Toni Kukoc always delivered

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By Sam Smith | 3.31.2015 | 12:20 p.m. CT

They were the Big Six of international basketball in the 1980’s, and they changed basketball more than most know, and those who know basically didn’t care to admit.

They are Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, the latter the Bulls underrated star role player of the 1996-1998 championship teams.

They changed the game because the guys from the U.S. could not beat them.

It would lead to the so called Dream Team, which really was more myth than magic, and the great basketball diaspora to the NBA where international stars from Dirk Nowitzki to the Bulls Nikola Mirotic have helped make basketball the true worldwide game. But those six were the originals, the guys whose talent so transcended the respect for them that the U.S. was forced to change its view of international competition. It led to the 1992 Olympic Dream Team and the great worldwide basketball migration.

Though three of those players are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame—Petrovic, Marciulionis and Sabonis—Kukoc arguably was the most talented and successful of them all. Certainly in Europe with the mysteries of Sabonis mostly hidden in the old Soviet Union. But basically no one succeeded like Kukoc, who was a four time Yugoslav league champion, two time Yugoslav Cup champion, two time EuroBasket champion, three time Euroleague champion, Italian league champion, Italian Cup champion, four-time European player of the year, five time Euroscar player of the year and four time Euroleague MVP.

So Kukoc finally came to the Bulls in 1993 and they mocked his defense and made him change positions, played him off the bench and never much put him in position to show his brilliance. But he was part of three NBA championship teams, including arguably the best ever, the Bulls 1995-96 team that was 72-10. And when things appeared to be falling apart in 1997 with Scottie Pippen skipping the first half of the season when he had surgery and with Dennis Rodman losing effectiveness, it was Kukoc who was needed. What seemed at one time was an impossible mission became one that was accomplished.

“Toni was instrumental in 1997-98 when Pip missed the first 30 some games,” recalled then Bulls coach Phil Jackson. “He was Sixth Man (winner) in 1995-96. He was a terrific player and has been overlooked.”

I caught up with Kukoc recently because I’ve long considered him, as Jackson does, one of the most underrated players in league history and one of the great pioneers to herald the wave of international talent that even has changed the way the NBA game is played, these days in a more European style with shooting big men and switching defenses.

Whenever you are first, you generally have to endure bias that stems from ignorance.

That’s probably why Kukoc’s career is so underappreciated.

Basketball fans viewed European basketball then as minor leagues. Older NBA players in that era ended their careers playing in Europe and scored big. The assumption was it was a high minor league. Which is why the NBA was so caught by surprise and dominated in world competitions in the late 1980s and up until that 1992 Olympics.

And though that Dream Team was dominant in winning the gold medal in Barcelona, it was as much the product of mythmakers. It was hardly the greatest team ever. It was the team with the greatest names ever.

Consider that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were effectively retired by then, Bird leaving with back problems as soon as the Olympics ended and Johnson having left in 1991 with the HIV virus and never being a high level player again. Charles Barkley was coming off forcing his way out of Philadelphia and missing the playoffs. Chris Mullin was in physical decline and would have just one more season averaging more than 20 points, and that just in a half season battling injuries. David Robinson was being dominated by Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing by the Bulls. Pippen was just a two-time All-Star and wasn’t chosen for the All-Star game in 1991. Clyde Drexler had just been taken apart by Jordan in the Finals and John Stockton and Karl Malone had been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round four of the previous seven seasons. Christian Laettner was there for some reason.

What that team never faced was the great world teams from Yugoslavia and Lithuania that had been dominating U.S. teams, albeit college players. But they were the top draft picks soon to be top pros, including players like Robinson. But wars broke up Yugoslavia into several countries and the Soviet Union collapsed.

Before that, however, the U.S. was getting beaten badly.

