Toni Kukoč - the unsung hero of the 90s Bulls was one of the great international players in the NBA. He was among the first to open the door for players from the other side of the Atlantic, showing them it was possible to compete with the best of the best.
Before Toni, USA's and Europe’s basketball worlds were segregated, with a one-sided interest shown in the relation. Famous NBA author Sam Smith testifies to it, as he speaks of Kukoč as a complete unknown before coming to the league.
“NBA interest in Europe then was almost nonexistent. I had never heard of Kukoč.”
With his performances in Chicago, Kukoč proved his worth to the NBA world, as he became an integral part of Bulls’ second three-peat, winning a 95-96 Sixth Man of the Year Award in the process. There’s a feeling that he could’ve done more on the individual level, as Toni possessed exceptional all-around abilities. However, he put the team’s interests above his own, which made him a part of one of the greatest runs in NBA history.
That may be the reason Toni sometimes gets overlooked. Many have the same impression, especially after the airing of The Last Dance documentary, where Kukoč didn’t get the attention he deserved. Smith also sees Kukoč as unappreciated, as Toni was a lab rat in terms of being a high-impact foreign player deserving a real shot in the league, which was unknown territory for the NBA at a time.
“Kukoč is one of the more underrated players in NBA history because of the team he played with. With his ball-handling abilities and shooting, he could have been an all-time great. But he sacrificed his individual game and even played out of position as a rebounding power forward to accommodate the Bulls. Plus, the NBA still was uncertain about giving European players a prominent role in the 90s.”
Toni, often being unheeded, has proof in the fact he still hasn’t been inducted in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Whether you agree with it or not, when you compare Kukoč to his peers who have already been inducted, it’s safe to say Toni deserves to be a part of that elite group. It’s something Sam Smith agrees with, as he believes Toni is once again a victim of setting aside for the benefit of the Bulls.
“Because he sacrificed individual statistics for the team and thus became the Sixth Man. The Hall of Fame doesn’t enshrine many reserve type players even though Toni often started. Toni was much better and more successful than his fellow players who are in, like Radja, Divac, and Marciulionis. Toni may be the best player ever from overseas to come to the NBA in his prime, unlike Sabonis. I believe he will get into the Hall of Fame within the next two years. He should have been inducted well ahead of players like Radja and Divas based on international accomplishments.”
Great insight from one of the iconic figures in NBA sportswriting. Smith recognizes the player Toni Kukoč was and agreed with the overall take on him being unappreciated in NBA circles. Hopefully, it will soon change.