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The X Factor

Who knows what Toni Kukoc makes of all this madness? He probably thinks we're crazy. He's probably right.

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This is Toni Kukoc's life: with cops and security surrounding him, he leaves the cozy solitude of the VIP lounge and enters a cavernous room filled with sports fanatics. For an instant, no one notices him. Then a kid calls his name: "Toni." A camera flashes. "Toni." People come running. "It's Toni Kukoc!" Within seconds he's engulfed by a giddy mob of men and women, girls and boys. "Let us through," the cops command. "Let us through."

Walking briskly, almost jogging, the entourage plows toward an autograph table in the back. It's a Sunday in March, and they're at a hotel in Rosemont where hundreds have gathered for a "collectible convention," a flea market of cards, pennants, posters, and other useless sports memorabilia.

Clearly, Kukoc is the star attraction. For the right to get his autograph, 800 people have paid $10 (in addition to a $5 general admission ticket) and now must endure a long wait in line. Many of the luckless ones, who arrived after all the tickets were sold, stand behind metal gates, squirming for a better view.

Kukoc sits between two convention organizers and signs whatever is placed before him--each autograph seeker gets four or five seconds in his presence.

Four preteen girls chant: "Koo-kie, Koo-kie." A man waves a Croatian flag. A woman waits to take a picture of Kukoc holding her baby. A student from Brother Rice High School begs the guards to let him cut into the autograph line: "I have to get his autograph; I just got to have it."

It's been like this most of the season--everywhere he goes there are people, most of them strangers, calling his name, asking for autographs, seeking a few minutes of his time. A strange thing, too, this mania--it's based on faith, not performance. So far he's done little to earn adulation. So far he plays like a talented rookie with a lot to learn. But there's something about him that draws us in. We know the other Bulls, or so we think, but Kukoc remains a mystery. He's the new guy; a Croatian; a very shy, quiet Croatian who avoids the press as much as possible; it's left to our imaginations to figure out who he is.

At times he's played brilliantly, other times poorly, reflecting in either case the team's best and worst moments. Our interpretations of what we see in him fluctuate wildly, almost schizophrenically, with the highs and lows of the season. He's the blank screen upon which we project our obsessions about the Bulls. Even Coach Phil Jackson does this. He calls Kukoc the "X factor," the great unknown: as goes Toni in the playoffs, so go the Bulls.

A grungy guy with a big belly sticks out his hand. "I never stopped believin'. You're gonna do it, Toni. Four-peat, Toni!"

"Koo-kie!" shriek the teenyboppers. He looks up and smiles. They giggle and squeal.

Who knows what Kukoc makes of this spectacle? He smiles wanly. He's been ogled like this since the season began. While we watch him, he watches us. He probably thinks we're crazy. He's probably right.

By the summer of '93, when Kukoc signed with the Bulls, he was already a legend: a 25-year-old, 6-foot-11-inch point guard, the Magic Johnson of Europe. "He has always passed the ball the way a spider weaves its web," wrote GQ's Peter Richmond.

The deal was that the Bulls would work him in slow, giving him time to bulk up on the weights and learn the ins and outs of the NBA.

Then on October 6--one week before training camp opened--Michael Jordan retired. What a shock. The city grieved. There would be no playoffs in June, no summer celebration in Grant Park. Worse yet was knowing this moment meant sheer joy for Pat Riley, John Starks, Reggie Miller, Isiah Thomas, and all those other Enemies of Chicago vanquished by Jordan. With him the Bulls would have won 70 games this season; without him they'd be lucky to win 40.

Those were days of senseless desperation. Some reporters, the so-called objective experts, suggested that the Bulls give up--just write off the season, trade Scottie Pippen, get a high draft choice, and rebuild the team. Others wanted to trade Horace Grant--the team would only lose him to free agency at the end of the season anyway. "Might as well get somethin' for him," the logic went.

A few days before the season started, I called my ten-year-old nephew in New York to say happy birthday. As we talked, I could hear his father telling him what to say. "My dad says, 'What are the Bulls gonna do without Jordan?'"

Cheeky kid. In the background his old man was cackling. On impulse, not knowing what else to say, I blurted: "Kukoc."

"What?"

"Toni Kukoc--remember that name."

