Twenty-five years ago today, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen unleashed the most vicious tag team defensive performance of their careers.
That statement doesn’t come lightly. Jordan was a nine-time first-team All-Defensive Team selection, tied for the most in NBA history, while Pippen was an eight-time first-team selection. Teammates for parts of 10 seasons, they are quite possibly the best defensive tandem in basketball history, and they spearheaded the Chicago Bulls’ “Doberman defense” — aptly coined to describe the manner in which they tormented ball handlers.
On July 27, 1992, when the United States’ basketball Dream Team played Croatia in the Olympics, Jordan and Pippen had their sights set on making life miserable for one man: Toni Kukoc.
How strong was their resolve? Fellow Dream Teamer Karl Malone provided the perfect analogy in GQ’s oral history of the Dream Team published in 2012.
“You ever watch a lion or a leopard or a cheetah pouncing on their prey? We had to get Michael and Scottie out of the locker room,” Malone said, “because they were damn near pulling straws to see who guarded him. Kukoc had no idea.”
Though Kukoc was drafted by the Bulls in the second round in 1990, he was still playing professionally in Europe in 1992; he eventually made his way to the NBA for the 1993-94 season. At the time, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause openly raved about Kukoc and was saving money to offer him a big contract. The problem was that Pippen had morphed into a superstar and wanted to renegotiate his rookie deal that left him vastly underpaid. Since Krause wanted to bring over Kukoc, the GM wasn’t yet ready to give Pippen a raise. That obviously didn’t sit well with Pippen, which in turn drew the wrath of Jordan, who already didn’t get along with Krause. Though Pippen eventually got paid, the damage was already done.
Chicago’s superstar teammates circled the Dream Team’s game against Croatia on July 27 as the day they would get revenge. In NBA TV’s documentary “The Dream Team,” Jordan articulated his reasons for wanting to own that day. “Krause was recruiting this guy and talking about how great he was. That’s like a father who has all his kids and now he sees another kid that he loves more than he loves his own. So we weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.”
With Pippen and Jordan taking turns guarding him, Kukoc didn’t score his first points until the end of the first half. By the time the final whistle blew, Kukoc’s line in the box score showed four points on 2-of-11 shooting, with seven turnovers and zero trips to the free throw line. Said the Croatian star afterward: “I’ve never seen that kind of defense before.”
Jordan finished with eight steals, tying his U.S. Olympic record set just 24 hours previously against Angola, and Pippen had five steals. Their 13 combined steals were more than they ever had in 691 games as teammates with the Bulls.
Odds and Ends
— Kukoc and Pippen ended up playing five seasons together. And while Pippen was paid more in their first season as teammates, Kukoc had a higher salary in each of their final four.
— Though best remembered as teammates with the Bulls, Kukoc squared off against both Jordan and Pippen in the NBA. He had a 4-2 head-to-head record against Pippen and went 2-2 against Jordan.
— Kukoc was named second-team All-Rookie in 1993-94. One of the other All-Rookie selections that season? Dino Radja, who also played for Croatia in the 1992 Summer Olympics. Radja scored 14 points in that group stage game against the United States; he was clearly not targeted by the Doberman defense.
— Jordan was the leading scorer for the Dream Team against Croatia, scoring 21 points. The great Drazen Petrovic scored 19 points to lead Croatia.