Three-time NBA Champion and one of the most decorated players in international basketball, Toni Kukoč, will be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2021. It is long overdue and well deserved.
It was late into a difficult night. The Last Dance season—and the Bulls 1990s championship run—now was going to end in Salt Lake City. The Bulls had their chance to dance for the last time in front of their home fans in 1998; Chicago was so expectant. But the Utah Jazz had breath when Michael Jordan missed a long last chance shot with a second left. And the Utah Jazz ran out of the United Center on the way back home now trailing just 3-2 in the NBA Finals.
Phil Jackson was replaying so many moments when John Paxson wanted to talk. What about Toni for that last shot, Paxson wondered. Jackson smiled to himself. Kukoč, the Croatian sniper, had made more of those shots over the years than anyone else among these Bulls. "It was almost unreal," Jackson recalled when I spoke with him recently. "It really was beyond imagination Toni's ability to fulfill in the clutch. He would just walk into and make 25 and 30-foot shots; he was that good a distance shooter."
But even Jackson that 1998 June night had been caught up in the narrative and the notoriety. Michael Jordan, last shot, last game. Jackson was kicking himself. He knew what he should have done. "Toni was 11 for 13, had 30 points. He kept us in that game," Jackson recalled. "That was Michael's thing, the last shot. That was a big mistake on my part. Toni was a special player."
The Bulls didn't have to wait long for theirs and Jordan's dramatic moment two days later with that most magical last minute in Game 6 and posed winning shot for the sixth championship.
Kukoč's wait for immortality was somewhat longer.
But it's finally here now as the three-time Bulls champion and one of the greatest winners in the history of professional basketball—11 international titles and rings—will be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2021.
Ceremonies will be in September after this weekend's ceremonies to honor last year's enshrines.
"I feel enormously proud and happy," Kukoč said from Croatia upon receiving the news. "It is a perfect ending to my basketball life as a player. I went to see my old Jugoplastika Split play last week. And entering the arena reminded me of the great team I was part of in the late 1980s and 90s. I love the fact this is happening while my parents are still alive, especially my dad, who is absolutely thrilled about this award. And I'm back as a cool dad again with my kids."
Kukoč joins Jordan and Scottie Pippen as the only Bulls players in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame who played the majority of their NBA years with the Bulls.
Kukoč also finally joins in the Hall of Fame the so called Big Six of international basketball from the 1980s who were the pioneers of the European and international invasion that led to the globalization of the game that today is reflected in the NBA.
Those six are Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Kukoč.
"Toni meant a lot," Divac told me last year when he still was an executive for the Sacramento Kings. "He was one the best who played in Europe, specifically, but also internationally playing for the national team. He won basically everything. Toni is one of the most important people who changed the game. He sacrificed his ego to come to the NBA. He was a big, big thing in Europe and he came here and sacrificed to be a role player.
"Dino got in (in 2018) and I got in (in 2019)," noted Divac, who played for 16 years in the NBA, mostly with the Lakers and Kings. "In all fairness, Toni deserved to be in there even before me and Dino."
History doesn't measure when as much as how much. There are few even in the Hall of Fame who can match the accumulated successes of Toni Kukoč.
It's perhaps fitting that Kukoč sacrificed with the Bulls, mostly playing power forward and even center because Kukoč's perimeter skills were occupied by pretty proficient scorers and ball handlers, like Jordan and Pippen. But Kukoc's basketball life, essentially, was one of sacrifice as the facilitator for champion teams throughout Europe and for then Yugoslavia.
So he gave to the Bulls for the good of the team. Before the early 1990s breakup of the country, Kukoč's Yugoslavia national team with the likes of Divac, Radja, Drazen Petrovic and others who played in the NBA like Zarko Paspalj, Sasha Danilovic and Stojko Vrankovic were so dominant it led to the 1992 entry of pros in the Olympics and the 1992 USA Dream Team. Other than a compilation of perhaps the best ever NBA players could not beat these skilled Europeans who were dominating international competitions.
And perhaps none was more skilled and successful than Kukoč, the 6-11 guard with the remarkable shooting range and Magic Johnson-like passing and ball handling skills. Kukoč was MVP when Yugoslavia won the FIBA Under 19 against a USA team that included future Hall of Famer Gary Payton and collegiate star Larry Johnson. His 1988 team sent the Americans with David Robinson and Mitch Richmond to a bronze medal. Toni was MVP in the 1990 Worlds when Yugoslavia beat the Americans with Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner. His Yugoslavia team won the World University games over a USA team with Sean Elliott, Danny Ferry and Richmond. And then even on home USA soil in Seattle, Kukoč's Yugoslavia team in the 1990 Goodwill Games defeated a USA team with the likes of Mourning, Kenny Anderson, Billy Owens and Bobby Hurley.
Toni Kukoč playing against the Boston Celtics in the 1988 McDonald's Championships in Madrid, Spain.