Not long thereafter, a few of us gathered to drown our sorrow in nostalgia. We called it an Irish wake--in memory of Michael. We drank a toast to all those great memories: Michael's miracle against Cleveland, the fourth-quarter rampage against Portland, Charles Smith under the basket, John Paxson's three. It will never be like that again, we agreed.

But the season began on November 5 with a startling last-second overtime win in Charlotte against the Hornets, one of several teams ranked better than the Bulls. And in game three the Bulls clobbered Atlanta. Kukoc was brilliant. On one play he grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled a few feet, and uncorked a no-look, side-arm, full-court bullet pass to rookie forward Corie Blount. The crowd gasped. And then they roared when he drove the lane and brought the ball around his head, from his right to his left, and dished off to Horace Grant, who went in for the dunk. It was endlessly replayed on TV, that pass, and still no one knew how he did it. "Never seen anything like it," said Grant--not even from Jordan.

The Bulls went up to Milwaukee, and Kukoc, so cool, beat the Bucks on a last-second three-point shot. Then they beat Phoenix, the Knicks, and San Antonio--all major contenders.

In our excitement, we fans developed a new batch of theories, most of which contradicted everything we'd said only a few weeks earlier. Without Jordan the games were more fun--more exciting because they were always in doubt. It wasn't just one guy shooting and four guys standing around. Jordan's presence had actually stifled the team. Grant, Pippen, and B.J. Armstrong would have scored like this before had Jordan not taken so many shots.

Most of all we loved Toni, for he was the new guy sent from above to save us. We'd never seen anything like him, at least not in Chicago. Gangly yet graceful, with those long, rubbery arms, he ignited the offense by driving to the basket and passing off to Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington for open shots. For a while he was scoring 15 points, dishing 7 assists, and grabbing 5 rebounds a game, unheard-of numbers for a bench player, among the highest of any rookie in the league.

I went to the library and read old clips, looking for clues that might help me understand him. From a Sports Illustrated article by Alexander Wolff I learned how Croatian basketball coach Igor Karkovic discovered Kukoc one day while sailing with his son. "Karkovic spotted a boy on the beach--running, diving, swimming--who cut a graceful figure," Wolff wrote. "Karkovic asked who this boy was who had eluded the broad net the coach dragged through the city to snare young talent.

"'Oh, that's Toni,' his son told him. 'We call him feet.'"

I love that anecdote, with its image of young Toni running through the waves. Who cares if it's true--these old sports guys are pretty good at spicing up a story--so long as it's poetic.

And I wasn't the only one infatuated with Kukoc. I'd get gushing calls from awestruck friends. "He's sneaky slow. When he drives, you think he'll get stopped but he keeps going for the layup."

"He's the rookie of the year--better than Anfernee Hardaway, Chris Webber, or Dino Radja, the other Croatian guy, on Boston."

"He reminds me of Magic Johnson--the way he sees the whole court."

"I love the tattoo. It's a shark, how appropriate--the way he attacks the basket."

Even the experts were impressed. Norm Van Lier, the former Bulls guard who's now a talk-show host on WMVP, was effusive. "Before it's over, Toni's going to be a great one. The man's a passer, a 6-foot-11-inch passer. That says it all."

Kukoc's agent, Herb Rudoy, had visions of big-time endorsements: "Toni's very marketable. He's a great-looking guy. He comes alive in the clutch. He comes on the court and something happens. Oh yes, he's very marketable."

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was beaming. To all the reporters who called--and calls came from all over the country with the Bulls unexpectedly winning--Krause repeated the story, one of his favorites, of how he discovered Kukoc. "It was at a playoff game in Detroit in '89 or '90. And Leon Douglas who had played in Europe came up to me and said, 'Jerry, there's this Yugoslavian point guard you gotta see. He's a 6-foot-11-inch white guy who plays hungry like a black kid from the ghetto.' That's all I needed to hear."

On a nationally televised Christmas-night game against Orlando, Kukoc hit the game-winner with just three seconds left.

On January 15, Vernon Maxwell, a rock-hard guard for the Houston Rockets, bumped Kukoc as he prepared to shoot a crucial late-game free throw. "Don't choke," Maxwell told him. Kukoc made that shot and Maxwell bumped him again. Kukoc made the next shot too. The Bulls won. "After I scored [the second free throw], I said to Maxwell, 'Gimme five,'" Kukoc told reporters in the locker room. "It's what you call 'trash talking.'"

