Toni Kukoc was one of the first international players that came over to the NBA expecting significant minutes on a championship team. With Michael Jordan announcing his retirement on the day Kukoc arrived, Toni knew he would have an opportunity to play a lot. What he didn’t know before playing for the Bulls is that it involved him going back to the classroom.
Phil Jackson was the kind of coach who believed everything has to be prepared in advance. You would rarely see Jackson explaining Xs and Os during a game – he’s mostly setting the right tone and mentality his team needs at any given time. Toni learned that the hard way coming to Chicago, finding out that Phil has many requirements for anyone who wants to play.
“First and second-year players would get an exam about our offensive and defensive system and principles. If you didn’t get all 10 answers right, there was no chance you’d be on the court.”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
The triangle is challenging for someone who didn’t run it before, so it took Toni time to catch up and earn his minutes. Phil would famously give his players books to read to inspire them or send them a message. When Toni arrived, Jackson pulled a little prank on him.
“He gave me a comic book with very little text. When I asked him about it he said: ‘I didn’t know how good your English is so I gave you this.’”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
But Phil didn’t just give book assignments to his players; he set the same standards to himself. In order to try and connect with Toni, Phil selected a book from his part of Europe. It was “Na Drini ćuprija” by Ivo Andrić, a Nobel prize winner for literature. Phil read the book and then gave it to Toni to read.
“He [Jackson] was surprised when I told him I had already read it as it was mandatory reading in school.”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
Many former coaches talk about how important it is to build relationships with their players since that is as essential as being a good strategist. It’s becoming the single most important skill for a head coach with player empowerment – getting your players to trust you and buy into the system. Phil Jackson was a master at this, understanding his player’s psyche, which buttons to push, and when to push them. One of the greatest superstar whisperers in NBA history.