The overlooked star that is Toni Kukoc

Toni Kukoc was a vital piece to the Bulls' championship runs, but is still overlooked as a truly great player.

There's this misconception about the world's most famous basketball team, the 1992 Olympics Dream Team of NBA legends, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and the rest. The conventional wisdom is that the team was assembled to display the brilliance of basketball in the United States.

And, to some extent, that is accurate.

But the overriding reason why USA Basketball began scrambling around to gather its greatest was because they'd pretty much given up trying to beat Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, the core of the Yugoslavian national team. At the 1987 under-19 world championship in Italy, at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. It was Vlade and Dino and Drazen and Toni, the latter perhaps the most accomplished of them all, outclassing the future stars of the NBA at every turn.

First, it was in 1987 and these precocious kids from Eastern Europe were undefeated, eventually finishing off a U.S. team with Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, Brian Williams (later Bison Dele), Lionel Simmons, Scott Williams, and Dwayne Schintzius. Then came the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. And the Russians led by super center Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis would grab the gold medal. But the U.S. with future Hall of Famers like David Robinson and Mitch Richmond and future stars like Hersey Hawkins, Dan Majerle, and Danny Manning could only get a bronze medal after Yugoslavia's silver. And this wasn't a one-and-done time. These were seniors or even graduates like Robinson.

Still, the NBA looked the other way. Nah, they were awkward and they were slow and they weren't tough like us. These weren't NBA players. So they invited them to the U.S. in Ted Turner's Goodwill Games that were to be an answer to the U.S. and Russia boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. Those games would last until 2001. In 1990 they were in Seattle and the U.S. team had a nice second-place showing. Right behind gold medal winner Yugoslavia with Toni, Dino and some other Zoran's and a Zarko with Divac and Petrovic trying the NBA. The U.S. wasn't kidding this time with Alonzo Mourning, Kenny Anderson and Christian Laettner and future NBA regulars and top draft picks like Chris Gatling, Clarence Weatherspoon and Todd Day. You know, the runners-up.

"We started beating Americans all the time," recalled Kukoc, the former Bulls three-time champion who now is an ambassador and special executive assistant with the Bulls. "Italy with the junior nationals beating them soundly, Seattle. We figured, ‘OK, these are the guys we are beating every time we play them. These are the guys who are going to be the top draft picks, the future All-Stars, the guys who are going to carry the league and we are beating them. So it is time for us.'

"We were sure we could play in the NBA," Kukoc said. "But even when we came here people were like, ‘They all are soft and don't play defense and they don't rebound.' Nobody said we had some many different skills other people don't. I wish I would have come here with a coach who said, ‘Here is the ball, we trust your decisions.' Like you see now with (Luka) Doncic, with (Nikola) Jokic, Giannis (Antetokounmpo). They weren't ready for us then."

Americans are not always right, but they eventually figure things out. And so the NBA did, international players today becoming some of the most successful, productive and sought after players in the NBA. Doncic already is being talked about as an MVP candidate.

"Back then it was very difficult for we Europeans to prove to everyone we could play," admitted Divac, who became one of the most versatile centers in NBA history, an All-Star and now general manager of the Sacramento Kings. "Now almost half the league are internationals. We had to fight for our time, for the way we played. But if you look at how basketball has evolved, it's more the game that suits us now, passing, transition, shooting. Which is why Toni is one of the most important people who changed the game."

Divac and Kukoc were part of the so-called Big Six of international basketball in the 1980s, the pioneers who braved the unknown while also mostly being unwanted. And who cleared the forest of doubt for the seeds to be planted for the sprouting of an entirely new style of basketball that now seems more rooted in the international ethic.

The six were Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc. Kukoc is the only one who is not in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Those players don't understand since Toni was perhaps the most accomplished of them all. And not just being the only one to play for an NBA championship team. Three times.

"Toni meant a lot," said Divac. "He was one of the best who ever played. He won basically everything."

Kukoc's international resume is almost a hall of fame of its own. In addition to the medals from those victories over top U.S. teams, Kukoc was repeatedly honored in Europe.

Kukoc won the European Player of the Year award five times. He won the media's player of the year award as Mr. Europe four times. He led his team to three straight European championships and was final four MVP three times. He was a four-time Yugoslavian league champion and MVP of the team that included Petrovic and Radja, the latter his boyhood neighbor. He was MVP of the world championships in Argentina. He was the slickest ballhandler this side of Magic Johnson and was known as, "White Magic."

