Basketball fans have been treated to installments of ESPN’s 10-part documentary titled The Last Dance. So far, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman have been the focal points of these episodes.
While this trio certainly contributed to the Bulls’ second trio of titles, there were a few unsung heroes as well. One of those heroes was Toni Kukoc. He was interviewed in episode five this past weekend.
Long before Toni Kukoc came to the NBA, he was quite the success story overseas, especially with the national team of Yugoslavia, which was the international Dream Team of that time. Toni Kukoc’s list of accomplishments is too numerous for just one article. But this list of accolades should give you a better insight into how good of a basketball player Toni Kukoc was.
- FIBA Europe U18 Championship MVP (1986)
- FIBA U19 World Championship MVP (1987)
- Three-time Yugoslavian Sportsman of the Year (1989-1991)
- FIBA World Championship MVP (1990)
- 3-time EuroLeague Final Four MVP (1990-1991 and 1993)
- 2-time EuroLeague Final Four Team (1991 and 1993)
- 5-time Euroscar European Player of the Year (1990-1991, 1994, 1996, 1998)
- 4-time Mister Europa European Player of the Year (1990-1992, 1996)
- EuroBasket MVP (1991)
- FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players (1991)
- Franjo Bučar State Award for Sport (1992)
How good of a player was Toni Kukoc before he arrived in the NBA? Simply put, he was the overseas version of Magic Johnson. That in itself says a lot. But before we delve into his NBA career, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one little fact. Remember the group of USA players that was dubbed “The Dream Team” back in 1992? Well, that was largely due to the fact that the international players were dominating their USA counterparts in collegiate Olympic competition.
After enjoying so much success on every stage he played on, Toni Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993. He came into his own almost immediately. For example, he earned an All-Rookie Second Team selection after averaging 10.9 points per contest.
Over the next four seasons, Toni Kukoc never averaged less than 13 points and four assists per game. And he won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1995-96. That was the year the Bulls became the first team to win 70 games. If you thought Kukoc was just a regular-season player though, you’d be mistaken. In Game 3 of the 1994 eastern conference semifinals. Toni Kukoc hit the game-winning shot against the New York Knicks. Without his timely heroics, the Chicago Bulls would have been swept instead of losing the series in seven games.
Another instance in which Toni Kukoc proved to be invaluable to the Bulls’ postseason success was during the 1998 NBA playoffs. He averaged 15 points, 5.0 rebounds, and three assists per outing in a three-game set against the New Jersey Nets. The Bulls swept their opponent in that opening round. Kukoc showed up once again in the ECF against the Indiana Pacers. In Game 7, Kukoc scored 21 points, helping the Bulls advance to their sixth NBA Finals. His scoring output was second on the team behind Michael Jordan’s 28 points.
And in the six-game series against the Utah Jazz, Kukoc posted double figures in four of those contests. This includes a 30-point, six-rebound effort in Game 5, albeit in a losing effort. The Bulls eventually closed out the series in six games to win their sixth title in an eight-year span.
Even after the championship team was dismantled, Toni Kukoc averaged 18.8 and 18.0 points per contest during his final two seasons in Chicago. In 13 NBA seasons, he compiled averages of 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per contest. On the surface, some may argue that those aren’t Basketball Hall of Fame numbers.
But every story has two sides, and this scenario is no exception. Toni Kukoc, along with Vlade Divac Dino Radja, Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, and Drazen Petrovic helped international players make their presence felt. Even though their style of play wasn’t readily accepted initially.
“Now almost half the league are internationals. We had to fight for our time, for the way we played. But if you look at how basketball has evolved, it’s more the game that suits us now, passing, transition, shooting. This is why Toni is one of the most important people who changed the game,” Vlade Divac said via NBA.com. Out of those players, Toni Kukoc is the only one that hasn’t been enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Beyond the stat sheet, Toni Kukoc was an All-Star quality player even before he arrived in the NBA. Furthermore, Kukoc willingly sacrificed his talents to play on a winning team. Given the accolades on his basketball resume, that couldn’t have been easy to do.
His inclusion into the Hall of Fame continues to be debatable in some circles. What is a certainty is that Toni Kukoc has succeeded at every stage of his basketball career. He is one of the best European players of all time. He was a vital piece to three championship teams. Furthermore, Kukoc was also a crucial part of the international players that changed the way NBA games are played today.
Simply put, Toni Kukoc should be in the Hall of Fame. Here’s to hoping that happens sooner rather than later.
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