The Chicago Bulls dynasty started and ended with Michael Jordan. Naturally, giving the ball to MJ late in game was always a no-brainer — especially in win-or-lose scenarios. However, the latest documentary on Toni Kukoc revealed that Phil Jackson still regrets giving Michael the ball over the sweet-shooting Croatian on one specific play from their all-time great run together.
MJ’s struggles in Game 5 of the ’98 Finals against Utah
In the 1998 NBA Finals, MJ uncharacteristically struggled throughout the entirety of Game 5, shooting only 9-26 from the field. But despite his cold night, the game was still close, thanks to a legendary performance by Toni Kukoc.
The Croatian forward went 11-13 from the floor, and with 0.8 left, brought the Bulls within two, giving them a chance to complete their second three-peat in front of their home fans. According to Sam Smith, John Paxson even lobbied for Kukoc to take the last shot. However, Phil Jackson decided to give the ball to Michael instead.
MJ attempted a one-legged fade-away over Bryon Russe, and it completely missed the goal. That left Phil wondering — what would’ve happened had he given the ball to Tony instead. He later admitted his mistake to Paxson.
Afterwards, Phil told John, “you were right, I should’ve given that shot to Toni.“Sam Smith, The Waiter
It was a missed opportunity for the Bulls because had they won Game 5, the team would’ve celebrated with thousands of home fans. Dragging the finals to a pivotal Game 6 in Utah, where adversities and crowd hostility could’ve factored in, Chicago had to do it the hard way.
“The Waiter” always delivered
MJ went back to being MJ and won Game 6 with his iconic fade-away from the free-throw are — the man would not miss twice with the title-clinching game on the line. The performance added another page to the legend of MJ, but there were a lot of players on the Bulls roster equally deserving of praise.
Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman share the spotlight after Jordan, but players such as Toni Kukoc deserve more recognition. There were countless times in the past when Pippen or Jordan clocked out, and the 13-year veteran delivered.
“The Waiter” – A Toni Kukoč Story documentary is a nice tribute to one of the Bulls’ most unheralded players. Kukoc averaged 14.1 points in seven seasons in Chicago, and he helped deliver three championships in his time there.
It’s true that without MJ, there would be no Chicago Bulls dynasty. But without solid support from the bench provided by Toni Kukoc and the rest of the roster, it’s safe to say Michael Jordan would not have six NBA championships either. Had Phil trusted Kukoc more, he might’ve gotten one a little quicker.