And even as the Bulls made him a power forward for the first time in his life, Kukoc was a vital member of the 1996-1998 champions, a player whom coach Phil Jackson famously relied on for last-second shots when Michael Jordan wasn't around and who covered for many of Dennis Rodman's absences and lapses; Pippen's too.

"Toni was instrumental when Pip missed the first 30 some games (in 1997-98)," Jackson said. "He was a terrific player who has been overlooked." It's sometimes what happens when you put team first. Which Kukoc always did as the 6-11 playmaker for those European, Yugoslavian and Italian championship teams

"His impact in the NBA was great. Especially that second threepeat; he was a main guy, Sixth Man winner," noted Divac. "He was someone who sacrificed. He was a big, big thing in Europe and he came here and sacrificed to be a role player.

"Dino (was enshrined) two years ago, I was last year. In all fairness," said Divac. "Toni deserves to be there, even before me or Dino."

Perhaps that time finally is here.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame will make announcements on its Class of 2020 during All-Star weekend next month in Chicago and at the NCAA Final Four in April.

It's time Toni got a little help.

Kukoc's story actually has been obscured by his Bulls teammates, who actually were fond of him despite seeming contradictions. It all got lost and misinterpreted in the adulation for the American stars, Jordan and Pippen, who had their famous rivalry with then Bulls executive Jerry Krause. Krause didn't do Kukoc any favors the way he often portrayed his pursuits, cloaked in awkward secrecy and generating unnecessary doubt. It damaged Krause's reputation as well because the recruitment and signing of Kukoc should have been viewed as one of the great scouting coups. Instead, it devolved into a dispute about salaries with Kukoc the innocent symbol. So when the Dream Team played Kukoc's Croatian team after the breakup of Yugoslavia and with most of those countries not in the Olympics, Jordan and Pippen famously attempted to victimize Kukoc as a message to Krause.

While it became a big story that followed Kukoc to Chicago when he finally signed in 1993, Kukoc didn't seem to care much. He was busy learning the U.S., English and a new position.

"I had to change my game completely," Kukoc said. "I was what Scottie was. What he was doing here I was doing in Europe. When Michael retired, I had a chance a little to be a secondary guy; I had some freedom (averaging his most points until after Jordan's second retirement). I had never played the power forward position. I knew certain people would massacre me with their power. They could physically destroy me. So on the other end, I could do it to them.

"Michael, Scottie, and Dennis didn't change," Kukoc recalled. "Instead of someone saying, ‘OK, I trust you, it was Tex telling me, ‘Don't shoot, don't dribble.' Then I hit a couple of shots and he says we need more of that."

Kukoc laughed at the recollection. It was a fun time even if he didn't always understand what they wanted.

"I had to change my style," Kukoc acknowledged. "I think that is what also hurt me when they look at records. I was winning championships, but I am not scoring, 14, 15 points. Those other guys, Drazen, Dino, they say they scored more, that I am not an All-Star—by the way, how could a team with 72 wins have just two All-Stars when other teams had like three and four and we are winning everything?—but they are not even getting into the playoffs. It's OK. I am glad I got to be the one with the winner."

Kukoc grew up in Split, Croatia, a beautiful company town on the Adriatic Sea. His father worked in the shipyard that employed about half the city and his mother was a secretary. His father was an athlete, playing water polo and handball and Toni was a natural playing soccer. He'd impress even his teammates with his amazing hand/eye coordination becoming a champion at ping pong. He picked up golf after the NBA and became a scratch golfer.

He'd never played basketball, but he was at the beach one day with friends when he was about 14 when a basketball coach noticed those long legs. He asked if Toni was coordinated. Silly question. Toni joined the city team. Like many European coaches, practice and fundamentals were emphasized. No one played until they practiced. A lot. His buddy Dino came along.

As it happened, Toni liked it. So he stopped going to school at about 15 since there was practice in the morning, afternoon and evening.

"That was a problem," Kukoc acknowledged. "Every once in a while we'd show up. The teachers were interested in the games. When I would come to school they'd ask me who are we playing next, how will we win the game?

