Chicago Bulls legend Toni Kukoc will be immortalized in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. Kukoc was voted in by the Hall of Fame’s International Committee. Michael Jordan and Jerry Reinsdorf will be Kukoc’s co-presenters at the induction ceremony.
Kukoc’s Bulls career was a bit of a roller coaster, with a rocky start, some incredible highs and then a rather unceremonious ending. A lefty phenom out of Split, Croatia, late Bulls general manager Jerry Krause became enamored with Kukoc and used the 29th pick in the 1990 NBA Draft on him.
Kukoc stayed in Europe for several years and didn’t join the Bulls until after Jordan retired the first time in 1993. Before that, Jordan and Pippen infamously had it out for the youngster due to Krause’s very open admiration for Kukoc and because money set aside for him affected Pippen’s own contract negotiations, which helped result in a less-than-ideal contract for MJ’s superstar sidekick.
The first 1992 Olympic showdown between Jordan and Pippen’s Dream Team and Kukoc’s Croatia is the stuff of legends, with the Bulls stars making it a point to humiliate Kukoc. The young forward only managed four points, but what’s often left out of this tale is that he did bounce back nicely with 16 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the gold-medal game rematch.
There was more drama with Pippen in Kukoc’s rookie season (he made the All-Rookie Second Team) when Phil Jackson drew up a game-winning shot attempt for the rookie instead of Pippen in the playoffs against the New York Knicks. Pippen was so pissed he benched himself while Kukoc drilled the game-winning shot:
Pippen was almost traded that summer, but the deal wasn’t made and Jordan ultimately came back the next season. While Jordan and Pippen continued to give Kukoc a hard time because of Krause, the partnership obviously wound up being extremely fruitful.
Kukoc won Sixth Man of the Year during the 72-win season and was the Bulls’ third-leading scorer with averages of 13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 49.0% from the field and 40.3% from 3-land. He put up similar averages across the rest of that second three-peat, though he was never as efficient as he was in that 1995-96 season.
Speaking of the three-peat, one of the more memorable Kukoc moments was when he put the finishing touches on the 1997 title, throwing down a dunk after a Pippen steal on an inbounds pass. That, of course, came after Jordan’s clutch assist to Steve Kerr:
In The Last Dance season, Kukoc saved the Bulls’ ass in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, scoring 14 points in the third quarter to help them advance to the 1998 NBA Finals. Kukoc nearly led the Bulls to the title in Game 5 of those Finals against the Jazz with 30 points, but MJ missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lose. Of course, things ended much better in Game 6.
Kukoc stuck around for a little after the breakup of the dynasty, averaging 18.8 points in 44 games during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. He led an awful Bulls team in scoring, rebounds and assists. He then played 24 games for the Bulls in the 1999-2000 season before getting traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in a three-team deal that brought John Starks to Chicago (YUCK).
The rest of Kukoc’s career was rather nondescript, but he’ll always be a legend for what he accomplished with the Bulls. He was ahead of his time as a versatile 6-foot-11 forward who could handle the ball, be a legitimate secondary playmaker and shoot it from deep. He’s currently a member of the Bulls organization as a special advisor.
Here’s a good list from Sam Smith at Bulls.com on Kukoc’s best Bulls moments, and here’s a good highlight compilation from his career:
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