Toni Kukoc's Greatest Moments in his Hall of Fame career
Sam Smith looks back on Toni Kukoc's best Bulls moments as "The Croatian Sensation" will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Remind Me Later •
Admit it. You never realized just how good Toni Kukoc was. Kukoc Saturday joins former teammates Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, NBA teammates, anyway, as so many of his international teammates also are enshrined, like Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Drazen Petrovic.
Kukoc actually has 11 championship rings. Those three from the Bulls, but three more from his Euroleague three peat, one from the Italian league and four from Yugoslavia. He was Euroleague final four MVP three times and player of the year five times. In many respects, he's the reason for the Dream Team. Kukoc's Yugoslavian team with a core barely out of its teens was dominating American collegiate teams so badly in the late 1980s and early 1990s—teams with David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Mitch Richmond, Sean Elliott, Christian Laettner and Danny Ferry—that by 1992 the U.S. realized it needed its best pros to win an Olympic gold medal.
So you say, ‘Well, that was just Europe. Wait 'til he gets to the NBA.'
In Kukoc's rookie season in 1993-94, the Bulls first season following Michael Jordan's first retirement, Kukoc led the NBA in game winning shots in the last two seconds. And in some of the biggest times in the biggest games, it was Kukoc to the rescue. Like in Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, a game that would have ended the Last Dance season without a championship if not for Toni Kukoc.
Here's a look at some of Toni Terrific's Greatest Hits:
December 17, 1996. Bulls win 129-123 in overtime. That was the rare game with three players scoring at least 30 points as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kukoc with 31 accounted for 96 points as Kukoc by himself outscored the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. "I get reminded of that game a lot because we were down 20 (22 late in the third and 18 to start the fourth) and still down 14 with four or five minutes to go and we won the game. I usually don't take a lot of shots. If I score 30 it has to be making almost all my shots (Kukoc was nine of 16 and six of nine on threes while Jordan and Pippen were a combined 23 for 58). I really hit a bunch of shots, three pointers in the fourth quarter and overtime. Everyone reminds me of that game. I hit two free throws to tie the game and hit four threes, I think, in the fourth quarter. Phil gave me the break on the last possessions and called the play for me and I was fouled and made the two free throws and we won the game in overtime."
January 21, 1994. Bulls win 96-95. Reggie Miller with less than a second left makes a jumper for a two-point lead and then stops to bow in each direction toward the Chicago patrons. Kukoc then wins the game, one of four he won that season in the last second or two for walkoffs. "That's the one people talk about a little more than even New York. Because it was Reggie bowing. It's the same thing; it's never over 'til it's over. It was the same play Phil called all the time. Four guys on the free throw line, two guards cross to corners, the big guy dives in the lane and the guy who's going to shoot the ball shields himself from the defender. The ball would come and he would turn and shoot and whatever happens happens. The pass was really good. It led me away from the defense and the same time led me to the three point line. Originally, I didn't think to shoot a three point. It was, ‘Let's tie the game and go into overtime.' But the pass was a little longer and led me right above the three-point line on the side where I can be almost 45 degrees and choose either to shoot straight in or try to use the glass. If you're more looking straight at the bucket, it doesn't come to you, ‘OK, you can use glass.' He led me to more toward the side right in an area where I can see clearly a glass side and let's do a little glass. I just shot the ball and it went in."
Scottie Pippen threw the perfect inbounds pass.
May 31, 1998. Bulls defeat Pacers 88-83 to go to the NBA Finals rematch against the Utah Jazz. Against a strong, physical and confident Pacers team, both Jordan and Pippen were troubled. Jordan shot nine of 25 and Pippen six of 18. The Pacers were pulling ahead in the third quarter and seemingly about the put the game away when Kukoc hit five straight shots, three of them three pointers and scored 14 of the Bulls 21 third quarter points to give the Bulls a chance to pull away late in the game. "Everything slows down so you clearly see everything. I saw once I hit my first shot (in the third quarter), a fairly easy shot, someone forgot me and I parked at the free throw line and Luc (Longley) passed me the ball and I shot the ball wide open. At that point I felt the basket is huge, like the door of the bus. There is nobody who can get to my hand. I just needed a little space to shoot the ball. MJ looked for me, Scottie looked for me. One time I'm in the corner and I can see what is developing and (Ron) Harper gets the ball and I'm thinking he is going to pass it right away. But he holds the ball. I am clapping, ‘C'mon.' A second or two later he passes. The guy is on me and I still make the shot. It's like you are in that trance. Just play, you don't feel tired, the adrenaline is so high. I got the ball a lot, didn't hesitate, catch and shoot, boom, boom and they went in, thank god."
May 13, 1994. Bulls win 104-102 in the famous game when Scottie Pippen sat out. The Bulls were trailing 2-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals and with that win pushed to a seventh game after the disputed foul call in Game 5 in New York that could have led to a Bulls win and a series close out in Game 6. "Same play Phil would call at that time. (Anthony) Mason was on me. I didn't feel he could block my shot. I was more concerned with bumping him away because he obviously was a strong defender. He clamps on you. I don't think I'd even get a chance to turn if he did. I felt I needed to push him away from me a little bit to have space to catch and turn. Once I turned and squared to bucket, at least I'd have a chance to get a shot off without him being there. I'm going toward the free throw line. I tried to push him below free throw line. I went into him a little to bump him so I can get that separation and I am lanky enough and once there was the space between us he was not going to get up to block a shot and Pete (Myers) made the pass."