My first close-up look at Kukoc came on January 21 against the Indiana Pacers. He was loose that night, almost cocky. He came out early for the shoot-around and after hitting long jumpers and hook shots he started fooling around with Blount.

"Hey, Corie," he called, "watch this." And then he tossed up a funny little floater, flung from the side, like he was heaving a discus. It went in. "Come on, man, you do it."

Blount frowned and rolled his eyes. Obviously he was used to Kukoc's antics. "Come on, I'll do it again." And he did. Eventually Blount gave in, though his shot fell short. "Too bad," Kukoc giggled. Then he hit three more.

The game was a struggle, and with time expiring and the score tied, Indiana's Reggie Miller shed his man on a screen and hit a jumper to give the Pacers a two-point lead.

The crowd moaned and Miller bowed to his left and then to his right, just to rub it in. Of course that drove the Stadium fans crazy. They rose to their feet and their roar grew as the Bulls took the court. Pippen inbounded. He looked low to Grant--who was covered--then lofted a cross-court pass to Kukoc, way out beyond the three-point line. He had less than a second to catch the ball and shoot. It banked in at the buzzer.

The cheer was as loud as it's been in a long, long time, and for once the fans didn't seem to care about rushing out to beat the postgame traffic. The team embraced Kukoc, and Miller staggered off to jeers. And the reporters in the press box--homers at heart--they were on their feet, too, clapping and laughing. Then they gathered themselves, regained their composure, and went back to work, trudging to the basement locker room, where the players were rejoicing. Wennington, a wise guy, was cracking jokes about his old knees. Pete Myers was singing. Even Krause, usually dour and grim, had a smile. The media pack wanted Kukoc, but he was still showering so they settled for Pippen, shoving microphones in his face. As Pippen answered questions, Kukoc crept from the shower, a towel wrapped round his waist, his hair dripping wet. He slipped into the coach's room to put on his shirt and trousers. When he emerged, the pack swung to him like moths to a flame. He blinked once or twice in the TV lights.

What about Reggie's bow?

Kukoc thought about it. "The game is not over until the end."

After two or three minutes, the pack left Kukoc alone by his locker, where he sat putting on his socks. From the hallway came the playful sounds of happy players, ball boys, security guards, and trainers. "Come on, Toni," someone called. "We gotta go." They had to get to the airport--tomorrow's game was in Indiana.

On the sports shows all the talk was of Kukoc. Did you see that shot? It was cold-blooded and gutsy. That's the third game he's won in the closing seconds. The guy's a player. Finally I heard someone say what I never imagined would be said this season: with Grant, Armstrong, Pippen, and now Kukoc, the Bulls would be champions.

As every Bulls fan knows, it was in the first game after the all-star break that the team fell apart. Against Miami, up by 22, they fell flat. The ball lost its zip, the defense died, and they wound up losing by eight.

Kukoc missed that game. The day before he had wrenched his back lifting weights. He missed five games and without him the rotation was off. When Pippen left the floor for a rest, there was no go-to guy to open up the court. Kerr and Wennington couldn't get open. Pippen had to play more and he got tired. The games were lifeless, the play ragged. The players weren't having fun.

Denver crushed them, as did the Knicks and the Pacers. After each loss, it was tough going to the locker room. The mood was foul. Each day brought the same old reporters, like a horde of buzzing bees, with the same old questions: What's wrong? Who's to blame? Was the first half a fluke? It irritated the Bulls, even mild-mannered guys like John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong.

And the fans? They came apart in the clutch. Some took the losses personally and got morose: I've invested so much support in you, how can you do this to me? Others got angry, the losses having exposed the bitter underside of their infatuation. They booed and jeered and began looking for scapegoats.

They blamed Phil Jackson--he needed new offensive schemes because the old ones had been figured out. They blamed Grant--he was preoccupied with his contract. They blamed Pete Myers--couldn't shoot. They blamed Armstrong--being on the all-star team had gone to his head. Mostly they blamed Krause. He is, was, and always will be their favorite target, although why, after three straight titles, I'll never understand. He's the league's best general manager. The record speaks for itself. Yet he is loathed, by media and fans. They credit him for nothing, they blame him for all. They call him stupid, they call him fat. They'd stone him if they could.

With the slump they demanded he make a trade. When he traded Stacey King for Luc Longley (a steal, by the way), they said no, not a center, a guard. We want Derek Harper! We want Jeff Hornacek!

