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The Toni Award
Alexander Wolff
June 22, 1992
At 23, Toni Kukoc, a 6'10" guard, is already Europe's best player and a prize coveted by the Chicago Bulls
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June 22, 1992

The Toni Award

At 23, Toni Kukoc, a 6'10" guard, is already Europe's best player and a prize coveted by the Chicago Bulls

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The Videocassette goes by the idiomatically impaired English title of Enjoy Like Me, and the star, who calls himself Kuki, lends the video scant credibility by gracing its cover. Kuki is skinny to the point of apparent malnourishment. He is flashing a doofus grin, balancing a basketball on two fingers and wearing a sweatshirt that says DRIBBLING. The cover photo is cut off just below the waist, but you suspect that if it weren't it would reveal Kuki wearing black socks and running shoes and carrying a tote bag embroidered with the heraldry of Liechtenstein's national team.

No, you're told, Kuki is a Croat. And this clinches it, for you know all about Yugoslav basketball players. In two NBA seasons the singular achievement of the Boston Celtics' Stojko Vrankovic, Red Auerbach's latest human cigar, has been to make Henry Finkel seem like Bill Russell. If Vlade Divac's body isn't going on or coming off the Los Angeles Lakers' disabled list, his head is. Zarko Paspalj chain-smoked through his single season with the San Antonio Spurs, logging 181 minutes in 28 games in 1989-90. And while Drazen Petrovic finally proved he can knock down an NBA jump shot, it took his going to the New Jersey Nets to find the playing time to prove it. EuroHoops? EurnoFool.

But you pop the tape into the VCR anyhow. You are not pleased to discover it is narrated in Croatian and set to a sound track of dreadful Dalmatian lounge music. Whereupon the images begin flickering across your screen.

Swat! That's Patrick Ewing's shot Kuki just sent into the stands during a 1991 McDonald's Open game between Pop 84 Split and Ewing's New York Knicks. Swoosh! An adolescent Kuki bottoms out the first of 11 three-pointers he will make in another game—and an American team, on its way to losing to Yugoslavia in the 1987 World Junior Championships, is looking for shelter from the hailstorm. Zip! Pass after pass sails past, over and through oblivious Israelis, Greeks, Spaniards and even a few New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, always into the hands of some teammate perfectly positioned to score.

Boom! Kuki teaches another lesson to a master, stripping Maurice Cheeks, then with the Knicks, and gliding in for a breakaway slam. Soon Kuki is slamming some more: assaulting the hoop, gobbling up ground with loping strides, throwing down dunk after dunk, including an afterthought jam in which he approaches the basket along the baseline, leaps up and on by, then insouciantly whips the ball back through at the last possible instant. Goodness, you mutter to yourself. All that, and he has a face that would put dollar signs in Wesley Snipes's eyes.

By the time the video has run its 24-minute course, you are left with the daunting task of deciding whether Kuki, more formally Toni Kukoc (pronounced KOO-kotch), is the rest of the world's Michael, or its Magic, or its Larry. In the broad contours of his wealth and celebrity he seems most like Jordan, who starred in a video with the somewhat similar title of Come Fly with Me. Kukoc enjoys a five-year, $13 million personal-services contract with Italian clothing magnate Gilberto Benetton, who essentially loans Kukoc out to his basketball team in Treviso. The deal is larded with such perks as a Lancia sedan and a villa set in a wooded park. Benetton, having evidently decided that ads depicting smooching clerics and Technicolor condoms can sell only so many sweaters, hopes Kukoc's homegrown likability will connect in Eastern Europe, where millions of young torsos are as yet unswathed in laughably expensive clothing.

In action, however, there seems to be rather more Magic to Kukoc. He plays as if the game is his party and the ball a tray of canapés. At 6'10", he can be effective anywhere on the floor. And he lets his lighthearted disposition run free. "He's a joker by nature," says his father, Ante, an engineer at the shipyard in the Adriatic port city of Split, where Kukoc grew up. "And he jokes when he plays. A game really is a game." Just as Magic so thoroughly reinterpreted our notion of the well-rounded player that we invented a new stat, the triple double, to do him justice, Kukoc is threatening to ratchet up the Continental game's standards anew. He has turned in several quadruple doubles, like the 19-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist, 10-blocked-shot line he dropped on the Italian national team in 1991.

Yet Kukoc, who is only 23, is rara avis enough to merit comparison to the young Larry. He has that Bird-like ability to make everyone around him better. When Benetton Treviso won the Italian League title last May, Vinny Del Negro, someone you may have heard of, led the team in scoring. When Pop 84 Split won the 1991 European Club title, Zoran Savic, someone you probably haven't heard of, led the team in scoring. When Yugoslavia won the 1990 Goodwill Games title, Jurij Zdovc, someone you have only heard of when you've heard someone sneeze, led the team in scoring. The point is that all of these titles—and the 1990 world championship, the '89, '90 and '91 European championships and virtually every cup, saucer or sundry other piece of international flatware Toni has taken home during his short career—can be attributed to Kukoc's exercising his full and subtle range of talents. You could even argue that he deserves at least a footnote's worth of credit for the Chicago Bulls' 1991 NBA crown, given how management's energetic courtship of him prodded the Bulls into proving that they didn't need any imported help.

The only commodity Kukoc seems to lack is strength. His 210 pounds are spread thinly over a shoulderless frame. "Strength is not necessary for his style," says Ante Vuckovic, who covers basketball for the Split daily Slobodna Dalmacija. "His game is invention. And he is the best man, yes? The best human. He has only friends, nothing else."

Why, then, did the young men who play for the Bulls not want to be his friends? Why did they cluck and scowl and think the worst of the idea that he might play with them? When he lines up at the Barcelona Olympics against Jordan and Scottie Pippen—if any team might give the U.S. a test at the Games, Croatia could be the one—Kuki will look at them and wonder why.

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