In the 1990 Goodwill games in Seattle, a U.S. team with the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Kenny Anderson, Billy Owens, Laettner, Bryant Stith, Chris Gatling and Clarence Weatherspoon lost to a Yugoslavia team with Kukoc, Radja, Zarko Paspalj. The U.S. was third in the 1988 Olympics behind Sabonis’ Lithuania and Kukoc’s Yugoslavia and the U.S. was third in the 1990 World Championships as Yugoslavia with Kukoc, Divac, Petrovic and Paspalj dominated and finished first. The U.S. was third.

“If that (1988 Yugoslavia) team ever stayed together and we played the finals against the Dream Team, I am not saying we would have won the game,” said Kukoc. “But I’m saying it would be a really, really interesting game to watch. We had eight, maybe nine guys played in the NBA with that team; we were good, knew each other well. The tournaments we won, World Championship, two European champions, we won with ease. Winning in the finals by 20, 30-some points, which is what the Dream Team won against other teams. It would have been a good game to watch.”

It was not to be as the Dream Team rolled over a destabilized and debilitated field of European teams, most with few or no future NBA players as the Yugoslavia players divided. It would thus become a reassurance for the U.S. and the NBA: We’re No. 1. We knew.

But Kukoc and those guys knew. They knew if they ever got the chance their games would and could matchup in the NBA, as they do today. It would be years before it was allowed, and Kukoc’s Bulls experience was an example. He probably was the second best all-around talent to Jordan. After all, when a big shot was needed and Jordan wasn’t around, Jackson called on Kukoc. But Kukoc would come off the bench and despite being the closest player perhaps ever to Magic Johnson, a 6-10 point forward/guard, the Bulls needed a power forward. So Kukoc was asked to gain 30 pounds when he came to the Bulls to play power forward.

“We knew we were good enough,” said Kukoc, who still lives in the north suburbs and does some work around the Bulls. “We were not sure (if we would get a chance).

But we had no doubt (we could play in the NBA) because we played our generation of players in world championships; we always competed with Larry Johnson and Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning. And we were kicking their butts every time. Junior worlds, Goodwill games, World Championships, Olympics. We knew if these guys are coming into the NBA and they are No. 1, 2, 3 (draft) picks and they are All-Stars, we wondered how is that when we play international we beat these guys. Then we go to the NBA and they question, ‘Are we strong enough?’ ‘Are we good enough?’ ‘Can we play the NBA game? And all that.

And these guys are coming in (from colleges) and it’s like, ‘Oh he’s a miracle guy.’ ‘He’s the greatest ever.’ He is this, he is that.

“That bothered us a little bit,” admitted Kukoc. “But we also understood we are the first generation of the guys coming in. There were one or two guys who came before. They would stay here two years, barely sniff garbage time. Even Drazen in Portland. It was like, ‘Should we sacrifice a couple of years of our careers to sit on the bench in the NBA?’ What’s the point of that?

We had plenty of money over there. We were actually getting better money there than we were getting here.”

Xenophobia, a great American tradition.

But Kukoc had no more worlds to conquer. He was that good.

“I took the risk because I won everything,” said Kukoc, who anyone who ever has met him will tell you is no egotist. “There was a period of four or five years in Europe I won everything, four in a row national championships, three in row European championships, two European world championships with the national team. I won everything that could be and I was MVP in all of these. I said, ‘I can play with Michael, Scottie, these guys. So maybe I get a chance to win that one, too. So why not give it a chance a try and see if it will work?’

“I knew when I’d come here I am going to be this rookie kid that carries bags, that everybody is like sending to get a burger and this and that,” noted Kukoc. “I kind of accepted that for year, maybe two. I knew it was coming. I did that when I was back home, carrying the bags the first three years because I was the youngest guy on the team. But you get to the practice and everyone has to explain to you how it’s done and I’m thinking, ‘OK, Scottie explains to me that’s one thing, but somebody who has five minutes on the floor starts explaining me the game?’ I think I know this game good enough.”

And you know his teammates talked loudly because we Americans know the secret to making yourself understood is increasing the volume.

