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Kukoc might be last Bull standing


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For most of his five-year career with the Chicago Bulls, Croatian forward Toni Kukoc has been treated as an outsider.

Scottie Pippen has stewed for years about Kukoc's loftier salary.

Dennis Rodman has pouted when used off the bench behind Kukoc.

And Michael Jordan has ridden the 6-foot-11 forward hard, pushing for more consistency, more toughness, more defensive effort.

Yet when the NBA Finals conclude, Kukoc might be done with those concerns -- only to be faced with a new challenge.

Pippen, Rodman and Jordan will be free agents this off-season. All could be gone as part of a management-incited rebuilding process.

In essence, the Bulls well could become Kukoc's team next season. With two years remaining on his contract, Kukoc could be forced into a most unlikely starring role.

In the master plan of owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause, that was not exactly the goal. The thought was that by discarding the salaries of Jordan, Rodman and Pippen, the Bulls could bid for the biggest-name free agents in one of the most prolific free-agent classes in years.

But then prime target Kevin Garnett decided to sign an extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves last summer.

And then talented point guard Damon Stoudamire was dealt at midseason to the Portland Trail Blazers, with his hometown team having the upper hand to re-sign him as a free agent.

Beyond that, free agents such as Phoenix's Antonio McDyess and Denver's LaPhonso Ellis have spoken of staying put.

What's left for the Bulls is a pool of free agents that well may be able to support Kukoc's game, but none who could supplant Kukoc as Chicago's primary weapon if the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman troika is discarded.

Among those the Bulls would be in position to sign if an overhaul is consummated are the likes of Christian Laettner, Cedric Ceballos, Jerry Stackhouse, Travis Best, Rik Smits, Rick Fox, Brent Barry, Tom Gugliotta, Jayson Williams, Derrick Coleman, Theo Ratliff, Cliff Robinson, Corliss Williamson and Rod Strickland.

None would cast the shadow over Kukoc that Jordan and Pippen have. Further, the Bulls could suffer additional losses, with center Luc Longley, guard Steve Kerr, forward Jud Buechler, center Bill Wennington and swingman Scott Burrell also free agents.

As a means of perspective, consider that Kukoc broke down in tears before his rookie season, when he learned of Jordan's "retirement." Jordan remembers Kukoc, "bawling like a kid."

Coming to America for Kukoc meant coming to play with Michael Jordan. Only when Jordan returned from his failed attempt at baseball in '95 did Kukoc get that opportunity.

But come November, Kukoc might have to stand alone, as perhaps the lone transition player between Bulls eras. As a supporting player, he has been without peer during the past five seasons, his Sixth Man Award in '96 more than deserved.

Yet with Kukoc's inconsistent playoff performances, one can't help but wonder if Chicago is expecting too much. Kukoc will be 30 at the start of next season, having waited until he was 25 to jump from the Italian League.

With an opportunity to earn a third title ring, Kukoc has validated himself as the rare import to make good at a championship level. But the question for the Bulls next season well may be: How good is a team if Toni Kukoc is its best player?

It apparently is a question Bulls management is willing to consider.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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