MANILA, Philippines – Toni Kukoc was a pivotal member of the Chicago Bulls during their NBA title three-peat from 1996 to 1998.
In those 3 championship runs, the Croatian sensation established himself as one of the Bulls’ offensive options next to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, norming double digits in points in those fruitful seasons.
But before he experienced immense success in the NBA, Kukoc had to earn his stripes, owing to the fact that his addition to the team was not particularly welcomed by the Bulls’ top two superstars.
Back in Europe, Kukoc was as good as it could get.
Kukoc helped lead his hometown team Split to 3 straight EuroLeague titles from 1989 to 1991 and captured the EuroLeague Final Four MVP plum in all 3 seasons.
When Croatia was still a part of Yugoslavia, Kukoc and Split ruled the Yugoslav League for 4 consecutive seasons from 1988 to 1991.
In between those championships, Kukoc took home the MVP award in the 1990 FIBA World Championships as Yugoslavia, which also featured legends Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac, bagged the crown.
His talent and success in Europe caught the attention of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who saw Kukoc as the future of the franchise.
Determined to acquire the versatile 6-foot-10 forward, Krause used the Bulls’ lone pick in the 1990 NBA Draft to acquire Kukoc at No. 29 overall.
Kukoc, though, did not join the Bulls for the next 3 seasons as he decided to stay in Europe at a time when Croatia was seceding from Yugoslavia, which sparked a civil war in the country.
But Krause did not stop chasing Kukoc, with the executive flying to Europe to persuade the Croatian to come to the USA and play for the Bulls.
Apparently, Krause courting Kukoc rubbed some Bulls players the wrong way, specifically Jordan and Pippen.
By the end of the 1991-1992 NBA season, the Bulls had already won back-to-back titles with Jordan and Pippen leading the way for a budding dynasty.
Despite witnessing the team he built lord over the NBA, Krause still pursued Kukoc, further irking Jordan and Pippen.
Both superstars were known to have butted heads with Krause, and with the 1992 Olympics looming, they found the perfect time to prove him wrong.
As Jordan says in Episode 5 of The Last Dance, Krause “was willing to put someone in front of his actual kids who had given him everything that we could give him.”
With the Dream Team facing Croatia in its second Olympic match, Jordan and Pippen ensured to make life a living hell for Kukoc, who had no idea about the awkward situation involving the Bulls’ key figures.
Pestered by two of the best defensive players in the world, Kukoc scored only 4 points on a paltry 2-of-11 shooting clip and coughed up 7 turnovers in 34 minutes as USA gave Croatia a sound 103-70 beating.
The message to Krause was loud and clear.
“We were not playing against Toni Kukoc, we were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatian uniform,” Jordan says in the documentary The Dream Team.
Unfazed by his disappointing showing, Kukoc flaunted what Krause was raving about and delivered 16 points, 9 assists, and 5 rebounds in the gold-medal match against the USA.
Yes, the Dream Team clobbered Croatia, 117-85, but Kukoc earned the respect of the Bulls’ top dogs.
After the Bulls completed their first three-peat in 1993, Kukoc finally left Europe and signed with the team.
His arrival, however, coincided with Jordan temporarily retiring from the NBA, leaving the Bulls without their best player in their quest for a fourth straight title.
Still, Kukoc proved he was worthy of the hype surrounding him as he averaged 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists during his first year to help the Bulls reach the playoffs behind a 55-27 record.
He also established himself as clutch performer early in his NBA career by hitting multiple game-winners in his rookie season, the most notable of which was in Game 3 of the conference semifinals against the New York Knicks.
With 1.8 ticks left, Kukoc drilled in a heavily contested jumper from the top of the key as the Bulls avoided falling into a 0-3 hole with a gritty 104-102 win.
Thanks to his heroics, the Bulls forged a Game 7 against the Knicks, but they eventually ran out of steam and got the boot following a 10-point loss.
When Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995, Kukoc had to take the back seat offensively, but instead of struggling, he thrived in his new role.
He even clinched the Sixth Man of the Year honors when the Bulls set an erstwhile NBA record 72 regular season wins and won the championship in 1996.
Kukoc played for the Bulls until 2000 before seeing action for the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, and Milwaukee Bucks in an NBA career spanning 15 seasons. – Rappler.com
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