It wasn't long before Kukoc got entangled in this mess. How could he avoid it? He and Krause were already intertwined. He had been Krause's special project, drafted by Krause out of Europe when most Bulls fans hardly knew his name. When Kukoc played well the fans ignored the Krause connection; when he played poorly, it was like the two were the same. Krause's head on Kukoc's body.

I started to get it too, for among my basketball friends I'm known as the nut who actually defends Krause.

"Kukoc is a disappointment," one friend called to say.

"Give him a break. He's hit the wall; all rookies do. He'll get out of it."

"You'll never say anything bad about Kukoc because it means criticizing Krause."

Suddenly, Kukoc's faults became obvious, even to those who only recently had offered him nothing but praise. He was tentative. He couldn't play man-to-man defense. He was late with the 24-second clock. He wasn't strong enough for he NBA. The opposition shoved him around and lost him on picks. They knew his moves. He had lost his concentration. His confidence was gone. He was worn down by all the travel and games--the NBA season is twice as long as Europe's. He wasn't going to be the next Magic Johnson. He wasn't the league's best rookie, or even its best rookie Croatian. Radja was better.

Then came the rumors of behind-the-scenes turmoil. Toni's tired of Jackson yelling. Pippen resents him. They aren't even talking. The other Bulls are siding with Scottie. They see Kukoc as Krause's baby--the teacher's pet.

From out of nowhere a new rumor slithered. I heard it from a guy who heard it from a woman who supposedly heard it from Toni himself: He wanted to go back to Europe. On top of everything else, the next Magic Johnson was homesick.

"This game came so easy to Toni in Europe," Jackson opined. "Now it's tougher. He's working hard to gain the respect of his team. I've had to be hard on him. The team seems to need me to be hard on Toni."

Looking for a winning combination, Jackson replaced Myers with Kukoc in the starting lineup for a February 28 home game against the Cavaliers. What a disaster! By Jackson's own admission, "our experiment with Toni failed miserably." They lost, Kukoc went 0 for 9, and the boos turned to taunts.

Kukoc was devastated. "This is the first time I have played a lot of minutes and not scored in my basketball career," he said after the game. "I was excited about starting, but nothing good happened. I was trying to do something good, and it got worse and worse and worse."

Pippen wasn't happy either. He made an "obscene gesture" to an abusive heckler and later let loose against the hometown fans in general. "The only thing depressing to me is I have been here seven years and have never seen a white guy get booed in the Stadium," Pippen said. "It seems like when things are bad and the ball is in your hands and you don't score the fans take it out on you. Toni was zero for whatever and I never heard one fan get on him."

Just what we needed: a racial dimension for the call-in radio programs. Black callers by and large saw Kukoc as the latest incarnation of the Great White Hope--the first white Bull who offered more than "six fouls to give." As such, they said, white fans worshiped him more than he deserved, or at least more than Pippen, the true team leader who, despite his many heroics, was still living down one or two bad games played years ago. There were even those who saw Kukoc as part of a larger, more malicious conspiracy to "whiten" the team. "Kukoc, Kerr, Paxson, Wennington, Perdue, and Longley--half the team's white," said one caller.

On the other side white Chicago recoiled in horror, as though Pippen had uttered some fantastically unimaginable proposition. (Racial bias? In Chicago? How can he say such a thing?) To demonstrate their egalitarianism, they rattled off the names of every white player they had ever booed--a remarkable collection of clods and stiffs starting with Erwin Mueller and ending with Will Perdue. Pippen, they said, was an ingrate who didn't appreciate them for appreciating him.

The outburst threw one columnist, Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times, into a quandary. He wanted to castigate Pippen and Kukoc, but how to do it? I could almost see the small dull wheels spinning in his head until, Eureka! He blamed it all on Jerry Krause.

"What [Pippen] meant to say and should have screamed to the heavens is that Jerry Krause has sabotaged a fourth championship," Mariotti wrote. "The obvious target was Toni Kukoc, who in Pippen's eyes is the symbol of Krause's numbskulled prejudice. Not only is Kukoc as flawed as we said he'd be as a rookie--erratic, slow-thinking, slow-footed, defensive liability--Krause wants to sign him to a long-term deal."

To his credit, Kukoc stayed out of it. The last thing he needed was a public fight with Pippen. A newspaper in Italy, of all places, reported that Pippen and Kukoc weren't talking. Pippen denied it, and so did Kukoc, who was avoiding the press more and more.

