Reaching the mountain top gives a man perspective. For Toni Kukoč, joining the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame was that mountain top. He’s achieved everything a basketball player could ever dream of, and it gave Kukoč the freedom to talk about the game with as little bias as possible.
As a key member of one of the greatest teams ever to play, Toni is often asked to compare teams to the 90s Bulls. The “back in my day” arguments are often superficial, but Kukoč sees something good in them. A fire and passion about the game that never leaves a true champion’s heart.
“Everyone’s going to say their generation played the best basketball and everyone has their arguments. The older generation will say ‘If only I had private jets, massage therapists, nutritionists, and a million dollars to spend on oxygen chambers. YouTube to watch other players and learn from them…” When I hear that, and I want to be clear, there’s a case to be made there, I’m happy because it means the old guys still have the competitive spirit and would like to take on the younger generations.”Toni Kukoč, Index.hr
Most of the time, we hear a guy saying, “get of my lawn,” when discussions like that start. That’s where age and experience can provide perspective. It’s easy to say older players are haters when pointing out the circumstances they had to play in vs. what the league is today – social media programs us to take people at their worse. What Kukoč is saying is that we should take them at their best. It’s not hate; it’s the competitive drive that made them the champions they are. That doesn’t mean Kukoč won’t compare his era to today’s NBA. He just does it without any bitterness or an ax to grind.
“You could get away with more in my day. I’m primarily talking about defense when I say that. It was a more physical game. Detroit, Boston, New York, Indiana; all East teams played a similar game. Back then, the consensus was East teams played better defense, and West teams played better offense. Games were a lot stronger back then – not quicker, but stronger. The NBA’s put in a lot of effort to protect the best players. We won’t see the heavy fouls as we use to on Thomas, Bird, or Jordan. And that’s normal.”Toni Kukoč, Index.hr
Still, Kukoč disagrees with old fans who fell in love with basketball in the 90s when they say today’s game and the players are weak. He believes the modern game has a lot more speed, still has strength and new elements that make it a lot more dynamic. His Bulls were avantgarde with playing Rodman as a small-ball five. Still, they did certain things the old way, and there was a price to pay if you broke the rules.
“I remember we had a rule in the Bulls. Fours and fives could only shoot the three if it was the last second of the possession. If they launched one with more than a second on the clock and missed, Phil [Jackson] would fine them $500. Players like that are expected to launch it early in a possession.”Toni Kukoč, Index.hr
The offset of power forwards and centers having free reign to shoot from behind the arc is that many players never develop an inside game. But that doesn’t mean shooting is terrible – it just means the pendulum swung way too much in that direction. Still, an era where guys had fines on shot attempts simply because of their size also wasn’t great. You don’t get a Dirk Nowitzki if he has so much pressure every time he takes a show.
The pinnacle of basketball is a complete game. The players we adore the most, like MJ and Kobe, were special because they could do it all. Speed it up, and slow it down. Drain it from outside, go to work in the mid-range, and back a smaller guy down. Toni said it best. “The game is fast, beautiful, and I like it this way, but that doesn’t mean I have a bad word to say about the game back then. For everything there is a season.”