As a young boy growing up in Croatia, Toni Kukoc didn’t attend camps like the one he hosted last week at the Bulls/Sox Academy.
It wasn’t necessarily because he lacked the opportunity. Rather, as hard as it is to believe, basketball wasn’t even on Kukoc’s mind until he turned 15.
“I actually played a lot of other sports—table tennis and soccer for a long time,” Kukoc recalled during a break in the sessions. “It was almost an accident that I got into basketball at all but fortunately it wasn’t too late and I was able to be a part of a great generation for the sport. As I started to get serious with basketball, my coach at the time was all about the fundamentals.”
It was many of the same fundamentals that Kukoc and the Academy coaches focused on during his five-day camp: shooting, ball handling, defense, free throws, and footwork.
“When I first started playing, we practiced nine hours a day,” Kukoc said. “Five and a half to six hours of those were working on the fundamentals. They didn’t care if you were 5-9 or 7-2, each player needed to be skilled to the point that they could bring the ball down the court, shoot, pass, dribble and move amongst multiple positions. It made a huge difference with respect to the development of my game.”
It’s the second consecutive year Kukoc, a three-time NBA champion, has hosted a camp at the Academy, located at 6200 River Bend Drive in Lisle, Illinois. Over 90 total campers attended with a morning session held for the six to ten year olds and an afternoon session for the eleven to seventeen year olds.
“Our goal is to make sure the kids are better Friday than they were on Monday,” explained Larry Stewart, General Manager of Basketball at the Bulls/Sox Academy.
Like Kukoc, Stewart and his staff believe in teaching the fundamentals. They also want to ensure the campers have fun, so they set up drills in contest formats. The top three children from each of their camps, which run throughout the Chicagoland area, earn the right to compete at a later date at the United Center.
“It’s a nice reward for them but it makes it even better to have Toni involved,” Stewart remarked. “He personally puts his hands on every part of what we do. He’s here every day, spending time with the kids and working with them. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to train these kids, but I know the kids couldn’t have a better opportunity to improve. It’s just great to be around a guy like Toni.
“It’s special to have him in the gym and last year he was the exact same way,” Stewart added of Kukoc. “It doesn’t matter whether a kid is five years old or he’s 16 or 17, Toni brings a consistent focus for all of them. In the case of the younger group, he understands that not only can they learn, but they can really develop and excel in the right environment. So he has fun with them. As they get older, you can see he pushes them a little harder, but in a good way. It’s amazing to see a guy who played at such a high level and enjoyed so much success to bring his expertise to our kids.”
Kukoc said his intent, aside from teaching some of the game’s basics, was to help the kids understand the proper way to play, noting that it is easier to assemble quality teams when you have skilled players who are fundamentally sound.
As the recipient of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996, Kukoc understands the importance of knowing one’s role. While he was talented enough to start, coming off the bench was what his team needed and by fulfilling that role he significantly contributed to the success of a team widely regarded as among the best ever.
“It’s all about teamwork,” said Kukoc. “You’ve got to care about your teammates. Obviously the game is more enjoyable when the ball is shared and everybody looks for each other on both ends of the floor. Teams capable of working along those lines are going to be more successful. So we held a few drills where part of it is recognizing where your teammates are on the court. You’ve got to get them the ball in the right way at the right time. It’s about learning the game.”
Given the age of the campers, most weren’t even born as Kukoc, 46, wrapped up an illustrious 13-year NBA career. But each one in attendance donned a Kukoc t-shirt jersey with his name and no. 7 on the back. They could also look to the Academy rafters, where Kukoc is featured among the banners that highlight the six championships and Bulls stars from over the years.
“In a lot of cases, their parents have educated them in advance,” said Stewart. “It’s remarkable how much homework these kids have done on Toni. We’ve encouraged them to do that as well. We’re proud to have someone who played a key role on three NBA championship teams in our facility. At the same time, Toni stands for everything that we try to teach—he was a team player and fundamentally sound. He was a great passer, a great shooter, and just a great teammate overall.”
Whereas camps and programs are held year-round at the Academy, another highlight of the summer comes in early August, when two five-day camps will feature current and/or former Bulls players throughout each week. Player appearances are to be determined, but past guests have included Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Scottie Pippen, John Paxson, Randy Brown, Stacey King, Bill Wennington, Bob Love, and Sidney Green.
“It’s a 12-month operation at the Academy,” said Stewart. “We take off Thanksgiving and Christmas, but that’s about it. It’s not just basketball—we’ve got baseball, fastpitch softball, strength and conditioning, and the opportunity for children to come for field trips. Our goal is to train kids and teach them the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox way year-round.”