Toni Kukoc was arguably one of the most underrated NBA players of the 1990s, despite being a part of the Chicago Bulls‘ second three-peat from 1996-1998.
Looked at by many as the top player in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kukoc was drafted by the Bulls with the 29th overall pick in the 1990 draft. However, he remained in Europe for a few years and didn’t come to the NBA until 1993, right after Michael Jordan decided to step away from the game of basketball the first time to try his hand at baseball.
Jordan and Bulls teammate Scottie Pippen actually had a big problem with Kukoc and targeted him specifically in the 1992 Summer Olympics while with the Dream Team. Pippen specifically felt that he was being disrespected by Bulls’ management as it seemed that bringing Kukoc to America was more important than getting him a new contract. Nevertheless, Kukoc made his way to Chicago and became an integral part of Chicago’s second three-peat run, making his mark on the game and earning the respect of those around him.
Here’s a look back at the career of Toni Kukoc and what the three-time champion is up to these days.
Toni Kukoc made a name for himself in Europe
As Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were helping the Chicago Bulls become a true contender in the NBA in the late 1980s, Toni Kukoc was making a name for himself as one of the best young players in Europe. He began playing for his hometown club, KK Jugoplastika, in Split, Croatia, in 1985 when he was just 17. Later nicknamed “the Croatian Sensation”, it didn’t take Kukoc long to find his stride.
In 1987, he was the MVP of the FIBA Under-19 World Cup tournament, leading the Yugoslavian team to victory. In 1988, he was a big part of the senior Yugoslavian national team that won the silver medal at the Olympics, the same year the United States won bronze. He later led that same team to a gold medal at the 1990 FIBA World Championship, defeating the U.S. in the semifinals, a team that included future NBA stars such as Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, and Kenny Anderson.
He also led his home country of Croatia to a silver medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics, losing to Jordan and Pippen’s Dream Team in the finals. He struggled in the team’s first game against the U.S., scoring just four points as MJ and Scottie hounded him, but he bounced back with a nice performance in the gold-medal game with 16 points and nine assists.
In addition to his success with numerous national teams, Toni Kukoc was also winning titles and accolades in the Euroleague. He won three consecutive titles from 1989-1991, winning Final Four MVP twice. He tacked on an additional Final Four MVP in 1993.
He was a big part of the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat
When Toni Kukoc finally joined the Chicago Bulls in 1993, Michael Jordan was gone and Scottie Pippen was now leading the team. There were some initial chemistry issues, including an instance where Kukoc was given the opportunity to take the final shot in a playoff game against the New York Knicks instead of Pippen, which prompted Scottie to remain on the bench. Kukoc drilled the shot but the Bulls eventually lost the series. Kukoc earned All-Rookie Second Team honors that season, averaging 10.9 points per game.
Toni Kukoc continued to excel in his second year in Chicago, upping his scoring average to what would turn out to be a career-high 15.7 points per game. When Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls in 1995, Kukoc obviously took more of a backseat in the scoring department but became a vital part of the franchise over the next few seasons. He won Sixth Man of the Year in 1995-1996 when Chicago went 72-10 and beat the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals, Kukoc’s first title. For the next two seasons, Kukoc was the team’s third-leading scorer behind Jordan and Pippen as the Bulls won two more championships before being disbanded ahead of the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
With Jordan once again gone from the game and Scottie Pippen traded to Houston, Toni Kukoc led the Chicago Bulls in scoring, assists, and rebounding in 1999. He left the Windy City the next season, traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. He then spent parts of two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and four seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks before retiring from the game in 2006. In 846 career NBA games, Toni Kukoc averaged 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game.
Where is Toni Kukoc today?
So many great international players from that Yugoslavian team have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and it’s a crime that Toni Kukoc hasn’t joined them yet. He is, however, a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame and deservedly so. His success at the international level and, in turn, in the NBA helped pave the way for other European stars to make their way to the league. But Kukoc has enjoyed retirement despite not receiving his well-earned induction.
Kukoc is an accomplished golfer and won Croatia’s amateur championship in 2011. But he has also remained a big part of the Chicago Bulls as a Special Advisor to owner Jerry Reinsdorf. While he often doesn’t receive the attention and recognition he deserves, Toni Kukoc was a special piece of the Chicago Bulls puzzle and will hopefully get some nice screen time during “The Last Dance” documentary that premieres this Sunday on ESPN.