This was at a time Kukoč was winning basically every award in European basketball, five times best male player, three times the media's award for best player, Euroleague Final Four MVP three times, Eurobasket MVP, FIBA World Championship MVP. Make it four Yugoslavia championships, three Euroleague titles and an Italian league championship before coming to the Bulls and earning NBA Sixth Man winner in 1996 with the first of his three Bulls championship teams.
Jackson laughs at the recollection.
He says Kukoč still is upset with him for making him a reserve on those teams.
Which is one reason why Kukoč doesn't sound like a Hall of Famers to many Americans.
His statistics in a 13-year NBA career were pedestrian, 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists for mostly the Bulls and later the 76ers, Hawks and Bucks. Kukoč's highest scoring average in seven seasons with the Bulls was 18.8 with seven rebounds and 5.3 assists in the lockout season after the dynasty ended in 1998-99. The following season, Kukoč was averaging 18 points when the Bulls began their rebuilding project and traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers for a first round draft pick.
Kukoč was becoming a reliable scoring option off the bench for the 76ers team that would go to the 2001 NBA Finals when center Theo Ratliff was injured. The 76ers, then seeking a center, traded Kukoc to Atlanta to acquire Dikembe Mutombo for their run to the Finals. Kukoc finished up that season in Atlanta with his highest NBA scoring average of 19.7 per game. He played his last four seasons in Milwaukee in a reserve role so he could be closer to home. He still lives in Chicago's north suburbs and now is a team ambassador for the Bulls.
But even as Kukoč was closing out his NBA career in Milwaukee, NBA veterans knew his value.
"My assistant Frank Hamblen always used to say we need to get Toni with those Lakers teams," Jackson recalled. "Those were good Lakers teams, and when we played against Toni we never could do anything with him."
"Having A Bud" with Toni Kukoč and Bill Wennington.
It's also why Kukoč played such a significant, if often unappreciated, role with those championship Bulls teams.
Kukoč, albeit reluctantly, finally joined the Bulls for the 1993-94 season just as Michael Jordan was retiring the first time to play baseball.
Kukoč was a controversial second round pick in the 1990 draft at a time NBA teams weren't particularly welcoming to Europeans. It would play out even on the Bulls as Kukoč received a vicious hazing from Jordan and Pippen, presumably directed at then executive Jerry Krause. But also encompassing the elements of American resentment of European players being recruited and eventually paid well.
Many European stars came to the NBA and quickly left or got stuck on benches. The great Petrovic did as in Portland until being traded to the lowly Nets and getting an opportunity. Kukoč was starring and winning titles in Europe, making a lot of money. He wasn't sure about the risk.
"Would I go to a Chicago Bulls team winning a championship and I might be sitting on the bench and not playing for the best part of my career?" Kukoč wondered. "Maybe at 31 or 32, I thought it would be worth it. I wasn't sure at 24."
Toni Kukoč dunks against the Miami Heat in a game at the Untied Center in 1996.
As it happened with injuries in his first month with the Bulls, Kukoč got five starts and averaged 16 points in those games. Kukoč returned to the bench, though in the playoffs he famously won Game 3 of the conference semifinals in the game in which Pippen sat out in protest of not getting selected for the last shot. Jackson had quickly recognized how good Kukoč was with those last second desperation shots. Even better than Jordan, which was why Jackson was kicking himself about that Game 5 in the 1998 Finals.
Earlier that 1993-94 season, Reggie Miller with less than a second left made a shot for a two-point lead. Miller then famously bowed in all four directions to the fans in the Chicago Stadium. Kukoč then banked in a three at the buzzer for the winner, running off the floor triumphant as he would against the Knicks in the playoffs.
Big games and big times became common for Kukoč even as much as he was overshadowed by the circus festival of having the greatest player, the greatest sidekick, the greatest coach and the greatest miscreant on the same team. But with Dennis Rodman's suspensions and injuries, Kukoc started 87 games in the three championship seasons. He also was part of the closing lineup the Golden State Warriors would make more famous, but which Jackson originated with Rodman at center and Kukoč at power forward with Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper. Everyone able to switch and offense coming from just about every spot in the triangle offense. It was death to opponents those last three title years.
And then there were times like Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals with the Indiana Pacers, just the second Game 7 for the Bulls in those 90s runs. And it looked like the Last Dance would end without the final center stage dance for the champions. It was a grueling series with the Pacers, and Jordan and Pippen seemed spent. The Bulls couldn't get anything going, and the Pacers began to pull away after halftime. Until Kukoč put a stop to it, scoring 14 of the Bulls 21 points in the third quarter to keep the Bulls in the game until the Bulls could finally maintain some control in the fourth quarter.
But that was Toni, making the play so others could be remembered.
Now it's Toni's turn to step into the limelight. It's well deserved.