like a job interview, a test to see if you are good enough. Michael and Toni stayed friendly after their careers were done, spending a lot of time on the golf course. But there were no friends on the basketball court.
“The things that I get irritated about, like with Toni. He hates to use his right hand. Man, if I knew that was a weak part of my game, that was something I was gonna correct.”Michael Jordan
So Toni would hear about his right hand, all the time. Jordan’s attitude is often glorified, but it’s not necessarily the optimal way to go around things. Certain players need time to develop and acclimate to the NBA, a luxury you didn’t get playing with MJ. For Jordan, every year was title or bust – you could develop and take your time on another team.
“I didn’t really care If I broke them. If they did get broken then they are not going to be helpful to us when we need them the most.”Michael Jordan
MJ broke more than a few. Jordan didn’t just break opponents; he did it to teammates as well. Getting drafted or traded to the Bulls wasn’t always good news for players. Everyone knew that failing next to Jordan could mean the end of your NBA career.
“Before I got to Chicago there were stories of a couple of guys, fairly high draft picks that he played with, and he just on them so hard in practice. Their confidence was shattered, guys needed to be traded. Guys were moved on because they couldn’t take the criticism from MJ.”Jud Buechler
Steve Kerr can talk about this experience as good as any Jordan teammate. Kerr shared he was insecure as a player, knowing he is the least athletic player on the court, so he would compensate with competitiveness. One practice, Kerr and Jordan were matched up, and trash-talking started. Kerr knew he couldn’t back down, so he went back at Jordan.
As MJ explained it, it was intense, and Phil Jackson gave every call to Kerr. Jordan got so frustrated that he took a swing and gave Kerr a black eye. Micheal apologized to Kerr after practice and said he gained a lot of respect for him because he didn’t back down. That trust would show with one of the most famous Finals shots in NBA history. Still, just because he got MJ’s trust doesn’t mean Jordan took it easy on him after that practice.
“You were just kind of scared of him; you were scared of what he was gonna say. There was so much tension, and there were certainly moments where we’d finish practice, and some of us would go off and think ‘We gotta get away from this guy, he needs to loosen up.’”Steve Kerr
Playing with MJ was no limit poker. He would make you go all in, and if you flinched your time was up. Nobody said winning 6 rings was easy.