“Maybe 100 percent (distributing the ball), probably by the middle of the second (title) year, third year I was probably closest to what I could be,” said Kukoc. “Playing the four spot we have a saying, chained to the bucket. I was used as a point to bring the ball up. That was my natural spot. I always felt comfortable looking at the court. I really thought our best lineup was (Ron) Harper, Michael, Scottie, Dennis and me. Three inches difference between height and each one of us could have played any position; we would switch everything. Offensively, it didn’t matter who went to post up, Michael or Scottie or me. Just depended on which was first one down there; everybody else picks up other positions in the triangle. Once we figured out the triangle offense it was really good with three, four individuals that can solve the problems on their own.”

That’s how you win 72 games.

“I never played the four or five spot before I got here,” said Kukoc. “I don’t know who decided I should play four. Michael retired the first day I came here. Scottie was here; Horace (Grant) was here. I don’t think they’d seen me play that much. Phil was in Seattle for the Goodwill Games, but that was about it. The only one who truly knew me was Clarence Gaines and Ivica Dukan, who played with me back (home). Jerry (Krause) saw me just couple of games. Nobody else knew.”

Kukoc remains a private person, never one to campaign for himself. I asked him about being overlooked as an NBA player.

“Maybe in a way, especially considering later on at the end of my career some players who have played the All-Star games who came from Europe as welI, I thought I was a better player,” Kukoc said. “I thought those three years when we won championships, I really was good enough to play in the All-Star game. I felt I deserved to be in the top whatever that would be, the top 20-some players in the league. Really felt that comfortable and confident on the basketball court.

“I had, I don’t want to say the word, but I had the guts to shoot the (big) shots,” said Kukoc, who famously was picked by Jackson to shoot closing shots when Jordan was not with the team. “I never felt uncomfortable. I shot millions and millions of shots, just wanted the ball and felt good every time I released the ball, especially in those last seconds of big games. I believed I was going to make a shot and I wouldn’t give it to anyone else. I don’t want to say it bothered me, but I never understood why a team 72-10 and was as dominant as we were would have only two All-Stars. But other teams like Seattle had three All-Stars; Lakers had four All-Stars. It was early in transition of European players to the NBA, so I don’t think we had a chance.”

Like the famous game in the Olympics when Pippen and Jordan ganged up on Kukoc supposedly to make Krause look back because they felt Krause was paying more attention to foreign talent than them, certainly not one of their better moments as people. Kukoc was held to four points on two of 11 shooting in that first meeting, though the back story never came out as Jordan and Pippen were oddly celebrated for their childish act.

“Honestly I did not know nothing about (why they were doing that) until they were filming this (Dream Team) thing a couple of years back,” insisted Kukoc, who always was gracious about the events. “But there were some circumstances about the game.”

Croatia only had to be in the top two in pool play to advance and the following game was the bigger one against Germany. So they were backing off in that game, which is not uncommon in international pool play tournaments. Plus, Kukoc should not even have been playing. His wife was just going into labor with their first child back home in Croatia. The next day during the game against Germany, Kukoc’s son was born.

“The final game I knew what was coming and I was ready to play final game,” said Kukoc. “I had a pretty good game.”

He had 16 points, a game high nine assists and five rebounds in the 117-85 USA win against the remnants of the old Yugoslavia team.

“I can’t say it bothered me that much,” said Kukoc of that first game assault by his future teammates. “I would love to play a better game the first game. Not like some unknown guys are guarding you. Probably two of the best defensive players in world; so it’s OK to score (four) points against them.”

Kukoc perhaps showed the player he could be that season after the title team was broken up as he averaged 18.8 points, seven rebounds and 5.3 assists before being traded to Philadelphia. Though we all also remember Kukoc as something of the scapegoat for others’ failures as Grant was for the first three title teams. Though, again, Kukoc faced that with grace and equanimity.

