Bulls legends look back on Toni Kukoc's career
Bill Wennington, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, and Randy Brown spoke to Sam Smith about what they remembered most about playing with 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Toni Kukoc.
Remind Me Later •
Bill Wennington was playing for Bologna at the time, but what he witnessed was hardly a bunch of baloney.
The Bulls had selected Croatian star Toni Kukoc with a second-round pick in the 1990 NBA draft. So what was the big deal? But Wennington, perhaps, was one of the first who saw the dynasty materializing by adding some European flavoring.
"He was one of the best, if not the best player there, at the time," recalled Wennington about Kukoc. "Here's a guy 6-11, left handed, can handle the ball, a good passer, shooter, can penetrate and finish at the rim. You could see even at that age if he just got a little stronger how good he would be. Having played in Dallas and Sacramento, I could see he was an NBA caliber player. Now you talk about stretch fours and stretch fives, but back then you didn't see that. His skill set was basically, here's a guy my size and I'm playing center. But he could handle the ball better, pass better. And I have to admit that he was a better shooter than me and had better range.
"It's (1993) I get invited to Bulls camp and there's Toni," said Wennington, now a Bulls radio broadcaster. "With the talent he had, it was a blessing for the Bulls. You bring Michael (Jordan) back and have the luxury of having Toni, who would start on any team in the NBA. And we get to bring him off the bench. Has a skill set at that time that just wasn't around. Everyone talks about Dirk Nowitzki being the first guy, but when you look at it, Toni was there before him doing the same things and some might argue better. Dirk gets the credit and I'm not taking anything away from Dirk. But Toni could do more, put the ball on the floor, pass and being left handed made him even better. He pushed himself and got better and this weekend speaks to that."
That's because Kukoc, 52, will be enshrined Saturday in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in a class that includes Bill Russell as a coach, players Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Ben Wallace, Chris Webber, Bob Dandridge and coaches Rick Adelman, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jay Wright.
Kukoc was a three-time champion with the Bulls. But he also was one of the most accomplished international players in basketball history with 11 championships overall in the U.S and Europe, three-peats on two continents, and multiple European championship MVP and player of the year awards.
It's a long overdue honor for the native of Croatia that his Bulls teammates recognized much earlier than the public and media.
Heck, B.J. Armstrong saw it in 1985 playing in an under-18 international tournament against Kukoc's Yugoslavian team as a group of U.S. stars barely fought off Kukoc's team for the gold medal. Armstrong, the 6-2 guard who became a Bulls starter with Kukoc's emergence, said he understood immediately the death of European basketball was greatly exaggerated.
"I played against Toni when I was in high school in the Albert Schweitzer Games," Armstrong recalled. "He was such a unique player because he was so tall, seven foot. My first impression was he was a really good passer and could dribble, rare for someone that size to have a combination of a post game and a perimeter game. Like a seven-foot guard who could rebound and push the ball up court, incredibly skilled with a three ball."
There was controversy amidst the buildup for Kukoc's arrival with some Bulls players angry at General Manager Jerry Krause for his enthusiastic embrace of Kukoc, and then a famous defensive stand against Kukoc at the 1992 Olympics by Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Armstrong said he knew Kukoc not only would become a great player for the Bulls, but a popular teammate.
"I knew Toni," said Armstrong. "He was a good guy, respectful of the game. And I knew he could play in a system because Toni could play all five positions. With the triangle offense, it was obvious he was a guy who could fit a system like that. When I got to the NBA, it was very rare if you didn't play isolation basketball. Most of NBA was to get the ball to your best player. But Toni could play other ways; we could play through Toni. So I thought he would be a great fit for the team. And I think Toni earned the respect of everyone once got here. He was good and solid from day one.
"I give Toni credit," added Armstrong, long a player agent and agency executive after a stint in Bulls management. "He stayed true to himself and was tough enough mentally to get through all that and earn the trust and respect of the players.
"I still say that to this day he's one of the best players I ever played against regardless of where they are from," said Armstrong. "He's so very deserving to be in the Hall of Fame."
Horace Grant also recalled that hazing period for Kukoc. But Grant said he saw much more in those Dream Team games than the defensive dominance of Jordan and Pippen against Kukoc.
"Jerry Krause was giving him a lot of hype, and against the USA team, Michael and Scottie took it personally," Grant acknowledged. "But he still really held his own out there. You now have to give Krause the credit he deserves because he knew exactly what he was doing in drafting Toni. We were winning championships and Krause is putting this kid on a pedestal. There was some resentment, but not toward Toni. Though coming in after we won three championships, he was going to have to earn his keep.
