Arturas Karnisovas, then all of 21, was a hero in the eyes of his Lithuanian countrymen.
It was 1992, at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the 6-8 forward — then midway through an outstanding four-year career at Seton Hall — drained one clutch jumper after another for an upstart team that would soar to a bronze medal.
For a nation newly independent from the former Soviet Union, medaling on such a grand stage was a momentous achievement.
But 21 is 21, and guess what Karnisovas did late in a blowout semifinal loss to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the original U.S. Dream Team? After scoring 10 points in the game — not bad — he sat gleefully on the bench with a camera and snapped pictures.
After the game, Karnisovas would joke about his leg being the same size as Karl Malone’s arm. He imagined his Seton Hall teammates hooting and hollering as Jordan dunked on him. And he offered no apologies about the whole fanboy maneuver with the camera.
“They’re still my heroes,” he said. “They are the stars of stars.”
All the Bulls’ brand-new head of basketball operations must do now is find the Bulls’ next Jordan. Short of that, perhaps finding their next Pippen might do.
Or the next Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird …
Or the next LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo …
You getting my drift here?
If the Bulls are going to sniff the NBA Finals on Karnisovas’ watch, they’re going to need a star of stars. Maybe more than one of them.
There is much to like about what Karnisovas, who will turn 49 on April 27, helped to accomplish in his years in the Nuggets’ front office. The team made a brilliant pick in drafting center Nikola Jokic in the second round in 2014. Two years later, it had another slam dunk in guard Jamal Murray, taken with the — listen up, Bulls fans — No. 7 overall pick.
In between those moves, the Nuggets acquired little-known Trail Blazers reserve Will Barton in 2015. Barton has blossomed in Denver, becoming a better-than-average starter and infusing his team with a toughness that had been lacking.
Rather quietly — and without superstars, at least not in the intergalactic-fame sense — the Nuggets have risen to prominence. They won 54 games last season and were 43-22, third-best in the Western Conference, when the coronavirus outbreak shut things down.
The Bulls surely would take any and all of the above.
But if they’re ever going to play for a championship again, it’ll take a front office that can deliver the real goods. And, in the NBA, the real goods come with MVP awards and more dollar signs than nearly anyone can imagine.
About those Nuggets: God bless ’em for trying, but they weren’t about to win a title. They probably aren’t going to play for one any time soon, either. Not with James and Anthony Davis in L.A. Not with Leonard and Paul George in L.A., too. The Nuggets couldn’t even get past the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the 2019 playoffs.
Not since the Pistons in 2004 has a team won an NBA title without a true superstar. Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace pulled off the damn near impossible. One must go back to before Jordan, before Johnson and Bird, back and back and back some more, to find the previous time such a team raised the trophy.
The Bulls don’t need to win it all for Karnisovas to have a successful run here. But wouldn’t it be nice if they did?
By all accounts, landing Karnisovas was a real score. Will he prove himself to be the transformative figure the organization has needed? Let’s just hope the head of basketball ops isn’t the closest thing the team has to a star of stars.
• Illinois center Kofi Cockburn has declared for the NBA draft after a Big Ten freshman of the year season. He can still return to school if feedback from the league discourages him from turning pro now, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he’ll be gone when (and if) the Illini return to action next season.
Kofi Cockburn — gone so soon?Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Let’s assume leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu, an all-conference performer as a sophomore, will be gone, too.
What becomes of the program’s progress under coach Brad Underwood then?
On second thought, let’s not make any assumptions. It’s too much of a bummer.
• Jokic and Murray vs. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, two-on-two:
On second thought, let’s not go there, either.
• Did you catch wind of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s inspired plan to get college football up and running again in May?
Inspired by a knot in his mullet that led to a lack of blood flow to his brain, I’m guessing.
“The NCAA, the presidents of the universities, the Power 5 conference commissioners [and] the athletic directors need to be meeting right now and we need to start coming up with answers,” Gundy said. “In my opinion, if we have to bring our players back, test them. They’re all in good shape. They’re all 18-, 19-, 20-, 21- and 22-year-olds. They’re healthy. A lot of them can fight it off with their natural body, the antibodies and the build that they have.
“There’s some people that are asymptomatic. If that’s true, then we sequester them. And people say that’s crazy. No, it’s not crazy because we need to continue and budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.”
Translation: “Football players ain’t students like all them reg’lar kids with the book bags. They’re dadgum commodities — and they can’t line our pockets if we’re too busy keepin’ ’em safe!”
As long as the lucky-to-be-there kids don’t get paid, right?