"I don't feel like talking," he told me after one loss.

"Are things going wrong?"

"I think sometimes I try too much. I try to do too much."

The Bulls lost to the Lakers, one of the league's most woeful teams, and then to Portland. Kukoc looked tense, angry, and distracted at that game. There was no pregame goof-around with Blount. When a Bulls press assistant tried to make conversation, he waved her off. The harder he played, the more mistakes he made. He threw away passes, missed free throws, got called for a charge. He twisted his ankle. After the game he limped toward his car, his ankle heavily wrapped. Outside in the parking lot the fans called his name, but he ignored them.

The bad ankle kept him out of a game in Cleveland, the Bulls' fifth loss in a row. They were three and eight since the all-star break. The notion that this ragged bunch of misfits and chokers could win the Central Division and contend for the NBA crown was now seen as a joke. Proclaimed the masses: "I told you they couldn't win without Michael."

On March 8, as quickly as it started, the slump came to an end. The Bulls hammered Atlanta, the division leader, blowing them away in the final quarter. Kukoc was marvelous, scoring 15 points and making seven assists. After one successful drive he raised his fist in celebration, more happiness and animation than he'd shown in weeks.

With that solid performance came word that he'd be talking, and a dozen or so reporters showed up at practice the next day, anxious to hear what he might say. Jackson spoke first. The worst, he said, is probably over. A good win works a lot out of your system. He's right, I thought. It's a season of streaks, hot, cold, hot. Of course, we don't have such perspective. We're too wrapped up in the moment. When they're losing it's apocalyptic, when they win we rejoice. At that point we were just a few wins away from dusting off December's refrain--"They're better without Jordan." And it was the same thing with Kukoc: our evaluations change with each performance. There and then I made a little resolution to distance myself from this endless obsession.

What about Toni? someone asked Jackson.

"I'm glad he had a big game last night," said Jackson. "We need him. This has been a rough time for Toni. He's doesn't take losing easy, and he tends to pile it on himself."

Finally Kukoc came out, and the pack devoured him, forcing him against a wall. Are you happy here? Yes. Do you want to stay. Yes, again. He had a flat, impassive, ponderous way of speaking, weighing each word carefully. After ten minutes under the lights, Melissa Isaacson of the Tribune snared him for a private interview--a major coup, she'd been seeking a one-on-one for weeks. A bunch of us watched in envy, trying not to look too obvious about eavesdropping.

"Maybe he keeps to himself because he's self-conscious about his English," I said.

A TV guy shook his head. "His English is fine. We keep thinking he's deep because he's quiet. Maybe there's nothing there."

When Isaacson finished, Kukoc dashed for the door, with three or four of us in his wake, pleading: "Toni, please, we just need five minutes of your time."

"I can't," he said. "I have to go."

The Bulls went on another hot streak, winning 18 of 22. The Knicks slumped, my nephew in New York stopped talking basketball, fans here started talking championship, and I forgot my little resolution and immersed myself in the run.

Then the Bulls lost their last two games of the regular season, and Kukoc was mediocre. All right, he stunk. As goes Kukoc, so go the Bulls, just like Jackson said.

This week, between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, the buzzards have been circling. Krause was crazy to put so much stock in Kukoc, the guy just isn't NBA material. He's too slow, too timid, too inconsistent. He can't be counted on in the playoffs, and on and on.

My friends are going nutty; no one thinks the Bulls will win. "I've entered that phase of the season where I no longer sleep," a friend wrote. "I lie awake at night computing the difficult playoff scenarios. I worry most about Toni. If he has something in him, this is where he'll have to show it."

Relax, I tell him. He's got it in him, no matter what the experts say. They know nothing. They're the ones who said the Bulls wouldn't win without Jordan. They just fly with the prevailing winds--the moment is all they see. They don't know Kukoc. None of us do. After all these months, he's still just a screen on which we project our ridiculous fans' enthusiasms and insecurities.

All season long the Bulls and Kukoc have confounded our expectations, playing magnificently when we expected mediocrity and the other way around. Clearly nothing we say, do, or think makes a bit of difference, but I'm going to pretend it does anyway. From now on I'm beaming out good rays and sunny vibrations that will make Kukoc a stronger player and the Bulls a stronger team. Look out for Kukoc. He's been saving it all up for a great playoff run. Call me crazy, but I have a feeling we're headed for a four-peat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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