As millions of people saw on The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and pretty much everyone on the 1992 Dream Team put a bullseye on the back of Croatian phenom Toni Kukoc at the Barcelona Olympics. Kukoc was seen as one of the best players in the world outside of the NBA and Jordan and Pippen specifically had an issue with him because Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause seemed more concerned with getting Kukoc, who had been drafted by the Bulls in 1990, to the Windy City before taking care of Pippen’s contract.
But Jordan and Pippen may have never even gotten the chance to torment their future teammate had Kukoc not beaten down the United States for years playing for a country that doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s long been said that the Dream Team was created to showcase the brilliance of American basketball. In reality, it’s because the U.S was tired of being outplayed by one of the best teams that the world has forgotten, the Yugoslavian national team that featured Toni Kukoc and a plethora of NBA talent that changed the game of basketball forever.
Toni Kukoc dominated Team USA in 1987 for Yugoslavia
Decade after decade after decade, the United States dominated the game of basketball at the international level. Outside of a controversial loss to the Soviet Union in Munich in the championship game in 1972, the Americans had won every gold medal at the Olympics from 1936 to 1984, the year in which Michael Jordan won his first gold. But the tide was beginning to turn. Eastern Europe, namely Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, were building talented rosters in order to combat the Americans’ dominance of the sport and Toni Kukoc was a major part of that.
At the 1987 FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Italy, Yugoslavia beat the United States not once, but twice. In group play, Kukoc scored 37 points in Yugoslavia’s 110-95 win. And this wasn’t a ragtag group of guys for the U.S. This was a team that, among numerous other future pros, featured future NBA All-Stars Gary Payton and Larry Johnson. But Kukoc had help himself in the form of future NBA stars Vlade Divac and Dino Radja.
When the two teams met again in the gold medal game, Yugoslavia once again came out on top, 86-76. This time, it was Divac leading the way with 21 points. Toni Kukoc was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, one of numerous awards he received throughout his career in Europe.
The U.S. won a disappointing bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul
The year after losing to Yugoslavia, the U.S. took their national team to Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympics, once again expecting to take home the gold. But they were in for yet another surprise. As Toni Kukoc helped lead Yugoslavia to the medal game, joined this time by longtime national team member Drazen Petrovic, the United States never made it that far as they were beaten in the tournament semifinals by a Soviet Union team that featured Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, 82-76. The Soviets would actually upset Yugoslavia in the gold medal game while the U.S. settled for the bronze by defeating an Australian game that had a young Luc Longley on the roster.
Toni Kukoc & Co. again beat the U.S. at the FIBA World Championships in 1990
After the disappointing bronze medal in Seoul, the U.S. figured they would re-establish their dominance at the FIBA World Championships in 1990. This was a loaded roster featuring the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, and Kenny Anderson. And it still wasn’t good enough.
Toni Kukoc & Co. avenged their 1988 loss to the Soviets by destroying them in group play, 100-77, and then again in the championship game, 92-75. In the semifinals of the tournament, Yugoslavia dashed the title hopes of the United States, beating them by eight, 99-91. Drazen Petrovic was on fire that game, scoring 31 points while Kukoc added 19. It wasn’t long after this loss that discussions began about using NBA players in international competition.
The Yugoslavian team’s legacy is undeniable
Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, and Dino Radja were all drafted into the NBA and all performed well for their respective teams over the years. Dino Radja averaged 16.7 points in four seasons with the Boston Celtics. Vlade Divac changed the way centers played the game. Drazen Petrovic was on his way to an amazing NBA career before he was tragically killed in a car accident in 1993. Toni Kukoc obviously went on to join Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and won three titles with the Bulls.
Unfortunately, Yugoslavia dissolved before the 1992 Olympics so we never got the chance to see the full unit play against the Dream Team, the team that was created in part because of them. USA Basketball was tired of being embarrassed and brought in the pros to take care of the problem, which they obviously did by beating Kukoc and Croatia in the gold medal game, although Croatia was actually leading that game midway through the first half, which “The Last Dance” failed to mention.
The Yugoslavian national team did so much for the game of basketball and is one of the main reasons that so many great international players have made their way to the NBA, which has only made the game better as a whole.