Bull in a China Shop
Lately, nothing has been working out the way Toni Kukoc planned it. After finishing his rookie season as a swingman with the Chicago Bulls, Kukoc rejoined the Croatian national team to play in the world championships, which began last week in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont. But instead of being hailed as a returning hero, he was blasted the day before the tournament began by Croatian coach Giuseppe Giergia, who said Kukoc was out of shape.
That's nothing, though, compared with what has happened to Kukoc's best-laid plans with the Bulls. All he wanted when he joined Chicago last year was to be a successful supporting player for Michael Jordan, Scottic Pippen and Horace Grant on the three-time NBA champions. But now he has been thrust into a leading role as the once-mighty Bulls crumble around him. Jordan retired before ever playing a game with Kukoc; Grant left as a free agent two weeks ago (though the contract he signed with Orlando has been voided by the NBA, and his status is now up in the air); and the Bulls are entertaining any and all trade offers for Pippen, who fell into disfavor when he refused to leave the bench for the final seconds of Game 3 of the playoff series against the Knicks. The Bulls also lost forward Scott Williams, who signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia 76ers.
It seems the only Bull who isn't going anywhere is Kukoc, who confirmed last week that he has agreed to a six-year contract with the Bulls, reportedly for $26 million, which means his annual salary is greater than Jordan's was. That deal may have sealed the fate of Pippen, who long ago expressed his objections to the very idea of Kukoc's earning more than he does. If Pippen leaves, the burden of carrying the Bulls will fall more heavily on Kukoc's shoulders. If Pippen stays, Kukoc will have to play with a teammate who openly resents him. "I try not to think about it," Kukoc says. "It's nice to be one of the stars of a team, but only if the team is good. I don't even know what our team is going to look like this season."
It is ironic that the Bulls thought they were solidifying their future by acquiring Kukoc last year. It turns out that his signing may have hurt them more than it has helped. The pursuit of Kukoc alienated Jordan and Pippen, and, in effect, Chicago chose to spend its money this summer to retain Kukoc instead of Grant.
Odd Man Out
When forward Dominique Wilkins was relegated to mop-up duty for Dream Team II in the U.S.'s first game of the world championships last week, it raised more than a few eyebrows, including 'Nique's. Team USA coach Don Nelson didn't use Wilkins until seven minutes were left in the 115-100 win over Spain, making it clear that the 34-year-old was the 11th man in Nelson's 10-man rotation—a rather undignified role for a 12-year veteran and the team's oldest player. Afterward, Wilkins was clearly more than a little annoyed. "I've paid my dues," he said. "It's hard for me to sit there and wait."
Nelson tried to defuse the controversy the next night when he put Wilkins into the game in the first half and played him for 15 minutes in a 132-77 demolition of China. "The nature of the game allowed us to distribute the playing time more evenly," Nelson said later.
Wilkins shouldn't have to worry about getting enough playing time next season with the Boston Celtics, with whom he signed a three-year, $11 million contract as a free agent three weeks ago. It's obvious why the Celtics wanted Wilkins—he can provide the scoring punch that Boston has lacked since the death of Reggie Lewis last summer. But it's not as clear why Wilkins would want to join the Celtics. As he nears the end of his career, it would have seemed more logical for Wilkins, who has never won an NBA championship, to sign with a title contender.
His decision only adds to the widely held impression that Wilkins cares more about individual accomplishments than team goals. "I know how some people see it, but signing with Boston doesn't mean I've given up on winning a championship," says Wilkins. "I want a title as badly as anyone. There will definitely be something missing in my career if I never win one. But I couldn't let that be my only consideration. Some teams just couldn't create the space under the salary cap to offer me a reasonable contract. Plus I knew that Boston was serious about bringing in more players. And somehow, the Celtics never stay down for long."
Much of the talk around the NBA this summer is centering on intriguing rookies and players trying to make comebacks. Sacramento King guard Bobby Hurley, who was nearly killed in an auto accident last December, is certainly the most keenly watched comeback story. Hurley finished playing last week in the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league in Salt Lake City, where he showed that, although he hasn't made it all the way back, he is making a remarkable recovery. King officials expect him to be ready for the start of training camp in October.
Hurley hasn't regained full strength in his left shoulder, which was fractured in the accident, but he was encouraged by his play in Utah, where he averaged 9.3 points and 5.8 assists in six games. "My quickness is O.K., which is what I was concerned about," he said, referring to the torn right knee ligament he suffered in the crash. "Everything's coming back—some things faster than others."
While Hurley works on starting over, a pair of Philadelphia 76er rookies are trying to make a fast start. The two Sixer first-round picks, center-forward Sharone Wright from Clemson and guard B.J. Tyler out of Texas, have drawn good reviews around the league for their summer play. "Wright's showing people that he's already an accomplished low-post player, better than Shawn Bradley [the Sixers' 7'6" center]," said one NBA general manager. "As for Tyler, I'm already kicking myself for not taking him, and the season hasn't started yet."
A rich new contract has put pressure on Kukoc to lead what is left of the Bulls.