Inspired Pippen does number on Bull GM's fair-haired boy


BARCELONA, Spain -- It was cruel. But it's no longer unusual.

The U.S. basketball team, searching for something else to destroy, found a convenient, innocent target. Croatia's Toni Kukoc, pale eyes staring out of an eggshell of a face, saw the world's best basketball players conducting his own Judgment Day.

Kukoc, known as Europe's best player and something of a Slavic Magic, was just another smoke-belching Yugo. He got four points and never was permitted to shoot the ball from a stationary position as the United States welcomed the infant nation into the battered basketball world, 103-70.

"This was our gauge game," said Magic Johnson, who hurt his knee in the first half and sat out the second but seemed OK enough to stand, sans ice and wrap, for 20 minutes of interviews.

"This was the game where I wanted to see just how good we'd be with intensity. We saw it tonight. On defense, especially. I don't worry about our offense. How can you worry about offense on this team?"

Only if the Dream Team takes offense. This was a dream deferred for Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls, a club general managed by the fingernails-on-a-blackboard personality of Jerry Krause. Krause saw Kukoc in the 1989-90 season and got as excited as Columbus spotting land up ahead. The Bulls drafted Kukoc, and Krause even asked Jordan, during the next year, to call what was then Yugoslavia and persuade Kukoc to come west. Jordan reportedly responded in two words, the second of which was no.

Why did Pippen (13 points, nine assists, five steals) take things so personally? In 1990, Krause made him wait on a contract extension because he was busy lusting after Kukoc, who eventually signed a five-year, $13 million contract with Benetton in the Italian league.

Kukoc is 6 feet 10 with a twinkling passing game, and he was explosive inside in beating the United States in both the '90 Goodwill Games and the world championships. But he is no Pippen, and yesterday he got his comeuppance.

"I want to order [Krause] a big-screen TV," Pippen said with a grin. "We really tried to expose him as a player. We wanted to see if he could step up to the challenge. He didn't play as tough as he needs to play if he wants to play at the NBA level. I definitely wanted a piece of him. I wanted the whole world to see me and him go face to face."

"It's the first time he saw defensive pressure like that before, especially from us," said Jordan, whose U.S. team had 32 steals.

After the game, Jordan somewhat dutifully said he wouldn't mind having Kukoc join the Bulls.

Kukoc wouldn't mind either.

"It would be a pleasure to play for them," Kukoc said. "I want to go to the NBA. Tonight was very difficult, but it is the kind of thing I can learn from."

Kukoc has four years left to play for Benetton, but he's going to speak to the owner about that.

So how good is Kukoc?

"He can pass," said Magic, who congratulated Kukoc on a particularly inventive feed near the end. "Hey, he can play.

"He can be a good player in the NBA. A big-time player? I don't know about the big-time part. He probably doesn't have the strength. That's the problem over here. They play a different game. That's always been the problem with [Lakers center] Vlade Divac. First thing they do to guys like that in the NBA, they hit 'em with an elbow and say, 'What you got?' "

Kukoc didn't have much, but the New Jersey Nets' Drazen Petrovic had enough to score 19, and Stojko Vrankovic, formerly of the Celtics, blocked shots by Pippen, David Robinson and Chris Mullin in the first half, surprising everyone. Considering Larry Bird's state of mind and back, Vrankovic has been Boston's best player here.

It's a good thing the Dream Team has a Mailman. This stuff is getting about as monotonous as walking a postal route. Once again Charles Barkley got a technical foul and didn't apologize for it, and once again coach Chuck Daly looked nice with no reason to sweat.

"I did make one tactical error, though," Daly said, with Jordan at his side. "I told Michael to quit playing golf after nine holes today, and he probably soared too high to get the timing down on his shot. I think maybe he should play 36 holes before the next game."

Magic probably won't play in that game, against Germany, which has Detlef Schrempf but not enough else to beat Angola by more than one point yesterday.

Magic didn't know how he did it, but he wrenched his knee significantly enough to be helped off the court by Pippen and Mullin. Johnson underwent an MRI to learn that he only strained a muscle, but he still probably won't participate in the dis-unification of Germany tomorrow.

Is any of this worth anything? Only this: the Dream Team has written the last word, with bright green ink and a flourish, on the NBA's incredible growth.

Thirteen years ago, people in Philadelphia wouldn't even come out to see Julius Erving. Here, Jordan, Magic, etc. are perhaps the last sports stars in the world that can inspire $200 tickets and true hysteria.

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