ANY OF 27 TEAMS IN THE NBA can offer a player a A-seven-year deal for $17.6 million. only the Bulls could promise Michael Jordan. For three years Chicago general manager Jerry Krause had pursued Toni Kukoc--three-time European Player of the Year and the Michael Jordan of Europe--with the zeal of Ahab. Krause picked the 24-year-old Croatian in the 1990 draft, dangled greenbacks and glory, even asked Jordan and Scottie Pippen to phone Kukoc and talk up the privilege of being a Bull. (To which Jordan, according to Sam Smith's "The Jordan Rules," replied disdainfully, "I don't speak no Yugoslavian.") Finally, last July, the slam-dunk: after rebuffing Chicago in order to hone his skills with Italy's Bennetton Treviso of the European League, Kukoc decided he was ready for NBA prime time. He took the $17.6 million; flew wife. son and German shepherd to Illinois, and spent the summer in the Bulls' weight room putting on 10 pounds of muscle. After two Years of waking up in the middle of the night to watch the Bulls whenever European television broadcast a game live, Kukoc was going to be fast-breaking with the Air-man. And then, Black Wednesday.
"Let's say this happened at a little bit of a bad time," Kukoc told NEWSWEEK. For hours after Jordan's announcement, the 6-foot-11, 230-pound virtuoso--he can switch from dazzling point guard to small forward to power forward--holed up in the locker room of the Bulls' practice facility in Deerfield, Ill., shooting pool. When he finally emerged, he said, "I never had the chance to play with him. That's the only thing that bothers me now. I came here a little bit too late."
The timing could not have been worse for Kukoc, and not only because his dreams of sharing fast breaks with Jordan and Pippen have vaporized. Kukoc had deferred the NBA in order to sharpen his game in the out-of-the-limelight European league. He final] signed because he envisioned a rookie year in Jordan's shadow, easing into the American game. Now he can forget about a honeymoon. Although Pippen assumes the major scoring burden, the untested rookie is on the spot, too. Kukoc averaged 19 points a game in his final season for Treviso, hit 53 percent from the floor and scored 40 percent from 3-point range. But even after two months with Bulls fitness coach Al Vermeil, Kukoc (and everyone else) knows he can't replace Jordan. "There's the same enthusiasm and intensity," says Vermeil. "But I don't think you can compare anyone to Michael."
With Kukoc signed but Jordan gone, can Chicago four-peat? Pat Riley's Knicks stood pat in the off season; Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns are determined not to be denied one more time. Jordan's loss can't be measured by subtracting his rebound, assist and field-goal totals from the stat sheet: the real loss will he in leadership, cohesiveness, spark. "I think it's a big challenge for all the guys to prove they were not just good with Michael," says Kukoc, but that "they can be good without Michael." Kukoc never got his chance to be good with Jordan. The closest lie came was playing opposite him in the '92 Barcelona Olympics. (Jordan and Pippen ate Kukoc alive, holding him to 4 points in their first game.) Come Nov. 5, Kukoc will get his shot at shining, or stumbling, solo.