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Michael Jordan looks at Toni Kukoc and sees talent. Jordan also

MIKE NADELMarch 22, 1995

DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ Michael Jordan looks at Toni Kukoc and sees talent. Jordan also sees confusion and dismay.

So Jordan, who once resented all the attention being given Kukoc by Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, promises to be there for his new teammate.

``I’ll just try to get to know him personally,″ Jordan said. ``He’s a very emotional type of guy. He’s in another country and still has some sense of uncomfortability here. Hopefully, my reputation will precede me to a point where I can help him relax, talk to him, don’t criticize him, don’t blame, but just help him and talk to him on the court.″

Jordan did so often on Sunday, when he made his return to the NBA in a 103-96 overtime loss at Indiana. But despite Jordan’s support, Kukoc had only 7 points, three rebounds and one assist in 27 minutes. He played tentatively, passing up open jumpers to look for Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

``He was kind of rattled because of the whole situation. Certainly, he didn’t play well,″ Jordan said. ``I let him know I didn’t play well, either. That happens. You’re going to have bad games. It’s how you rebound from those games, learn from those games. I want to make sure that he believes in himself.″

Krause wooed Kukoc for years before finally luring ``Europe’s Magic Johnson″ to the Bulls.

Until Jordan’s return, Kukoc had been the Bulls’ second-best player this season, ranking behind only Pippen in scoring and assists. Kukoc goes into tonight’s game at Boston averaging 16.3 points, 4.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds.

But Kukoc seemed lost Sunday trying to play with Pippen and Jordan, and Bulls coach Phil Jackson already is talking about lineup changes.

``Toni’s the only member of the starting group who has never played with Michael, so he’s got the most adjusting to do. It’s going to be awhile,″ Jackson said after Tuesday’s practice. ``We’re going to stick with Toni a little bit and see how he does. We always know that we can find a way for him to come off the bench and contribute.″

When the Bulls rallied in the second half at Indiana, Kukoc was on the bench. Jackson used unheralded Corie Blount, a better rebounder and defender, at power forward.

Either Blount or Larry Krystkowiak, who on Tuesday was activated from the injured list, could eventually start.

Kukoc, who has avoided the media the last few days, hates coming off the bench. When he finally cracked the starting lineup in late December, he considered it a milestone in his two-year NBA career.

Kukoc is a gifted offensive player. But at 6-foot-11, he’s a small forward or shooting guard in a power forward’s body; he doesn’t like contact and is weak defensively and on the boards.

``Toni needs the ball in his hands to play effectively,″ guard Steve Kerr said. ``But the fact is that the ball is not going to be in his hands very much anymore. It’s going to be in Michael’s and Scottie’s hands.″

Making matters interesting is that Kukoc’s average annual salary of $4.33 million is more than Jordan ever made with the Bulls.

Kukoc would only get about 15 minutes a game backing up Pippen and Jordan. Throw in another 12 minutes playing alongside Pippen and Jordan, and that’s 27 minutes at the most.

Can the Bulls afford to pay superstar money to a part-time player _ especially when they’re paying free-agent bust Ron Harper $19.2 million through 1999?

Jackson refuses to let financial concerns dictate his lineup. He just wants to see the Bulls’ power forward rebound and defend well enough to help the team improve during the season’s final 16 games and into the playoffs.

``We’re going to fish around at that spot,″ Jackson said, ``until someone fills that gap.″

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