Toni Kukoc had a fairly successful NBA career. He was the third option for three championship teams, was the Sixth Man of the Year in 1996, and was a true pioneer—both as part of the first wave of the Euro invasion in the NBA and as one of the first true stretch 4s in the league. Among European players, only Tony Parker has more rings than Kukoc. But with modest career averages of 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists, zero All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections, it must be clarified that he is being inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame by the international committee, not the NBA (an important distinction in the silly GOAT “debate”).
Thanks to the Last Dance, people learned that Kukoc was a star in Europe, the “Lefty Magic,” who had Bulls GM Jerry Krause openly salivating over him to the chagrin of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Dream Team’s preliminary round match against Croatia is part of the Jordan lore—the “Kukoc Game”—with MJ and Pip taking turns to shut down Kukoc, who finished the game with only four points on 2-of-11 shooting and seven turnovers. But one of my criticisms of the Last Dance is that it blew the opportunity to build on Kukoc’s character. Pippen, Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, and even Steve Kerr got their turns, but Kukoc was arbitrarily sidelined. It only briefly mentioned that Kukoc fared better in the gold medal game, finishing with 16 points and 9 assists.
To the docu-series’ credit, it debunked the perception that Kukoc was soft, alluding to the turbulent events happening at Kukoc’s homeland of Croatia at that time. But it was fleeting and lacked any follow through. When Kukoc animatedly said “They didn’t know me,” I felt that the statement could’ve been deconstructed on different layers. It could have been a jumping point to show that he was not only NBA-ready, but had the grit and toughness that the Bulls would eventually need in 1998. He filled in for Pippen after Pip decided to delay surgery until close to the season opener and he took over starting duties from the distracted Rodman in the playoffs. His crucial role in Game 7 against the Pacers and how he stepped up as the Bulls’ second option in the last 2 games versus Utah were likewise conspicuously glossed over.
Instead, the lingering memory of Kukoc from the Last Dance remains to be that he was Jerry’s boy, this guy whom the Bulls offered more money than Pippen. Looking back, the whole thing was preposterous given how Pippen’s and Kukoc’s NBA careers would play out. But here’s the wrinkle: Krause was right, except that everything happened 30 years too early.
To say that Kukoc was a star in Europe is an understatement. People romanticize about the late Drazen Petrovic and ponder what if Arvydas Sabonis joined the NBA during his prime, but Kukoc was already more accomplished by the age of 23. He was a 3-time EuroLeague champion, 3-time EuroLeague Final Four MVP, 2-time EuroBasket champion, EuroBasket MVP, FIBA World Championship gold medalist, and World Championship MVP.
He was a hoops prodigy who was not really a stretch 4 in Europe—he was actually a point forward. His game reminds me of the only other wunderkind whose achievements in Europe at a young age rival Kukoc’s: Luka Doncic. Toni Kukoc was Luka Doncic before Luka Doncic, a taller one at that.
Kukoc was a brilliant scorer, a crafty finisher around the rim with a deadeye from long-range. As an 18-year-old, he lit up the US team led by future NBA all-stars Gary Payton and Larry Johnson and coached by Larry Brown for 37 points enroute to a 110-95 Yugoslavia win in the Under-19 World Championship MVP (Yugoslavia would go on to win the gold with Kukoc being named tournament MVP).
He was an exceptional ballhandler with great court vision, making full use of his 6’10” frame to spot open teammates. He wasn’t freakishly athletic but he was very agile for his size. He was the primary playmaker for his teams in Europe, and looking back at his pre-NBA highlights, one can’t help but see a bit of Luka in his game—or, more accurately, a bit of Toni in Luka’s game.
He was pretty clutch, too. He hit the game-winning shot in the infamous Pippen Sit-Out Game, but as the Last Dance reminded us, he already made multiple game-winners that year which justified Phil’s play call. It’s crazy that he actually had more game-winners as a rookie than Doncic has for his career.
The combination of size, shot-making, ballhandling, and basketball IQ would have made Kukoc a superstar in today’s NBA. Unfortunately, he came into the NBA at a time when big guys were expected to play inside. When he joined the Bulls, he was forced to play power forward for the first time in his life. “I had to change my game completely. I was what Scottie was. What he was doing here I was doing in Europe,” Kukoc said “Michael, Scottie, and Dennis didn’t change. Instead of someone saying, ‘OK, I trust you, it was Tex telling me, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t dribble.’ Then I hit a couple of shots and he says we need more of that.” Lost in the drama of the Last Dance was how Kukoc sacrificed his game to become a role player despite being Europe’s brightest superstar.
In the end, ‘The Waiter’ never left anything on the table. He’s made it clear that he has no regrets, and he’s now headed to Springfield. But one can’t help but wonder if the table just wasn’t ready to be served for another 30 years.