Croatia has unearthed some amazing basketball players over the years, and one that sticks in my mind is Toni Kukoc. Taken by the Chicago Bulls with the 29th pick of the 1990 draft, Kukoc didn’t actually play for the Bulls until 1993-94 season. This unfortunately for Kukoc, was the season that Michael Jordan had decided to retire, following his 3 straight championships for the Bulls.
Kukoc stood at 6 “10” and with his first season at Chicago, it didn’t take him long to make his presence felt. Coming off the bench Kukoc averaged 10.9 points per game and 3.4 assists during his rookie season. His stats would rise dramatically again in his second season with the Bulls, lifting his scoring average to 15.7 points per game and 4.6 assists.
Enter the full return of Michael Jordan! Starting the 95-96 season, Jordan was back and coach Phil Jackson knew he had someone special in Kukoc coming off the bench. For a big man, Kukoc could not only shoot the basketball, but had sensational vision and passing abilities. He could glide up and down the court making passes even Magic Johnson would be proud of. The Bulls would go on to win the championship that year setting what would be a long standing NBA record of 72-10. Kukoc played such a crucial role that year, that he won the NBA 6th man of the year award, and was the Bulls 3rd leading scorer.
Click the link to see Kukoc’s shooting and passing skills:
The following two seasons would see the Bulls complete a 3-peat of Championships, and for Toni Kukoc, it meant redemption on a personal level for missing the first 3-peat. His stats would be consistent across the championship years with averages of around 13 points and 4 assists per game. With the second retirement from Michael Jordan at the end of the 97-98 season, the Bulls would need a man to fill the void during the 98-99 season. Kukoc would demonstrate that he was more than capable by leading the Bulls in scoring, rebounding and assists.
The Chicago Bulls would enter full re-build mode by the time the 99-00 season rolled around, which led to Kukoc being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. He would again be traded to the Atlanta Hawks the following year. Just to give you an idea of the skill set that Kukoc possessed, he averaged a career high 19.7 points and 6.2 assists for the Hawks during the 2000-01 season. After a short time at the Hawks, Kukoc was again traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he would remain for 4 seasons before retiring in 2006. There is no doubting that Toni Kukoc is one of the most iconic international players to make it onto the NBA hardwood. I vividly remember seeing the number 7 Chicago Bulls jersey being worn by kids in the mid 90s, which suggests that Kukoc had won the hearts of Bulls and NBA fans alike.
Kukoc had the nickname “the Croatian Sensation”.
Kukoc would face off against his former teammate Michael Jordan, when Kukoc was playing with the Atlanta Hawks and Jordan the Washington Wizards.