by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BARCELONA, Spain — The class was Humiliation 101. The teachers were Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The student was a baby-faced Croatian named Toni Kukoc.

By the time they were done with him, Kukoc was small enough to fit through a keyhole — and when he started the game, he was 6-feet-10. Poor Toni. I guess it’s not enough that his country has been reduced to rubble. Michael and Scottie wanted to get in a few shots, too.

“I didn’t want him to score a basket,” a grinning Pippen admitted after the United States crushed Croatia — possibly the second-best basketball team

in these Olympics — 103-70, while holding star player Kukoc to a measly four points. “I definitely wanted a piece of him. I wanted the whole world to see us go face-to-face.”

Hmm. What had Kukoc done to raise Pippen’s blood pressure? And what evil had he wrought that made Jordan barely acknowledge him, and sneer at his name? Did he threaten their children? Make a pass at their wives? Steal the “Do Not Disturb” signs from their luxury hotel?

Not exactly. See, a couple years ago, the Chicago Bulls used a draft pick to select Kukoc. He is a star player in Europe, people compare him to Magic Johnson, and the Bulls figured, hey, the kid can play, let’s take a chance.

Eventually, they tried to sign him. Offered him a contract. Isn’t that what teams do when they want to improve?

Ah, but here’s the crime: The Bulls were prepared to pay Kukoc more money than they were paying Pippen. And you know how that burns an athlete. The thought of some foreigner being able to buy a bigger sports car.

Meanwhile, Bulls GM Jerry Krause — wait’ll you hear this — had the audacity to ask Jordan, His Airness, if he would meet Kukoc, maybe even fly to Europe, if it meant signing the kid? You know, for the good of the team?

Ha! Who does this fool think he’s dealing with? Greg Kite? Michael reacted with a move he has perfected on the court; he stuck out his tongue.

“I ain’t no ambassador,” he said.

That was pretty clear Monday.

From the opening tap, Pippen and Jordan were out to squash Kukoc like a Croatian mosquito and prove to their boss that he had made a serious mistake thinking about giving this kid money, when they still had several Swiss bank accounts to fill. They stole Kukoc’s passes. They pressured his dribble. At one point, Jordan swatted away a Kukoc shot, and Pippen finished on the other end with a dazzling, fake-pass-then-keep-it- himself lay-up.

Kukoc, 23, was overwhelmed. He missed nine of 11 shots and turned the ball over seven times.

Just what Mikey and Scottie wanted.

“I’m sure Jerry was watching somewhere,” Jordan smirked. “I hope he was watching on a big screen,” Pippen added.

“I think Scottie proved if they’re gonna give anyone money in Chicago, it ought to be him,” Charles Barkley said.

Of course, Barkley is the same guy who drew a technical foul Monday night, when he turned to the crowd and yelled, “Shut the f— up!”

And most of them spoke Spanish.

But, OK. Let me get this straight. Here is Kukoc, a nice kid from Europe who gets paid millions a year to play for an Italian team — which is why he hasn’t come to the U.S. yet — but he still got up at 4 every morning last month to watch his heroes play in the NBA Finals on TV. This is a kid who leaves pro scouts drooling.

And because the Bulls want to put him in a uniform, Jordan and Pippen decide to pull his pants down in front of the world?

This Dream Team is more bored than I thought.

In the tunnel after the game, the players mingled with the press. Pippen had a huge crowd around him, and he entertained them with tales of how he shut down that little Croatian. Kukoc is no great player, he said. Not tough enough, he said. Not skilled enough, he said. Someone asked whether Kukoc might seem better if he were surrounded by Chicago Bulls as teammates, instead of fellow Croats.

“Maybe,” Pippen allowed, “but that’s a gamble. Look at Danny Ferry. You see what happened with him.”


Down the hallway, Barkley answered similar questions. What did he think of Kukoc?

“What did he score?” Barkley sneered. “Four points? He’d need to score more than four points if he wants to play in the NBA.”

Charles failed to mention that he was trying to score against the 12 best players on the planet.

Amid all this warmth and brotherhood, Kukoc himself finally came out. Wearing long green shorts and a print shirt, he seemed unaware that he had been the target of an embarrassment.

“It was great to play on the same court as these players,” he said.
“After tonight, it is for sure I would like to play in the NBA.”

Someone asked him about Pippen.

“I never saw defense like that before,” he said, shaking his head.

Had this been his dream?

“It is the dream of everyone who plays basketball to play against the best in the world.”

But, in his dreams, didn’t he score more than four points?

“No,” he said, laughing. “I have very realistic dreams.”

Kukoc was not ashamed. He knew he could play better. But for tonight, he was simply glad to face his heroes — even if few of them did any more than loosely shake his hand. Talking in that hallway, it was obvious there are at least two things Kukoc has more of than some of his NBA rivals:

1) The ability to speak another language.

2) Class.

But what did we expect? There is nothing left for us to prove in these Olympics, basketball-wise. We win, OK? We are the best. Croatia might be the toughest opponent the Dream Team will face, and our guys tried their hardest to lose it. Magic Johnson injured his knee and sat the second half. Larry Bird made bad passes. Jordan was so busy showing off, he missed countless shots. And the refs blew the whistle as often as they breathed.

America still won by 33 points.

So maybe there’s nothing else for Jordan and Pippen to play for except moments like these — humiliate a Euro hot shot and make him think twice about taking that plane to the States. Shut him down. Put him in his place. That’s sports, right?

Obviously, Pippen doesn’t remember what it felt like not too long ago, when everyone in the country was saying he couldn’t even handle his own headaches. And Jordan has forgotten the time as a rookie, at the All-Star Game, when several big-name players deliberately kept the ball out of his hands — because they thought he was too cocky for a kid so young.

“I was honored to play tonight,” Kukoc said in one corner.

“That guy is not ready for the NBA,” Pippen whispered in the other.

Maybe it’s just the difference in culture. Maybe it’s the difference in talent. Then again, maybe its just the Dream Team philosophy:

If the shoe fits, squash ’em.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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