McDill recalls Kukoc, controversy and a powerful MJ moment
Former Daily Herald writer Kent McDill was the only full-time, traveling beat writer to cover the entirety of the Bulls championship run. "The Last Dance" producers didn't talk to him for the documentary, so he's sharing his memories here. Kent and Mike McGraw break down "The Last Dance" latest, Episodes 5 and 6.
MM: There were so many topics in these episodes, it's hard to remember them all.
KM: My son Kyle always complains about them going back and forth between '98 and some year previous.
MM: Let's start with Toni Kukoc, since he got some love from the show and some hate from Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at the Barcelona Olympics.
KM: Toni brought this up on the show, how when he left Europe, he was leaving behind millions of dollars. His Benetton Treviso contract was huge. He had family that was still living in Croatia amid a war. He comes over here in '93 to be on a team with Michael and Scottie, who treated him like crap a year prior.
I remember the day Michael retired, Toni was behind him in the corner and he was openly crying. I know it was because he had given up so much and he had come over for a particular reason and that reason was just being blown up in his face. Then three years later, Toni was Sixth Man of the Year for the 72-win team.
I like Toni a lot. He was a really quiet, calm guy. Toni reminded me of Pete Maravich in a lot of ways. All he wanted to do was put the ball in the basket and it didn't matter if it was him or somebody who got a great pass from him. I always appreciated his game.
MM: I'd imagine when Sam Smith's book "The Jordan Rules" came out, it caused a stir on press row.
KM: It was right then that things started to change. Michael got the Nike contract and then he got the Gatorade contract and it seemed like I was spending more time covering corporate news than I was covering basketball. Then "Jordan Rules" was released and all of the sudden there's controversy about what was written, how Sam got the information and Michael took a step back from the media at that point.
From '92 through '93 when we started talking about the gambling situation, that was when sports writing changed. We were no longer just covering competition. I know people had endorsement deals before Michael, but not like that. There had been controversy before Michael, but not like that.
MM: Sunday's episodes reminded me of how annoying it must have been to cover the team after Michael's trip to Atlantic City during the '93 playoffs. He walked around like he was mad at the world for about two weeks.
KM: Michael did a pretty good job of handling us. Until things got really ugly, he was available to us a lot. Those huge collection of reporters he had to deal with on a regular basis, I was always amazed at how after games he would face like three different waves of reporters.
The reporters were all asking him the same questions because they needed their own personal sound bites and he would answer the same questions the same way using different words. I don't know what class he possibly could have taken that taught him how to do that. He wasn't giving standard cliché answers either. It was kind of sad to see all that change as the gambling thing got started and then it changed dramatically when he came back in '95.
MM: When they touched on Michael's reluctance to speak out politically, it reminded me of how some of the reporters who were around in the 80s, like Sam, Cheryl Raye and Bruce Levine, talk about how you could chat with Michael about anything. He was actually very up to date on current events because he'd stay in his hotel room and watch CNN all day, since he couldn't go out in public without creating a stir. Did you catch any of that era?
KM: I think he was smart about what was going on in the world, but he was also very smart about his image. He knew what was going on, but he didn't have any push or pull in any direction. It wasn't that he didn't believe in civil rights for the African American community, he just wasn't politically motivated. So when that whole Jesse Helms-Harvey Gannt race came up, I remember him telling the story about his mom and her interest in him being involved. I took his explanation to heart. Not the "Republicans buy sneakers too," he just didn't have it in him to stand up to situations like that.
MM: What else stood out to you Sunday?
KM: They rushed past the fact that before every game, Michael would meet with a Make-A-Wish kid. It wasn't always the Make-A-Wish organization, but organizations that granted wishes for terminally ill children. We were at the L.A. Sports Arena before a game against the Clippers, I was just walking around and happened to be in a little area in the catacombs of where Michael was going to meet with a kid.
The PR guy kind of tried to shoo me away, but Michael told me I could stay. So I got to see him spend time with this teenager who was in a wheelchair and completely paralyzed. His eyes barely moved. He was with his mom and his grandfather and his mom kept saying, "Michael, my son's got your posters all over his room and you're his favorite athlete and all he ever wanted to do was meet you."
Michael was so cool. He knelt down in front of the boy and talked to him for five minutes. The boy wasn't really responding, but Michael spent five minutes with him, hugged everyone and then he and I walked back to the locker room. I said, 'You do this before every game, right?' And he said, 'Yeah, pretty much.' I was verklempt, I was destroyed. It was just too emotional for me.
I said, 'How do you go from doing this to getting yourself ready for a game?' He said, 'It's just what I do.' That was just one of the most powerful things I saw in the whole time I was covering the Bulls.
MM: Did you get to know any of Michael's security guards? The late John Michael Wozniak seemed to be Sunday's breakout star.
KM: The one I knew was George Koehler, the limo driver. He's the guy that I spent a huge amount of time with, but I didn't get to know those other security guys. They were all very odd, as we learned Sunday.
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls