Who is Toni Kukoc? 5 fast facts about the European prodigy who drew the ire of Michael Jordan
The 10-part ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” continues to chronicle the Chicago Bulls’ last championship run, and Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman have been the focus through four episodes.
What about Toni Kukoc?
The 6-11 forward was a complementary piece on the 1997-98 team, but that doesn’t do his story justice. He was one of the most accomplished European players of all time – and one of the targets for Jordan and Pippen because of their angst toward Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.
Here is what you need to know about Kukoc:
Toni Kukoc was a European hoops prodigy
Kukoc began playing basketball for his hometown club in Split, Croatia, at 17 years old in 1985. The 6-11 forward quickly developed into a star player and earned the nickname “The Waiter” and was compared to Magic Johnson for his passing skills.
Kukoc was part of three straight FIBA European Champions Cup teams from 1988-91, and he was named the MVP of the tournament twice.
Kukoc would gain more notoriety for his role on Yugoslavia’s loaded national team, which won the 1990 FIBA World Championships in Argentina. That roster featured Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, and they beat Team USA 99-91 in the semifinals.
Kukoc was named to the all-tournament team, but he was still barely known in the United States outside of Chicago.
Jerry Krause loved Kukoc
The Bulls selected Kukoc with the No. 29 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. Krause had strong feelings about Kukoc because of his ability to play in the backcourt at 6-11.
Despite the hype, Kukoc would not sign with Chicago until 1993, when he was 25 years old.
The tensions between Krause, Jordan and Pippen led to resentment for the Bulls stars toward Kukoc, and that manifested at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen hounded Kukoc
Kukoc played for Croatia in the 1992 Summer Olympics, and the team reached the gold-medal game. The “Dream Team” was waiting.
Jordan and Pippen were among the star players on arguably the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
“All we heard in Chicago was how great Toni Kukoc was from Jerry Krause” Jordan said via NBC Sports. “(Pippen and I) made a pact that we weren’t going to let this guy do anything against us. It was, ‘OK I got him in the first half and you got him in the second half.’”
The “Dream Team” cruised to a 117-85 victory, and Jordan led the way with 22 points. Pippen added 12 points, and they took turns hounding Kukoc, who had 16 points in the loss.
“They got made when one of the guys let Toni score when they were on the bench,” Magic Johnson said.
The Bulls stars made their point.
Kukoc helped the Bulls three-peat
Kukoc’s first season with Chicago in 1993-94 coincided with Jordan’s retirement. The Bulls made the Eastern Conference finals, and Kukoc might be best remembered for a buzzer-beater he hit against the Knicks. Pippen asked to be benched when he was not involved on the play.
Kukoc was a valuable piece off the bench on the second three-peat team when Jordan returned. He won the 1995-96 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. Kukoc averaged 14.1 points per game in seven seasons with the Bulls, and he played seven more seasons before retiring in 2005-06.
More European players followed
Petrovic died in an auto accident in 1993 after rising to NBA stardom. Divac was an excellent player, but none faced the pressure of Kukoc to deliver. Still, those players and the Dream Team’s presence in Barcelona led to a globalization of the NBA game.
More international stars followed. Rik Smits and Detlef Schrempf were excellent players in the 1990s, and that set the stage for Peja Stojakovic, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki the following decade. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning NBA MVP.
Kukoc definitely played a role in the globalization of the game.
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