A very bad dream for Croatia's Kukoc BARCELONA '92


BARCELONA, Spain -- Let's title this chapter of the Dream Team book -- there are only about two dozen under contract -- "Who is Scottie Pippen and why is he saying all those terrible things about me?"

In case you missed it, the Dreamers were back last night, and with an attitude.

This time, they were mad.

Mad? I know, you're asking: What could these guys possibly have to get mad about? Did the limo get stuck in traffic?

Did somebody at the hotel forget to put a buenas-noches chocolate on the pillow?

Maybe this: The pizza took 31 minutes and the kid who delivered wouldn't take off the 200 pesetas?

Nope. They were mad at Toni Kukoc, who plays for Croatia and who had the nerve -- get ready -- to be drafted by the Chicago Bulls 18 months ago. That's it. For this sin, the best basketball players in the world ganged up on him and made his night pretty much a living hell.

Kukoc, whose country is battered and torn, who has enough troubles already, had no idea what was going on.

"There's no reason to hate me, or anything like that," he would say.

He's right. But what you have to understand about sports, even in the peace-and-love Olympics, is that teams thrive on hate and revenge and all the other normal emotions that drive your basic serial killer.

Here's what happened: The Bulls drafted Kukoc, a 6-foot-9 forward, now 23 and a European star, and were willing to pay him more money than the aforementioned Pippen. Kukoc signed to play for Benetton in Italy instead, but Pippen hasn't forgotten the slight.

"I definitely wanted a piece of him," Pippen said. "I wanted the whole world to see us go face to face."

Anyone in the whole world in particular?

"Jerry, definitely," Pippen said, with just a slightly evil smile. "I would have ordered him a big-screen TV."

Jerry is Jerry Krause -- general manager of the Bulls and the man who drafted Kukoc and the one who actually angered Pippen and, by extension, his teammate Michael Jordan, and by further extension, the entire Dream Team. They were mad at Krause and took it out on Kukoc, who got four points.

"Scottie definitely was mad when he scored," Charles Barkley said. "He wanted to shut him out."

"I was mad," Pippen said. "He scored at the end of the half. It was a lucky shot."

Well, maybe not that lucky. The kid can play when he isn't scared half to death. He's smooth, and he's a fine passer, and he'd love to come to the NBA the season after next, if he can find the nerve.

Pippen, who got a rare start just so he could hound Kukoc from the beginning, had 13 points, nine assists, five steals, and about 12 pieces of Kukoc, whose side he rarely left.

"I never see defense like that," said Kukoc, who was 2-for-11 with seven turnovers.

Nobody on the Croatian team had. This was a test, if there was going to be one. Croatia has a couple of NBA players and a few guys who were drafted. As Barkley said, "With this team, we knew the names."

Croatia is favored to win a medal, and, of course, got blown out by a 103-70 score. But, for a half, the game was fun. Drazen Petrovic, of the New Jersey Nets, was hitting some threes for Croatia, while the Dreamers were slashing and crashing and cutting off every passing lane.

Clyde Drexler had the best dunk. Jordan had the nicest move, one of those under-the-basket, stop-in-midair reverse-layup types that Dr. J introduced to the world. But Pippen had the best play. He drove to the basket, took the ball with his left hand and wrapped under his right, passing the ball to himself, whereupon he laid the ball in.

Barkley was on his best behavior, although he did get a T. "For talking to the crowd," he said. "If they called that in the NBA, I'd never last a game."

Fun? You bet.

"Sure, it was fun," Pippen said.

"Yes, fun," said Dino Radja, a Croatian forward and Celtics draft pick. "We knew before we didn't have any chance. It's an honor to play against Jordan and Magic. We run a little, sweat a little. I don't think they played 50 percent."

They played more than 50 for a while, and then the game dissolved into a late-season Bulls-Nuggets kind of game. But the U.S. had persuaded itself this was a big game. Some game has to be big.

"This was very big for us," said Magic Johnson. "We needed a game like this."

Johnson twisted his right knee when he fell to the floor in the first half and was carried off by Pippen and Chris Mullen. He spent the remainder of the first half on the bench with an ice pack on his knee. The wrap was gone in the second half, but Johnson did not return to the game.

An MRI on Johnson's knee was negative, and the injury was diagnosed as a strained muscle. The team said he is listed as day-to-day.

Of course, it won't make much difference. Tomorrow, the Dreamers play Germany, which beat Angola by a point yesterday. Good luck.

But the Dreamers weren't looking ahead. They were still looking back at poor Kukoc.

"He's in the right place," Barkley said of Kukoc's NBA prospects.

"I'm sure he'd improve, but he's a gamble," Pippen said. "I said the same thing about Danny Ferry and look what happened to him."

No, they're not always gracious.

Yes, they are routinely spectacular.

They talk about being on a mission. It's not an impossible one.

Back to Barkley: "Aside from the armed forces, this is the only thing we dominate the world in."

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