“I don’t want say (I was) easy pickings,” said Kukoc with a laugh. “It’s a saying if coach likes and sees good stuff in you and wants you to play he’ll pick on you, he’ll make you work and do things right. Once he stops talking to you, you know you’re done. So if looking at it like that. it was good. But I always thought, ‘If you want to do it, don’t do it in front of everybody. Show me a tape in the morning and say this and this and this.’ Which (Jackson) did later on and everything worked out. Just that early part of a European player coming in and having my own ideas. Tex (Winter) always thought I was doing things on purpose to piss him off.”

It then became an NBA journey for Kukoc to Philadelphia, where the team was leading the league in wins when Theo Ratliff got hurt. The team didn’t want to wait for a wrist injury to heal and traded Ratliff, Kukoc and Nazr Mohammed to the Hawks for Dikembe Mutombo. The 76ers with Allen Iverson having his best season would go on to make the Finals but lose in four games without a secondary scorer and playmaker to Iverson.

“In Philly I thought I played well,” said Kukoc. “We had a really good team and I honestly thought we were going to win a championship that year. I had a stretch when George Lynch got hurt I averaged like 25, 7 and 7, something like that, had triple doubles consecutive against good teams, Indiana and Boston and somebody else. But Theo got hurt in January and Larry Brown thought they needed to bring a center to the playoffs and Theo and I got traded. Then they lost the 10-game advantage, ended up second behind the Lakers, lost home court advantage, went to Los Angeles and won the first game but lost four straight. I really thought we had a chance. That team had a chance to win a championship.”

Kukoc then moved on to Milwaukee, where he finished his playing career in 2005-06. Preferring to play close to home when the Bucks and Bulls were not interested, Kukoc retired.

And became a world class golfer.

I actually played golf the first time Kukoc ever did, back once in the playoffs in the mid-90s in Orlando when the team went out on an off day with some staff and media members. I was in a group with Kukoc. He’d never played. He hit his first shot sideways off the ball washer. It got more dangerous from there.

Not long after Kukoc was doing a photo shoot with long drive golfer Jason Zuback.

“He asked me if ever hit the ball,” said Kukoc. “He wasn’t that tall of a guy. He was nicely built, but not extremely tall. Probably 5-6, 5-7; he was hitting the crap out of that ball, 300 some yards, whatever it was. I thought if he can hit it (like that) nobody is touching me; I just have to swing. And I have a bigger arc. The only problem was I didn’t know how to swing.

“I called my ex (basketball) club, the Benetton people because they were building Bernhard Langer some clubs,” Kukoc recalled. “They had these Nitro golf balls. They sent two sets of clubs and about 1,200 golf balls. And I think I lost them all in the first three months. Herb Rudoy, my agent, took me the first time to Bryn Mawr (in Lincolnwood); started on back nine. It’s a long par three over water. Hit about 15 or 16 balls in the water. I would not quit hitting until I made it. Once I saw maybe two or three golf balls in the bag left, I threw the ball on the other side and then played the rest of the course as much as I could.”

Ten years later, Kukoc won the Croatian amateur championship and is a scratch golfer who tours the country often playing with pros.

Kukoc is at the United Center occasionally doing projects with some Bulls sponsors. I asked him what he does now.

“I don’t do anything right now,” he said. “I’m looking, there are talks, not exactly coaching, but it is one of the options. I have a hard time doing all that traveling that I did before. But maybe. I’ve had eight years doing nothing.”

Well, he said not completely nothing, but close.

“Spring and summer I play golf,” he said. “Winter I spend time with the kids and family. They hated when I tried to coach them. My son finished college; my daughter is a senior, going to Miami of Ohio and will play volleyball.”

With the Hall of Fame enshrinement class of 2015 to be announced at the upcoming Final Four, wouldn’t it be nice if they could come to Springfield some time to witness perhaps the most accomplished player in European basketball history and a three-time NBA champion, a multiple Olympic medalist being honored as one of the pioneers of the game. For Toni Kukoc was one of the best ever.