- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Toni Kukoc was minding his own business two years ago when he first heard the news that he had turned up in a photograph with Kim Jong Un taken years before.
The North Korean dictator was but a 13- or 14-year-old kid at the time and also a basketball fan, and Kukoc suspects he asked to pose for a picture when the Bulls were in Paris for an exhibition tour before the 1997-98 NBA season.
"I heard about it when his dad was dying or had died and he took over," said the former Bull by phone on Monday. "Apparently he was watching the Bulls. A Croatian paper told me about it then."
The Washington Post also reported in a story three years ago that Kim was a big basketball fan who had NBA mementos, including photos taken with Kukoc as well as Kobe Bryant. This week, the story surfaced again when New York Magazine wrote about it.
"It's Paris, the McDonald's tournament, we're world champions," Kukoc said. "Every place you went, people were trying to take pictures. What am I supposed to say? I don't really know what to say. I don't remember what I had for lunch today and I can remember that? It ended up a crazy thing."
Oddly, this is the second time in two weeks a former Bull has been mentioned in the same sentence with the dictator. Dennis Rodman accompanied the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea at the end of February with a production crew to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series. Rodman struck up a friendship with Kim during the visit.
After Rodman's visit, the White House said North Korea's government should focus on the well-being of its citizens, not on "celebrity sporting events."
"Dennis is a grown man and he can do whatever he pleases and whatever he wants," Kukoc said. "I'm pretty sure he meant well, but I don't know why he went there to begin with, why the Globetrotters would go to North Korea. I just know what I watched and what I saw come out of it was more negative than positive."
Kukoc said he would pose -- especially 16 years ago -- with virtually anyone who asked for a photo, particularly a child.
"I consider myself pretty well-traveled but I don't know at least 50 percent of the countries, and I'm supposed to know some kid who (was going to eventually) take over his dad's dictatorship?" Kukoc said. "I don't think if there were seven bodyguards around him with guns I wouldn't have noticed.
"We try to please fans, be nice to people who ask 'Can I have a picture?' But who knows who you're taking pictures with, what you're signing. Do you really have an idea who these people are? You're trying to be nice and polite, trying to get people not to say 'He's a (a bad guy), he doesn't talk to people.' But on the other side, who knows what can happen?"
20hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com