Dražen Petrović was far from the most talented Croatian player in his generation. His greatness came from complete dedication and relentless hard work. Every decision he made in life centered around improving his game. Players from his generation, including Toni Kukoč, tried to follow his dedication and work ethic. It worked for a bit, but they couldn’t keep up. As much as they loved basketball, Dražen was another level.
Toni Kukoč saw that drive several more times in his career. Michael Jordan is the obvious example here. Kukoč had the chance to play with MJ for three seasons and said that some of the best stuff he ever saw Jordan do wasn’t in games but in practice. That’s where you see the difference between good, great, and legendary. What happens on the court is just a consequence of everything we don’t see. Here’s probably the greatest athlete of the 20th century describing it.
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”Muhammad Ali
After taking some time off playing golf and spending time with his family, Toni’s returned to the Bulls as Special Advisor to the President and COO. Back in 2016, the Lakers were in town for a 19:00 game, and Toni arrived early to the arena to get some things done before the game. It was 16:45, and Kobe was putting up shots.
“It was his last season, two of his fingers were broken and bandaged, and he was still shooting before the game. I asked him what he was trying to prove, as the Lakers were out of the playoffs mix, and it was his last season was. He said: ‘If I weren’t doing what I’m doing right now, what brought me to where I am in life, I’d feel like I’m cheating myself, my teammates, and the game.‘”Toni Kukoč, Večernji List
Toni continued to explain that’s what people don’t understand about champions. 99% of people couldn’t go to bed at 9 pm and wake up at 6 am every day for so long, go to physical therapy when they don’t feel like it, or workout even when they are sick. Those are all little wins that champions are dedicated to winning that makes the difference.
Most of us would take it easy and enjoy the farewell tour, thinking there’s no reason to work hard anymore. For Kobe, it was more than hard work, a philosophy that doesn’t change just because there was no chance to win the whole thing. That’s why Kobe was in his office the very next morning after his last game, working on books, scripts, and plans for the Mamba Academy. That’s why we loved to see him “dance under those lights.”