"In the beginning, he wasn't the most gifted defensive player," admitted Grant, the power forward for the first three championships who now is an ambassador and speaker for the Bulls and the NBA. "He got that stigma probably because Phil (Jackson) and Johnny Bach were on him. But he was our teammate and we had his back. He was that guy who could score and pass the ball like the waiter Krause said he was. He comes in and right away is making game winners. I can honestly say without Toni that year—and no disrespect to any of us—there was no way we win 55 games (in 1993-94) without him. Handles the ball like John Stockton and shoots like Reggie Miller. If you were open he's going to get you the ball. Michael retired and Toni came in and I had my best year stats wise. So I want to say well deserved and thank you Toni for my only All-Star selection."
Many still point to that 1993-94 season when the Bulls in the first year without Jordan in premature retirement won 55 games and were perhaps a questionable foul call away from the Finals and maybe a fourth straight title.
With Jordan sitting courtside at the home opener that season against Miami, the Bulls were dominated and lost by 24 points. Most of the expert predictions were the Bulls would be fortunate to even qualify for the playoffs. While Pippen gets much deserved credit for his excellence that season, players note it would not have been possible without Kukoc's play.
"Everyone talks about that first year with Michael gone and the 55 wins and yes Scottie was phenomenal, but Toni was terrific," noted Wennington, the reserve center for the second three-peat.
"He hit a lot of game-winning shots and did so many things that helped us succeed. Losing Michael many didn't think the Bulls would even make the playoffs. Scottie played terrific and was the No. 1 reason why and he arguably had his best year proving he could carry a team. But Toni was right there with him and created a different dynamic than we'd had."
Bill Cartwright wasn't from Missouri, but he was a show-me type of guy. Toni showed him, too.
"I had watched that Olympics and he held himself up well; it didn't deter him," said Cartwright. "He came back and played better the next time out and that said a lot. I thought he had a strong character; nothing bothered him at all. And then once we got him this guy, he's as tall as me and he can play any position.
"One thing I especially remember about Toni," said Cartwright, who now is an executive for the U. of San Francisco and investor, "I felt he was just a fair shooter early in the game. We'd say, ‘This guy can't shoot.' Then late in the game it's ‘That sucker can shoot.'
"It was crazy," added Cartwright, the starting center for the first three championship teams. "He'd shoot these tough shots and make it and he was a special passer, full court passes to where he'd curve the ball like guys hit a hook or a fade in golf so you can get an easy layup. What a matchup nightmare he ended up being for us. They put smaller guys on him and he'd post them and bigger guys, he'd go right around them and finally later on he figured out how to guard people. Toni was great. Three guys really stepped up after Michael left, Pip, him and B.J., and we really took off. He really showed what he could do."
Kukoc went on to become a major contributor to the Bulls second threepeat, starting more than 100 games because of injuries to Pippen and Dennis Rodman and producing many pivotal moments. With both a humble nature and a fiery competitor's heart.
"I remember a skinny, talented kid I thought would eventually be the perfect fit next to Michael and Scottie," said Randy Brown. "With Toni's skill set, it's safe to say Toni was probably the first stretch four. The term wasn't used in the 90s, but you could say Toni was that guy, a great passer, a really good shooter who could score, really unselfish which you had to be in the triangle. Those years without Michael prepared him for when Michael came back.
"He had no ego," said Brown, the reserve guard from and a former Bulls assistant coach and executive who recently returned to finish his degree at the U. of New Mexico. "I don't remember a day Toni Kukoc came in to practice and complained about his shots. Phil acknowledged this guy would be a starter on 29 others teams. But with Michael, Scottie and Dennis Rodman, Toni never complained about putting his game aside for that team. I remember playing against him when I was in Sacramento. You could see the skill set was going to be off the charts, but everybody picked on his defensive efforts. But the one thing was he would never give up, never give in. He was so smart and knew what to do.
"What really stuck out to me was in Europe he's an all-star, MVP-type player. But," said Brown, "he never complained about taking a back seat to Michael and Scottie. If he did that we wouldn't have been as successful. It was never, ‘I'm Toni Kukoc and I'm on level with those guys.' Even though he had been. Which is why I thought he was a perfect fit with Michael and Scottie and the offense. The Hall of Fame is the perfect ending to a great career."
Got a question for Sam?
Submit your question to Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.