He was one of the pioneers of European basketball in the NBA. Toni Kukoč was the second European ever, only to Detlef Schrempf in 1991 and 1992, to win The Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1996. And of course, ‘The Pink Panther’ won three straight NBA championships with the late 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Today, serving as the special advisor for the Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Toni Kukoč, is an absolute lock for the Naismith Hall of Fame. By many considered the most versatile player of all-time outside the United States, alongside Kresimir Ćosić, Arvydas Sabonis and Vlade Divac, Kukoč played a pivotal role in the raging Bulls run to 1996, 1997 and 1998 NBA championship titles.
And by making his huge contribution to those, he has every right to reflect the docuseries’ The last dance’. He did just that for NBC Sports during the past week publicly sharing his detailed overview.
“I’m hoping the other episodes are brighter and more of a celebration of basketball instead of who is guilty or to blame, and why didn’t they win eight championships or 10. The world was so happy when that was happening. So I don’t know what people are mad at. I cherish the things we did in practice, that we did on the road. That team worked so hard and was committed and devoted. We’re talking about people who won six championships in eight years and we’ve got to find a way to find a dark note?”Toni Kukoč, NBC Sports
The history of the Bulls’ relationship with Kukoč is a long tale to tell…
It was Bulls GM Jerry Krause, who got a real insight into the capabilities of the most versatile and exciting amateur basketball player outside of the U.S. in the late 1980s. The critical link to Kukoč was future Bulls international scout Ivica Dukan, at the time his teammate in Jugoplastika Split.
Krause wasted no time, battled the chances of Kukoč being drafted to the Yugoslavian Army for military service in 1990, and when everyone else hesitated bravely used the Chicago Bulls 29th overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft choose to select the player who could become the potential future tactical surprise for the Bulls nemesis – Detroit Pistons.
But the Pistons EC wall was soon torn down by the 1990-91 Bulls. With the ‘cold war’ over the Bulls won the first NBA championship ever, the first one of the early 1990s three-peat (1991, 1992, 1993).
It seemed for some time that Krause’s ‘secret weapon’ from Europe was no longer needed…
“Those three years that he was pursuing me and saying you gotta come, his pitch to me was, ‘You have no idea. We have this incredible coach. We have awesome older players who lead like Pax (John Paxson) and (Bill) Cartwright. We have these amazing athletes like MJ and Scottie who can do anything.’ He had so much joy when he talked about that team. He told me how crazy good it would be with me flying on the break or leading the break with MJ on one side and Scottie on the other. He was never like, ‘Oh, I built this team, and I did this.’ He just talked about what a great organization the Bulls were.”Toni Kukoč, NBC Sports
And somebody has to be blamed for Pippen’s bad deal from 1991. The natural enemy was Jerry Krause – but his alter ego, in Jordan’s and Pippen’s eyes, was skinny Croatian forward – Toni Kukoč. Enter the next stop – 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
It’s important to emphasize that prior to the 1992 Olympics, Kukoč had to battle severe flu for a month. He returned exhausted, out of shape, went through some shooting drills, and then – wham! In the first game of the Olympic tournament, long-awaited ‘clash of the titans’ with the original ‘Dream Team’, all of a sudden, Batmen & Robin went after Kuki like he is to blame for everything.
Everyone in Croatia, Kukoč’s home country, watched this in disbelief – two raging Bulls came after the skinny kid from Split like he was Straight out of the Detroit’s Bad Boys like he was the embodiment of Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman or Rick Mahorn, any of them left alone by their teammates in the dark.
Now, a couple of decades later, we finally know it – what Jordan and Pippen saw the 6’9” Croatian clone of Jerry Krause. Kukoč scored only 4 points on 2-11 shooting while turning the ball over seven times!
But, for Kukoč, there wasn’t much to prove – he already proved his NBA worth in McDonald’s Open Tournament clashes with NBA teams much earlier – back in 1988 (Boston Celtics), 1989 (Denver Nuggets) and 1990 (New York Knicks). He eventually additionally proved his NBA worth in the final game of 1992 Olympics by scoring 16 points (on 5-9 shooting) to go along with 9 dimes and 5 boards.
So, these days, after seeing Jordan, Pippen, and their crews, specifically targeting Krause, the man who introduced him to the NBA in the 1993 and died in 2017, Kukoč compassionately defended him:
“People who weren’t there are assuming and saying, ‘Oh, his ego got in the way. That’s why he destroyed the dynasty.’ Not that they don’t appreciate what he did, but you always put him down? Of course, it’s going to affect someone. He’s not here, but I don’t even want to say he can’t defend himself. There’s nothing to defend. He’s the GM of the six-time champs. Name me another five people in the world who did what he did — in any sport.”Toni Kukoč, NBC Sports
From this point in time, Kukoč claims that he had no real insight into the relationship between GM Jerry Krause and head coach Phil Jackson, who also helped him a lot during his adjustment to the NBA:
“Maybe I was ignorant. Maybe I was caught up in my own stuff. You knew there was stuff going around. But when you practice every day and go home to your family, and you own business, you don’t pay attention to that stuff that much. Plus, Phil always made this kind of bubble where players were on their own. You knew Michael wasn’t going to be there for the other coach. Scottie wasn’t going to be there. That was the end. I was hoping that the minds of people would agree we should come back and defend the title. But now I hear some relationships were to the point of no return. That’s a sad part. But the run was awesome.”Toni Kukoč, NBC Sports
During the Chicago Bulls ‘The last dance’ 1997-98, they had to overcome the tremendous burden of accumulated injuries and exhaustion. Kukoč, who scored 21 points against the Pacers in the decisive Game 7 of the EC finals, remembers how hard it was precisely to win that third straight championship.
“We were exhausted. We were hurt. There was plenty of plantar fasciitis going around. We were changing shoes. People were battered. It gets harder and harder every year. You can’t just walk into the Finals. I always say the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers probably did the same thing we did — practice like crazy, love each other, devoted everything to winning. And then lost to us. And nobody says things about Indiana and Utah. It’s that close, that fine a line between winning and losing. And you win, and 25 years later, you have 10 (TV) episodes about you.”Toni Kukoč, NBC Sports
After remembering what was it like to win his third and last NBA championship ring with the Chicago Bulls, Kukoč now must be more than eager to see the upcoming 3rd and 4th episode of ‘The Last Dance’.