Athleticism is a general skill, meaning athletes often show promise at several sports. For example, Lakers star LeBron James was a stellar high-school football player. Many analysts agree he likely could’ve built a successful NFL career. Former Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc, who won three titles with Michael Jordan, also played several sports as a youth.
Let’s look at Kukoc’s development as an athlete and competitor, his introduction to basketball, and his success in the NBA.
A sporting youth
Kukoc was born and raised in the country of Croatia, then known as Yugoslavia. The sports gene ran in his family, with Kukoc’s father having played as a goalkeeper for a modestly ranked local soccer club. Yet Kukoc’s skill first manifested in a far different sport: table tennis, also known as ping pong.
Starting at the age of eight, Kukoc dedicated four years to the fast-paced game of reflexes. By the time he was 10, he was the champion of the coastal region of Dalmatia. While further successes could surely have followed, Kukoc instead developed a passion for soccer. By the time he was 11, he had earned a position on a competitive youth team.
Kukoc spent four years investing himself in the sport. By most accounts, he was a highly talented prospect. Yet adolescence saw Kukoc undergo several massive growth spurts until he attracted the attention of a basketball scout, who convinced him to try the sport. For a few years, Kukoc stuck with both sports, before devoting himself entirely to basketball.
A quick ascent in the EuroLeague
Kukoc honed his new basketball skills for just two years before joining his hometown team, KK Split. He soon also found himself playing on the Yugoslavian national team, alongside Kukoc were three other future NBA players in Vlade Divac, Dražen Petrović, and Dino Radja. Despite Kukoc’s young age, the team enjoyed enormous success.
They won the FIBA European Champions Cup in three straight seasons, from 1989-1992. In two of these championships, Kukoc walked away with MVP honors. The team also captured a silver medal at the 1988 Olympics. Most regard the collection of talent on that Yugoslavian national team one of the greatest of all time.
Kukoc himself agrees, reports Narratively: “I would certainly say that the ex-Yugoslavian team with Vlade, Dražen, Dino and myself, that was probably the best team, I would say besides the 1992 Dream Team, in the whole world.”
Kukoc also played in the Italian league, helping his team Benetton Treviso win the Italian League championship in 1992. He won EuroLeague Final Four MVP honors in 1993, while racking up huge individual numbers.
Toni Kukoc enters the NBA
The Chicago Bulls had drafted Kukoc back in 1990, only to keep him stashed overseas for several more years. He finally made the leap to the NBA in 1993, soon finding his way into the Bull’s starting lineup. In his rookie year, the 6’10” forward averaged 10.9 points, four rebounds, and 3.4 assists. Those numbers climbed steadily over the following years.
So did Kukoc’s role on the Bulls. He was a core part of the team’s championship run from 1996-98. He also won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996. Kukoc’s skill and basketball IQ enabled him to stick around the league all the way until the 2005-06 season.
Over the course of his time in the NBA, he put up averages of 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game, while building one of the best all-time careers of any international player.