With retirement looming, Kukoc deserves some praise
Posted: Tuesday September 19, 2006 2:02AM; Updated: Tuesday September 19, 2006 11:05AM
Forward Toni Kukoc (left) was part of three title teams with Michael Jordan in Chicago before being dealt to Philadelphia in 2000.
Have a question or comment for Kelly Dwyer? Submit it here.
Toni Kukoc is still waiting to see if either the Milwaukee Bucks or the Chicago Bulls want to make him a late roster addition, but the 6-foot-11 forward has made it clear he plans to call it quits soon enough.
This would hardly be a blow to teams hoping to secure his services -- the soon-to-be 38-year-old averaged only 4.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 15.7 minutes per game with the Bucks last year -- but it would close the book on one of the more remarkable careers we've seen over the last 20 years.
Kukoc wasn't the first European player of significance to make the jump to the NBA. Sarunas Marciulionis, Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac had each plied their trade Stateside for several years before Kukoc's 1993 debut. And Kukoc was hardly the best European import we've seen; MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki has them all beat in that regard.
What Kukoc was able to accomplish, a trait that may have set him apart from the rest, was his ability to translate his international-style play into a skill set perfect for NBA ball. Kukoc succeeded in showcasing European basketball on the NBA stage, keeping his teammates and coaches happy (most of the time, at least) without betraying his own sense of style and abilities. This isn't to say there weren't numerous roadblocks and near-pratfalls along the way that rivaled even his most satisfying accomplishments.
Tipped off by his European scout Ivica Dukan, Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause made securing Kukoc's rights a significant priority after selecting him in the second round of the 1990 draft. The Bulls had yet to win a championship at that point, and Krause's near-obsessive courting of a player whom international scouts compared to Magic Johnson rubbed current Bulls such as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the wrong way.
Already resentful of Krause's role on the team, Pippen and Jordan made a point to make life miserable for Kukoc in their matchup with Croatia during the gold-medal game at the 1992 Olympics, hounding their future teammate defensively even with the U.S. win assured.
Things didn't get any easier upon Kukoc's introduction to Chicago in October 1993. His arrival came just days before Jordan's initial retirement from basketball, and the rookie-to-be could be spied weeping quietly off to the side of the podium where Jordan made his announcement.
Starting only eight games in his rookie year, Kukoc was still a revelation. He easily outran most of his power-forward counterparts and seemed to see the court better than most of the game's veteran point guards. Even as coach Phil Jackson harped on his every move, Kukoc feigned translation issues and continued apace, averaging 10.9 points, four rebounds and 3.4 assists while playing 24.1 minutes a game. Even without Jordan, Chicago still won 55 games, two off the pace of the championship season a year earlier.
Though his minutes dwindled a bit in the playoffs, Kukoc still made noise by winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with an arching 20-footer as time expired. The shot is best known for the chaos that led up to it: Pippen, exasperated by a lunkheaded play Kukoc had made during an offensive possession just seconds before, sat out the final 1.8 seconds in protest after Jackson called the final shot for Kukoc. Chicago eventually lost to the Knicks in seven games.