Toni Kukoc defied the odds to thrive in the NBA
The Croatian native left Europe after a decorated international career before reaching success with the Bulls.
Remind Me Later •
There is a seminal scene from the classic novel Don Quixote in which the hero has encountered the unconquerable, but he is not deterred. Nothing is too great it cannot be challenged, that the soul and the individual determine success; not other's expectations. Those are not giants, reports Sancho Panza. They are windmills. "You," Quixote replies, "do not know much about adventures."
And so it was for Toni Kukoc, a young man in communist Yugoslavia with big bones and big dreams and small hopes, at least those suggested by others. It wasn't so bad in Yugoslavia, at least not like Russia. "There was nothing American there (in Russia)," Kukoc recalls. "You could not have jeans, chewing gum; you couldn't have a Marlboro. Whatever was American was forbidden in Russia. We didn't have it as bad as the Russians did; we had freedoms. We could travel outside, to Italy, France; we went to play junior teams."
And when young Toni and his buddies did they were beating the those top junior Americans, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Mitch Richmond, Gary Payton, players destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"We heard about the Hall of Fame," Kukoc said. "We knew the players who achieved so much in the world of basketball. But at that time not many Europeans were in the Hall of Fame. Mostly it was for the U.S. To us, the Hall of Fame was something that was not actually reachable. We were told it was something like we can't get there. In order to get there you have to play in the NBA, which they say we are never going to do; to do that you have to win the NBA ring, which we are never going to do. So it's why waste the time. Focus on your stuff, win the home games, then the national championship and play for the national team. The national team and going to the Olympics and the World Championships was the highest."
But Toni Kukoc dreamed the impossible dreams; he decided to fight the unbeatable foes of doubt and discouragement. He was willing to risk bearing the unbearable sorrows to run where the brave dare not go.
On Saturday night in Springfield, Mass., Kukoc will join the 2021 Class for induction in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the ultimate honor, the unreachable star.
Though not for Toni Kukoc.
The native of Croatia who lived through wars and the breakup of his country eventually ventured to the U.S. and the NBA at a time when even the best players from Europe were often being overlooked. Stars like Drazen Petrovic withered on the bench in Portland. The Europeans stars couldn't believe it; was the NBA that good that even Drazen couldn't play?
"Vlade (Divac) got to play because Kareem retired, but Drazen is in Portland and not a minute of playing time. They are playing guys who are garbage behind (Terry) Porter and (Clyde (Drexler) and he's not playing? So what am I going to do with the NBA champions in the game?" Kukoc said he was asked by many. "‘Phil (Jackson) is not going to look my way.' I am going to sit on the bench and not close to going in there. That is the fear everyone had wasting our careers, signing for three or four years to say, ‘I sat with Magic and Worthy cheerleading.' There was always this question. Should we go? They cannot guarantee we will get a chance. But we thought if we bring our stuff, which obviously rocks because we were playing against U.S. national teams and we are kicking ass. So we decided we just must be good enough; there must be something."
That's the thing about dreams and adventures. A happy ending is not guaranteed; just the experience. For Kukoc that was promise enough.
After all, there still was the military.
Growing up in communist Yugoslavia, military service was required. Plus, you could not leave the country to play basketball before 20. Though Kukoc was able to hold off military service after high school because he already was playing for the national team. Professional sports careers usually were until your late 20s, as Kukoc related, and then you found a real job. It probably was off to the shipyards like his father.
There was some relief on the restrictions when Petrovic was able to sign in Spain, and the NBA teams led by the Spurs began to see talent and use second round draft picks to "stash" players overseas. And so in 1990 did Jerry Krause and the Bulls. Scout Clarence Gaines first saw Kukoc and reported back to draft that guy. It wasn't regarded as the coup it became, and Kukoc admits he had some initial hesitations as he was winning titles in Europe and establishing himself as the continent's best player.
"Jerry imagined me grabbing a rebound and Michael running one side and Scottie the other and these guys are getting ready for championship runs," Kukoc recalled about Krause's sales pitch. "I am going, ‘Yeah, great.' But I was hesitant at first. How am I going to fit with MJ, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant? I am not going to play center. But I was not afraid of competition and I was not going to say to Michael and Scottie I am not good enough. ‘OK you guys, I am going to fight and at least have a fighting chance.' I got that opportunity right away. So I think I showed, at least the coaches, Phil and the players, what I have."
In a curious way Kukoc probably did as well during that famous attack on his game in the 1992 Olympics by Jordan and Pippen. Kukoc had a poor game to the delight of the Bulls stars, but Kukoc remained remarkably non plussed. A tough guy in tough times. Hmmmm.
"I had no idea what was going on here with Jerry Krause and the team," Kukoc said about the dynamic building with Krause's praise of the draft choice. "I just thought that was the way they play in the NBA. We only would see the highlight videos. And everyone is running 100 miles per hour, dunking over people, going absolutely crazy. I just thought this must be their style. And it's the 12 best players."
Kukoc shot two of 11 with seven turnovers in that game.
"So the second game (against the Dream Team) once I figured out and put some thought into this, they are not going to embarrass me again, it was different," Kukoc said as he had 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists to win the silver medal. "I was more decisive, I got myself to the free throw line. And my son was born right after the first game. He was healthy so everything was good."
Kukoc stayed three seasons in Europe after being drafted by the Bulls, arriving in 1993 as Jordan was announcing his retirement.
"I knew coming here nobody is going to give me anything; I am going to have earn everything," Kukoc recalled. "You are not earning with a non playoff team. You are earning with the world champs, so that's an extra thing. Coming off the bench was hard to me not to feel the game from the beginning. But once those first two years I heard Phil say to Michael and Scottie, ‘We need Toni, we need his skills,' I felt, ‘OK, I'm gonna get my time and then it's up to me.' Which was the original idea. Come in and prove it.
"I played for the best team in Europe and the best team in the U.S. and have a threepeat in Europe and a threepeat in the U.S. So how much better can that get?" asks Kukoc. "In Europe, I was the main guy. Here it was the third guy, the fourth guy. But how does anyone argue with three championships in a row? When the coach and your teammates stay you are a valuable part, what else do you need? The Hall of Fame is much more than an individual accolade."
It's a noble quest that also demonstrates no star truly is unreachable.
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