As Nikola Mirotic prepares for his first season in the NBA, he knows the transition from Europe won’t be easy. He is in a new culture, playing against the best in his sport and trying to gain acceptance from his own teammates.
If someone knows about tough transitions, it is Kukoc.
Kukoc arrived in Chicago the same day that Michael Jordan retired (the first time). The team had just finished winning their third consecutive championship, and they were tired of the buildup that then-general manager Jerry Krause made of him. They felt this player who hadn’t played one minute in the NBA was being respected more than an entire roster full of champions.
Kukoc feels things are different this time. Mirotic is more well-known by his teammates and his coaches, and there isn’t the divide among the team that there was when Kukoc arrived.
“Now the front office, coaches, players, they know the players coming in way better than people in my time did,” said Kukoc. “I don’t think Phil Jackson ever saw me play and obviously, none of my new teammates other than Michael and Scottie Pippen, who played against me in the Olympics, saw me play. So I was an enigma from that standpoint.
“Also, coming into the world champion Bulls, when they just won three titles in a row, they’re going to question: ‘Who is this guy? How is he going to change us? We’re world champions.’ There is none of that pressure on Mirotic right now. This team is so young except for Pau Gasol and have none of that experience, not even of getting deep into the playoffs. So anybody who brings fresh stuff is a welcome addition. They also never seem to be a group divided inside the team.”
Bulls’ Vice President of Operations John Paxson was a teammate of Kukoc back then, and is intent on not making the same mistakes that were made back then.
“I thought at the time that it was unfair to Toni to be built up in a way that initially he could not live up to the expectations,” Paxson said. “We talked a lot about bringing Nikola over and not building him up, that he was going to have to develop and earn his place as a player.”
When Kukoc came to the NBA, he was one of the few European players in the league. He was one of the trailblazers for the wave of Europeans that have come and made the NBA a global sensation. It was difficult for Kukoc back then.
“It was hard back then because there were only a couple of us and I remember Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic would spend time talking to many of us on the phone after each game and trying to figure out how close they were to establishing themselves in the NBA,” Kukoc said.
Two of the most important people Kukoc met was the Bulls supervisor of European scouting, Ivica Dukan and his wife, Gordana. Dukan was crucial in Kukoc feeling comfortable in Chicago.
“We were teammates in Split,” Kukoc said of Dukan. “So having him there was basically like having an older brother look out for you. There were others in Chicago from our country, but that was really crucial to feel safe, secure and at home. And then obviously over time, we met other people and everything worked out to the point where we call Chicago home now more than Split.”
Dukan is now doing the same for Mirotic.
“Ivica and Gordana are like family to Nikola and his wife,” Paxson said. “I can’t overstate how important Ivica has been throughout this whole process, identifying him, fostering relations and getting him here. Dukan has been invaluable, and the comparison to what he did for Toni is very similar to Nikola. He will help Nikola a lot in making this transition.”
The addition of Gasol will also help Mirotic. He can translate things to Spanish for Mirotic when needed, and he can help the 23 year old adjust to life in the NBA.
Nikola Mirotic will not see the same struggle that Toni Kukoc went through. Kukoc and others opened things up to make it easier for foreign-born players to play in the NBA. For that, Mirotic and other European players have to be grateful to those trailblazers.