"But my mom was shocked when the school sent a note that I was being expelled because I missed 200 days," Kukoc recalled. "So she went to the club and said I was one injury away from never playing again and they had to put together some sort of deal with school. The GM of the team was a cousin of the dean, so they had an agreement I would practice and then I would read the books and have an exam at the end of the year to pass the class."

Croatian homeschooling.

One hitch. Toni got 48 of 50 on the chemistry final, but the teacher said he was failing and would have to repeat the class in the summer. Sorry, Toni said, he was leaving with the national team and not coming back.

The national team didn't pay much and Toni still was living home with mom and dad. He finally signed to play in Italy to get a car and an apartment and then the war came, splitting up Yugoslavia. For several months, Kukoc couldn't even get back to Croatia.

"I always thought about the NBA," Kukoc said. "We were playing national teams and beating USA national teams, beating Russian teams. We all got drafted (by NBA teams). First Drazen went and Vlade; others went, but they did not play, (Sasha), Volkov, (Zarko) Paspalj. The problem was opportunity. Guys were afraid. 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? Maybe at 31 or 32 it would be worth it; not at 24.

"Jerry Krause, he said, ‘No, no, no, you will see, you'll get a rebound and have Michael run one side and Scottie will run the other side. You will use your talents. Your game is suited to us."

We know Americans like to sell.

"Then I come and have to carry the bags from the airport to the bus and bring burgers and donuts," said Kukoc. "They are telling me you dribble like this and pass this way."

Knowing Americans they probably spoke loudly and slowly.

"Then the questions from the media and from teammates," said Kukoc. "‘Can this guy actually play? Is he worth playing for the mighty Bulls? This skinny communist Yugoslavian guy thinks he's OK.'

"But when I think about it now and how everything has developed and other players have come in, more power to them with the recognition for guys like (Dirk) Nowitzki and (Tony) Parker and (Manu) Ginobili; we know what we did," said Kukoc. "They didn't think much of us back then, but we are the ones breaking the ice. It's always hard to be first. Someone has to do it, and we know we made it easier for the guys who came after us. And now you see how basketball is a global game and the NBA looks at someone and says, ‘OK, he's a basketball player.'

"I would watch San Antonio play and see plays I recognized from the Russian team, the Yugoslavian team," said Kukoc. "That's why I think (Gregg) Popovich was ahead of his time. He was never resistant to those plays and players. Now a coach can relay a message to the team. But back then could they say to Michael to give the ball to Toni? Can you imagine New York saying to (Patrick) Ewing and (John) Starks, ‘OK, give the ball to that European guy?' Popovich, he went to Seoul, to Europe. He saw."

The game has changed and it's not necessarily only the math, but the methods.

Nowitzki was a seven-footer shooting from outside. Radja did as well. Vlade was passing from the high post, though Johnny Kerr and Tom Boerwinkle did that, also. "It was Otis Thorpe and Charles Oakley and Karl Malone at the four spot," said Kukoc. "It's not an insult, but they were not skilled basketball players. They could not initiate offense from the top. These guys were bruisers, defenders, rebounders. That's when we came. And now god help everybody if Giannis can make a jump shot.

"I'm glad we proved we knew the game," said Kukoc. "We could not beat them physically, not beat them athletically. But we beat them fundamentally and with the skills. We are not going to try to dribble around them, we are not going to try to go over them. But we make a lot of screens, pass and don't dribble a lot and try to find the right people at the right time. I don't want to say which guard it was with the Bulls, but I would take the ball and he would come to me and say, ‘You are taking my bread.' I didn't know the slang. I asked what he meant. I said I will give you the ball if you run down court and you can shoot and score. He said to me I didn't understand. He was a point guard and I was taking his bread. He needed to average a certain number of assists.

"So it was hard for me at first," Kukoc admitted. "If I get a rebound and have an open floor why would I have to look for you and have you come back to get the ball. Just run and you will have a wide-open shot. But they didn't think that way. It was a lot of adjustments."

But it still was basketball, and Kukoc figured it out for a 13-year NBA career, three title teams and he thought maybe a fourth until traded away from the 76ers when they went to the Finals in 2001. Larry Brown would later admit he was perhaps a bit hasty. But Kukoc finally got the ball in Atlanta and averaged 19.7 points, 6.2 assists and shot 48 percent on threes. He finished his career in Milwaukee but never left Chicago. He is long overdue for a place in Springfield, Mass.