November 10, 1993. Bulls defeat Bucks 91-90 in Kukoc's fourth NBA game. He scored 18 points on eight of 10 shots off the bench. "Phil said, ‘You take the ball out of bounds, you get the ball to Horace (Grant) and Horace would pop toward you and at BJ (Armstrong)' I don't think Scottie played in that game. ‘BJ will come off a double pick. If he can't find him, Toni, you come on top of him and and see what happens.' I ran into a perfect ball close to the three point line. Whoever the defensive player was he hesitated and that gave me an open look and I shot the ball and thank god it went in. But I never thought twice about those shots. They were so natural to me to shoot those. I don't want say I wanted it. I don't actually want them. But I felt comfortable with those shots. We shot them as kids and anywhere in the arena I'd be 100 percent clear in my head what it is, catch it, do my routine, two legs, jump shots and if it goes in great; and if not next time. I won three European championships, a World Championship, two Olympics. How is that game more important than European or World championships or the Olympics? Even now people say what you did in Europe didn't matter. Then I am trying to explain to people besides athleticism the NBA players have and players physically dominant, but if you go by just IQ, knowledge of basketball fundamentals, Europe has more basketball players wise than the United States. Tell me (Nikola) Jokic is an athlete, (Luka) Doncic? No they are not. We were the first ones in, so everyone pointed out the bad things about us: He doesn't run good, he doesn't jump that high, he plays bad defense. Instead of just looking to what he can do."
June 12, 1998. Bulls lose to Utah Jazz 83-81 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Kukoc led the Bulls in scoring with 30 points on 11 of 13 shots. Jordan was nine of 26 and Pippen was two of 16. Kukoc made four of six threes and Jordan and Pippen were combined zero for nine. The Bulls had a chance to close out the Finals series in Chicago, but Jordan missed a three at the buzzer. "Phil called the last play for me, but Michael decided to chase the ball," Kukoc said with a laugh. "It happens. He did call it for me. I was supposed to fake like I'm going down and Michael needs to lay a screen on Karl Malone because (Bryon) Russell would never leave Michael Jordan. I would just pop out towards the baseline. It didn't work out, but then Michael scored who knows how many points (45) the next game and we got a championship, so that was the main thing. I played OK in Game 6. I thought I could have been a little moee aggressive in the second half, but when Michael is going it's not easy to get the ball." Jordan blowing that last play in Game 5 likely was personal motivation for his Game 6 classic. Kukoc scored 15 points, the only Bulls other than Jordan to score in double figures in Game 6.
December 25, 1993. Bulls win 95-93 against Orlando with yet another Kukoc game winner at the buzzer. "That one the announcers I heard later were saying I took some bad shots and Phil always was on me. I'm glad we have YouTube. I watch some of those games and you can hear Phil yelling, "Toni run, Toni run.' It doesn't matter. He still let me know what I was supposed to do. That game was back and forth, we were up, down and the last play, it was actually called for Scottie and BJ playing two on two on the left side. I was in the corner and Bill Cartwright was at the center on the side. BJ went in to the basket and kind of took off from the free throw line not really sure what he was going to do. I was running in from the corner for a rebound thinking he might shoot the ball. When the ball came to me, I was in the middle running into the paint. I caught the ball. Shaq was coming at me but obviously he would be late. I am long armed and lanky enough it was a little farther out than a layup, but I can shoot a half hook, one handed shot. And it went in."
January 25, 1997. Bulls defeat Toronto 110-98 as Kukoc plays like Toni Kukoc of Split with 18 points, a career high 13 assists and three steals. With Randy Brown starting with Kukoc in the backcourt, Kukoc was delivering. "That was me. I never was a designated scorer. With the Bulls when I scored 25 or 30, I probably shot 70 percent. You are not going to see me scoring 30 points and shoot 33 percent; I didn't get 25 shots a game. It's unbelievable to me now to see 16 threes a game. I didn't shoot 16 threes a month, I can get off a three-point shot any time. I was guarded by fours and fives chained to the paint and not coming out. But I never saw myself a designated scorer and the teams I played always had a designated shooter. My points were generated by running the court and getting layups or getting a (foul) call or having an advantage on the defender and getting all the way to bucket or to the free throw line. Average 15, 16, 18 a season with steals, rebounds, assists. Help people. Somewhat similar to what Scottie did."
February 5, 1998. Bulls lose to Utah Jazz 104-96 in the first game of the first season after the end of the championship run. Starting with Mark Bryant and Andrew Lang, Kukoc had to score. He had 32 points in that game, still shooting over 50 percent and averaged 22 the first seven games and 20 the first 25 before getting hurt. "Everybody was gone. It was the late start and it was strange because we didn't even know if the season would be played or who would be there. Then I knew I needed to make shots and be more aggressive. It's not in my nature to be a killer because I do have a conscience. When I miss shots I think, ‘OK, maybe I should look for someone else or dribble to someone to get them an open shot.' That's how I am built. I am not the one who says I am going to shoot it regardless with them hanging on my shoulders. That wasn't my game; maybe I should have tried. But never in my nature. Then I knew I needed to score. But then I hurt my back, my hips started to go. I had miles on me."
Kukoc was traded during the following season and seemed headed to the 2001 Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers before a late season trade. He retired after the 2005-06 season after playing in Atlanta and Milwaukee. And now he's immortalized in Springfield.