Sam Smith: Toni Kukoc deserves to be in the Hall of Fame

Toni Kukoc's career is legendary... Only a Hall of Fame nod remains.
by Sam Smith
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Sam Smith breaks down the career of three-time Champion Toni Kukoc and why he needs to be in the Hall of Fame.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Tuesday revealed its finalists for the 2021 Hall of Fame class. Bill Russell, the NBA's first Black coach and first Black coach to win an NBA championship, was among the nominees in the coach category. Russell with 11 championships as a player was enshrined for his playing contributions in 1975.

The Hall of Fame, however, has yet to enshrine professional basketball's other 11-time playing champion, Toni Kukoc.

Enough already! It's time.

Toni Kukoc deserves to be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. It's perhaps the gravest oversight in the history of the grand institution and an insult to worldwide basketball.

The final Class of 2021 will be revealed May 16 with selections from the so called "direct elect" committees, which include the International Committee, Men's and Women's Veterans Committees, the Early African American Pioneer Committee and the Contributor Committee. Kukoc's candidacy is considered by the International Committee.

It has previously enshrined five of the so called "Big Six" of 1980s international basketball. They led to the creation and need for the 1992 Olympic USA Dream Team and the procession of international players who are among the best in the NBA today.

Those six were Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Kukoc.

Kukoc may have been the most successful in Europe with eight worldwide championships as a player, four times Yugoslavia champion, Italian League champion and three times Euroleague champion. Kukoc also was a member of three NBA championships with the Bulls.

But it was his sacrifice to accommodate the best interests of the Bulls that likely diminished his Hall of Fame possibilities.

The 6-11 Kukoc in Europe was in modern NBA parlance a wing, point forward player. For comparison, Kukoc then was Luka Doncic, the clever ballhandler and finisher who was an excellent long range shooter and passer. That position was basically filled on the Bulls by Scottie Pippen.

The Bulls needed a power forward given the unreliability of Dennis Rodman, who because of injuries and suspensions missed 45 games his first two Bulls seasons in 1996 and 1997. So Kukoc, the 1990 Bulls second round draft pick whose discovery helped make Jerry Krause a Hall of Famer, became a power forward in the era of Barkley, Malone and Kemp.

And then when Pippen missed the first half of the 1997-98 season after surgery, Phil Jackson said Kukoc was instrumental in helping hold that team together.

"He was a terrific player who has been overlooked," Jackson told me.

Toni Kukoc driving against Robert Horry

Kukoc driving against Lakers forward Robert Horry in December 1997.

Though Kukoc was technically a Sixth Man and won the NBA award in 1996, he made more than 80 starts for the Bulls during those three championship seasons. But because he was considered to be a reserve player, he was curiously overlooked by the International Committee when it added players of lesser impact, certainly in the NBA, like Radja, Marciulionis and Divac. Kukoc was the only one to play for an NBA champion.

Kukoc started every game in the 1998 Finals in place of Rodman and was third on the team in scoring, less than a point behind Pippen and led the team in three pointers. Kukoc averaged 22.5 points on 18 of 27 shooting and five of eight on threes in the last two games for the 1998 title playing more than 42 minutes in each game. He was known for making clutch game winners for the Bulls, like the 1994 playoff winner against the Knicks when Pippen sat out. In the 1996 Finals, Kukoc started two games and scored in double figures in all six games.

Toni Kukoc

Kukoc celebrates winning the 1996 NBA Title with a victory over the Seattle Sonics.

And then there was Kukoc's unprecedented international resume.

Kukoc was Euroscar Player of the Year five times, the award for the best male European basketball player no matter where they are playing. The only six-time winners were Dirk Nowitzki and Sabonis. Among those winning fewer times were Pau Gasol. Kukoc won the media's Mr. Europa Player of the Year award three times, which was the most ever, more than Sabonis, Divac, Petrovic, Gasol and Nowitzki. Kukoc was Euroleague Final Four MVP three times, the Finals top scorer once, FIBA World Championship MVP and Eurobasket MVP.

Kukoc played on three Bulls championship teams, four Yugoslavian championship teams, an Italian League champion and three Euroleague champions, essentially the lead player on eight championship teams and a vital contributor to three NBA titles.

Players and coaches with 11 championships are basketball elite, like Russell, Jackson and Geno Auriemma in college. Henri Richard was part of 11 championship teams in hockey and Yogi Berra was as a player, manager and coach on 13 in baseball. All are Hall of Famers. It's a short list. No one associated with as many or more championships other than Kukoc hasn't been suitably and appropriately acknowledged.

Toni and Michael

Toni and Michael.

Most of the top MVP candidates in the NBA this season, by the way, are international players, including Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Doncic. We now understand how exceptional professional basketball can be in Europe and around the world. Kukoc and the other pioneers are their competitor ancestors and role models.

Americans aren't so arrogant about the game anymore. Not like they once were, though it took creating the NBA's best team ever to counter the threat of the Europeans who were routinely beating the top American collegians. And this at a time when Europe was at war and countries (and teams) were being broken up.

"We started beating Americans all the time," Kukoc told me last year when he talked about the European legacy. "Italy with the junior nationals beating them soundly, Seattle (Goodwill Games). 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. 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 so 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."

The NBA now is trying to figure out how to catch up with them.

I did a podcast recently promoting Kukoc's Hall of Fame candidacy for Pod of Fame.

Maybe it might have been 12 titles If Larry Brown wasn't so impatient.

Kukoc, the native of Croatia who now is a special advisor and ambassador for the Bulls, stayed with the Bulls one more season after the championships, the 50-game 1998-99 season.

He averaged 18.8 points and seven rebounds, his Bulls highs in about 37 minutes per game starting. During the following season, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, who were in need of a playmaker and supplemental scorer to team with Allen Iverson. Kukoc seemed ideal and the 76ers got off to the best start in the league in 2000-01 and were 40-14. But center Theo Ratliff hurt his wrist and was due to be out about a month. Rather than wait, Brown persuaded the 76ers to trade for Atlanta's Dikembe Mutombo. The 76ers did get to the Finals, but then lost in five games to the Lakers as Shaquille O'Neal battered Mutombo. Kukoc went to Atlanta in the trade. Could it have made a difference for the 76ers?

The rest of that season with Atlanta, Kukoc produced his best NBA statistics playing his natural role, averaging 19.7 points and shooting 48 percent on threes. He would have been difficult to defend in the Finals. Kukoc finished his NBA career with four seasons off the bench in Milwaukee because he didn't want to displace his family from the north suburbs of Chicago.

Toni Kukoc was a special basketball player, one of the world's greatest. The Hall of Fame presented finalists Tuesday. It's finally time for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, named for a Canadian, to provide an assist for Toni Kukoc.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

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.

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