Nowadays, in the NBA, it seems we have a large number of international players playing huge parts for their teams. The game has expanded globally to another level, and it's great to see. But back in the 90's the situation wasn't nearly the same, with only a handful of international players having a role in the league. One of the pioneers was Croatian and Bulls legend Toni Kukoč.
X-Factor of the 90's Bulls
When you think of those Bulls teams, you instantly think of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, but they were surrounded by a bunch of great role players. The most significant one? Toni Kukoč.
The 6'10'' forward was a superstar in Europe, with a flashy playstyle uncommon for basketball of that era, being one of the first points forwards in the NBA. That versatility and humbleness allowed Phil to bring him off the bench and quietly be the deciding X-Factor in the Bulls' second three-peat. Luckily the Bulls weren't the only ones to recognize Toni's greatness, as he got inducted into the Hall-of-Fame just last year.
Playing alongside MJ
Being a part of those golden age Bulls teams meant Toni got the chance to share the locker room with Michael Jordan for three and a half seasons. Demanding as it was, Kukoč has only words of praise for Michael, saying how that drive to improve reflected on the whole team and made the Bulls so good:
To me, the most significant help was being there every day and seeing what he's(Jordan) doing day in and day out to be who he is. In those few years I had the chance to play with him, he never missed a practice, never missed a game, so many wins, MVP's, but he still found a reason every day to come to that practice and learn something new, to push all of us there to give our maximum day in and day out. Our practices were tougher than 60,70%the games we played, and you can't do that without a leader that's there every day. That was Michael for us.
Toni Kukoč, RTL.hr
We have all seen how demanding and rough Jordan was towards his teammates. But that all comes from the insatiable desire to win and compete. MJ wanted to win at all costs and made sure to work to the max of his abilities, expecting nothing less from his peers. For Toni and his teammates, seeing the greatest of all time still have that fire to improve after numerous championships and personal accolades fueled them to be the best versions of themselves.
Kukoč explained how having that type of leader in the locker room is necessary for winning basketball, and Jordan provided that. Aside from being the best player, Jordan knew how to motivate and elevate his team to follow him into greatness. That's what made MJ stand out and, to this day, be the consensus GOAT.