A prose poem by Michael Chin
They say a fish grows to the size of its container.
The Bulls signed Toni Kukoc to replace Michael Jordan. The Croatian Sensation, a jack of all trades who could handle the ball with the grace of a guard, but was tall enough to defend a center. A defensive nightmare for whomever was matched against him.
It didn’t work out like it was supposed to. The American professionals stronger, taller, meaner when Kukoc did get a big game, last shot opportunity, Scottie Pippen benched himself, insulted the coach had picked Kukoc over him.
Then Jordan came back.
Why do fish grow to match their surroundings? Sheer space? Availability of food? A matter of survival against natural predators?
Kukoc became the sixth man—the player who didn’t start games but was first off the bench when someone needed a rest or got into foul trouble. The platonic ideal of a sixth man, too, for he could truly sub in for any position. Color commentators got in the habit of noting he’d start for any other team at any position he was needed in. That the Bulls were that stacked that championship year, that season when they won more games than any team before them.
Big fish. Big pond.
He played the role. Three rings in three years—more than most players could dream of across a career. And only the occasional push back. A comment to the press that he could average thirty points a game (more than Jordan)—it’s just that that wasn’t his job on this team.
Here’s the thing about how fish grow. It’s not so much the size as the quality of the water, the filtration. You can restrict them, sure, but it’s the toxicity that ends their spans of life—and so their growth—prematurely.
Toni Kukoc retired back to Croatia. He isn’t a legend—at least not the type who shows up in late night debates about the best of all time, or even his time.
But Kukoc—he must remember.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse,Front Porch, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss and blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.