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Toni Kukoč opens up on 'overwhelming' Hall of Fame honor originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Last week, Toni Kukoč had just visited the Croatian gym where he played for Jugoplastika Split as a teenager when Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf called him with some exciting news.
Kukoč is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.
“Maybe it was in the script,” Kukoč said Sunday in a Zoom interview with NBC Sports Chicago from Croatia. “It was destiny.”
Maybe. But such a script would have to emphasize the sacrifices Kukoč made in leaving Europe, where he enjoyed one of the most dominant pre-NBA runs ever that included three EuroLeague championships and five European player of the year honors.
Such a script would have to feature the unknowns that pioneers like him — Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Dražen Petrović — had to navigate to help the globalization of basketball. It’s a path that today is normal, but wasn’t when Kukoč first came to the Bulls in 1993-94.
“We were the first wave of players that kind of decided to give it a shot, to try. It was something new. It was something that we didn’t know, maybe didn’t even understand,” Kukoč said. “We didn’t know what to expect. But we knew we were good basketball players.
“I think we were right. I think it was just the time. All of us in a way proved it. And I’m glad that we were pioneers.”
Kukoč's pioneering skills continued once he came to the Bulls. As one of the NBA’s first “stretch four” forwards that are now so commonplace, the 6-foot-11-inch Kukoč could dribble, pass and shoot from distance at a time such skills weren’t typically associated with big men.
The fact he accepted a bench role for the Bulls’ second three-peat teams, winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996, when his talent would have led him to starting — and starring — on lesser teams is also noteworthy.
“The first time I met Michael (Jordan) and Scottie (Pippen) was at the ‘92 Olympics in Barcelona and it wasn’t the greatest experience for me. And according to the first game, they were probably going, ‘Oh my gosh, do we really need him?’” Kukoč said, laughing. “But I ended up over the years I guess, actually right now I can say it being a Hall of Famer: I proved myself to them, I proved myself to the coaches, I proved myself to the fans of Chicago that I was worth taking a chance on.”
Indeed, Kukoč did. He overcame a difficult beginning that included the well-documented anecdote that he laughingly referred to from the 1992 Olympics.
Originally selected by general manager Jerry Krause in the second round of the 1990 NBA draft, Kukoč represented to the prideful Jordan and Pippen a Krause pet project that they wanted to destroy in those Games. Swarmed relentlessly by Jordan and Pippen defensively, Kukoč struggled mightily in his first meeting against the Dream Team.
Ultimately, Krause was right. And Kukoč delivered multiple times in the clutch, including hitting a game-winning shot against the New York Knicks in the 1994 playoffs when Pippen sat in protest of coach Phil Jackson not calling the last play for him, and scoring 14 points in the third quarter of Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals against the Pacers.
“It’s just a comfort to be a part of that team, a belief that the teammates and the coaching staff believes in me,” Kukoč said of his clutch gene. “I think that brings the maximum of every player when he feels like being part of the team. When the ball comes to your hand at the right time, they expect things from me. They know that I can do this. You give your max. And the right things happen at the right time.
“The only way to play with Michael and Scottie and Phil is they force you to practice hard to play hard, to give your max every single day just for those moments. So when those moments happen, I don’t want to say it’s expected. But in a way, it is. And you’re ready to perform.”
Kukoč called the Hall of Fame honor “overwhelming” and said he’s most happy that his parents, including the father who taught him his love of sports, are alive to share it with him. He’s currently visiting them in Croatia for the first time in two years because of the pandemic.
Kukoč joins Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Jackson, assistant coach Tex Winter and Krause in the Hall of Fame.
“Being a part of that team was just absolutely awesome,” he said.
He spoke about each fellow Hall of Famer.
On Jordan: “Just practicing with Michael every day helped me get to this position. I think he’s just the greatest of all time. And he’ll always be that. Not just because of his achievements, six (NBA) Finals, six championships and MVPs and all that. But the way he approached every single day, every single practice. It was something I’m glad I was a part of."
On Pippen: “Absolutely ultimate teammate. I would take him anywhere in any battle against anybody.”
On Rodman: “The same way as Scottie. Two guys that I always say that can help you on both ends. You can play blind with these two guys. They were so good, so unselfish.”
On Jackson: “Well, the Zenmaster. I loved how he tried to approach every individual as a human being, not as a basketball player. He would challenge you. He would find the kind words as well."
On Winter: “I love Tex. To me, the triangle offense is the best system I ever played in. It gives you so many options.”
On Krause: “It’s a person that believed in me, that insisted on bringing me to the Bulls. My hat is down to the floor to him for making me believe that I can get to the NBA.”
And then Kukoč paused when asked to give a scouting report on himself. Kukoč has a wicked sense of humor away from the spotlight, but he never has loved being the center of attention.
That will change come September when he stands on the stage in Springfield, Mass., at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. It’s a process that Kukoč laughingly said already has his legs turning to jelly.
But his answer about a scouting report on his own game should offer a glimpse of the selflessness you’ll hear then, the selflessness that fits nicely in the Hall of Fame.
“Basketball is a team sport. You gotta be ready to sacrifice your game and sacrifice yourself for the good of the team to make these achievements,” Kukoč said. “I was lucky or fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and have great coaches to teach me how to play the game and teach me the fundamentals of the game. I had absolutely unbelievable teammates in Europe as well as in United States. When all this comes together, I guess getting into the Hall of Fame is possible after all.”
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