Toni Kukoc: The Bulls Secret Weapon
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
ESPN recently announced that it would air it’s 10-part Chicago Bulls docuseries titled “The Last Dance” this April ahead of it’s scheduled June release. For older fans fortunate enough to see the Bulls supremacy play out in real-time, the documentary will drum up feelings of awe, nostalgia, and heartbreak as the filmmakers lift the veil over Michael Jordan and The Bulls decade of dominance. For younger viewers, the series will serve as a period piece of sorts providing a window into one of the game’s most beloved eras.
During the Bulls reign, Michael Jordan transformed from a sports figure into a cultural icon, with each passing championship validating his status as the world’s greatest. Sneakers, cartoons, movies; you name it, Jordan conquered it. Jordan even had a theme song, aptly titled “Be Like Mike.” Jordan’s on-court genius and flair for the theatrics only heightened his legend with his late-game heroics becoming immortalized across media on billboards, posters, and commercials.
Jordan has become a basketball institution, infallible and beyond reproach. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman receive their obligatory praise, but the pair’s singular contributions are rarely recognized, and the ancillary players have it even worse. Ron Harper was averaging 20 PPG 4.6 APG 6.1 RPG 1.9 SPG before going to Chicago, where he averaged 6.9 PPG 1.7 RPG 2.0 APG in his first season. These numbers weren’t a reflection of Harper’s ability but of his sacrifice. These side stories get lost in the box scores, which is why context is so important in storytelling.
Toni Kukoc’s Bulls story is one of sacrifice, a sacrifice that can’t be truly appreciated until you understand who Toni was before he joined the Bulls in the 93-94 season at the age of 25.
FIBA EuroBasket MVP (1991)
FIBA 50 Greatest Players (1991)
FIBA World Championship MVP (1990)
Euroscar POY (1990,1991)
Mister Europa POY (1990,1991,1992)
Euroleague Championship (1989,1990,1991)
Euroleague Final Four MVP (1990,1991,1993)
Euroleague Finals Top Scorer (1990)
Italian League Championship (1992)
Italian League Cup (1993)
Yugoslav Championship (1988,1989,1990,1991)
Yugoslav Cup Winner (1990,1991)
Toni Kukoc played his first five seasons for his hometown club KK Jugoplastika. Kukoc received national recognition for his performances on the international stage representing Yugoslavia in FIBA Junior World Championships, Goodwill Games, and the Olympic Games alongside future NBA starters Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. Standout performances against USA’s U-19 teams with Gary Payton, Larry Johnson, and Kenny Anderson legitimized Kukoc’s draft profile.
At 6’11, Kukoc played the game with the skill and sensibilities of a guard half his size. Kukoc leveraged his height on the interior, but he preferred maneuvering through defenses at the top of the key, putting his back to the basket, and using his size to peek and pick apart teams with his passing. In the modern NBA, his game compares favorably to Lamar Odom and Kyle Anderson, two versatile playmaking forwards who can compete on the blocks and facilitate an offense. Former Bulls GM Jerry Krause took Kukoc with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round of the 1990 NBA Draft. It would be another four seasons before Kukoc suited up for the Bulls.
In the four years between Kukoc’s draft night and game debut, Michael Jordan and the Bulls managed to 3 straight NBA championships, solidifying their status as an NBA dynasty. During the three-peat, there were rumors of behind the scenes rift between players, coaches, and the front office; contract disputes and trade demands became “par for the course” in Chicago.
Beneath all of that was a festering frustration with Krause’s pursuit of Kukoc. Jordan and Pippen didn’t particularly care for the amount of praise Krause heaped on the unproven international commodity. The tension boiled to the surface during the 1992 Summer Olympics. Jordan and Pippen took turns defending Kukoc, trying to embarrass the young forward and Krause by association, on the national stage. Bulls players weren’t ecstatic about the Kukoc joining roster and were even less excited about the possibility of him making more money than some of the team veterans.
When Kukoc finally made it Chicago, Michael Jordan had retired, and the Bulls dynasty seemed to be coming apart at the seams. There is no better example of this than when Scottie Pippen refused to play in the final minutes of a 1994 playoff game against the Knicks, but Coach Phil Jackson drew up the play for Toni Kukoc. Kukoc would go on to sink the game-winner, but internal strife was evident.
Kukoc would go on to earn an all-rookie team nod coming off of the bench, and by his second season, he established himself as the Bulls second-best player.
Kukoc’s time in the spotlight faded just as soon as it began when Michael Jordan announced he would be coming out of retirement. The Bulls lost Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong, went out and acquired Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper, the rest is basketball history.
Kukoc had to suppress the playmaking skills that made him an international legend, to complement the likes of Jordan and Pippen. Kukoc would go on to win 6th Man of the Year and add 3 NBA championships to his resume, but the NBA never got a chance to see “The Pink Panther” in all of his glory. Kukoc’s success in Chicago is not only a testament to Kukoc’s mental toughness and character but his basketball I.Q. and versatility.