Before I begin, let me acknowledge some other foreign-born legends that have either proceeded Kukoc or played roughly around the same time. Some of these talents include Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis, the late great Drazen Petrovic, Detlef Schrempf, and Arvydas Sabonis (more on him later).
Also, who could forget the legendary Brazilian scorer (and now-Hall of Famer) Oscar Schmidt, who was essentially barred from the NBA for the most ridiculous of reasons (in hindsight) prior to shocking the United States in the 1987 Pan-American Games (starring David Robinson and an awkward cast of amateur American talents)? Okay, let’s begin.
Who Was Toni Kukoč?
He was known as The Croatian Sensation, The Waiter, Euro-Magic and even The Pink Panther, but who was Toni Kukoč?
I have a secret for you, dear reader. Excepting Dirk Nowitzki, Toni Kukoc is the greatest European-born player in NBA history. Yes, you read that correctly.
Born in Split, Croatia (then Yugoslavia) on 18 September 1968, Kukoč joined his local basketball team, Jugoplastika Split (now known as KK Split) at 17. From that point on, his international profile would only grow, after multiple Euroleague championships and MVP awards in the FIBA World Championships and Euroleague.
After being drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1990 and named one of FIBA Basketball’s 50 Greatest Players a year later, Kukoč would complete his dominance of international basketball competition with an Italian League Championship and corresponding Euroleague Final Four MVP in 1993. The following season, the man nicknamed “European Magic” would finally join the Chicago Bulls, where he would join forces with an ascendant Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and B.J. Armstrong, compiling an impressive 55-27 record in his first season with the team.
As a rookie reserve, Kukoč would turn heads (both in Chicago and throughout the league) with his versatile, position-less play [seriously, he played virtually every position for Phil Jackson that season], averaging 10.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, and 3.4 apg while shooting 43.1 FG% in 24.1 mpg. For his efforts, Kukoč was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team. But his rookie season’s highlight reel didn’t stop there—Kukoč began to introduce himself to NBA lore with a penchant for clutch play for a Bulls team sorely lacking an endgame closer. More on that later.
Usually, when rookies start their NBA careers with big shots and standout performances throughout the season, it’s a very good sign for the future.
Well…it was. Big time. Though rookies are expected to deal with inconsistency and some other hangups that typically come with the newly-encountered rigors of high-level professional competition, it should be noted that during Kukoč’s first season, the Bulls were 16-2 in games he scored 15 or more points. Considering that the Bulls lost more than 30 points a game when Michael Jordan retired before the season, Chicago could take any scoring they could get at that stage, and it would appear they struck gold with an impressive rookie like Kukoč. The future would be bright for the blossoming European forward, with or without MJ in uniform.
I think you know what happened next: Horace Grant left for Orlando in free agency and Kukoč was promoted to the starting lineup by Phil Jackson the following season (upping his numbers to 15.7 ppg, 5,4 rpg, 4.6 apg, and 1.3 spg in the process). Ah, yes, something else happened too. You might remember it.
Yes, Michael Jordan returned later on that season to drop 55 points on the Knicks, and the foundation for a new dynasty was officially laid. Thank Will Perdue for that.
During the Bulls’ legendary 72-10 run in 1995-96, Kukoč settled into his role as the team’s all-around star reserve behind Pippen and the newly-acquired Dennis Rodman, posting 13.1, ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.5 apg, and 49.0 FG% in 81 games. A noted improvement? Kukoč also raised his three-point shooting proficiency to 40.3%, his highest average to date. For his efforts, Kukoč would be named the 1995-96 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, finishing 21 votes ahead of rookie (at the time) Arvydas Sabonis.
The Bulls would win the NBA Championship that year, and would do so two more times in 1997 and 1998 before MJ’s second retirement and the subsequent disbanding of the Bulls. Pippen and Rodman would each head elsewhere, leaving only Kukoč and starting point guard Ron Harper to deal with the remains. Playing 44 out of a possible 50 games that season, Kukoč turned in his best statistical year with 18.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.3 apg, and 1.1 spg in a career-high 37.6 minutes per game. Unfortunately, that Bulls team was so depleted after 1998 that it didn’t matter. Seriously, they were BAD.
I wasn’t kidding. Not long afterwards, Kukoč would become a journeyman; the Bulls traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers 24 games into the 1999-2000 season; Philadelphia would trade him to Atlanta 48 games into 2000-2001; and Atlanta would ship him closer to home (Milwaukee) in August of 2002. He would finish his career with the Bucks at the end of the 2006 regular season, retiring after the Chicago Bulls showed no interest in bringing him back for one more year.
The Waiter’s Legacy
So what happened?
So why did I call Toni Kukoč the greatest non-Nowitzki European in NBA history? The answer is simple. Taking into account his accomplishments both in the NBA and abroad, there are few players that can approach what he’s done. The versatility that Kukoč was able to exhibit throughout his career, one can easily argue, was ahead of its time.
For a 6’11 forward to be able to run the floor and play multiple positions (including point guard) was unheard of, especially when he first set foot in the United States. In fact, prior to his arrival, the only ball handler conducting business with the flair Kukoč would exhibit before and after the 1990 NBA Draft was Magic Johnson.
No, seriously. That was it. I know for a fact that some of you reading this are going to point me to the wunderkind that was Arvydas Sabonis. In fact, to demonstrate to you my awareness, understanding, and appreciation of his game, I’ll even include a highlight reel of some of his best moments as a player.
Yes, Arvydas Sabonis was a man ahead of his time and an amazing player, and it’s an absolute shame that multiple injuries to his achilles tendons robbed him of the chance to bring his dominance over to the NBA. He was still a very productive player for the Portland Trail Blazers, but the truth of the matter is that his best days were likely overseas. You couldn’t say that about Toni Kukoč, however. His success was global, and he won championships in every major basketball league you could think of. So on top of being a talent, Kukoč was a winner, plain and simple.
Come to think of it, Kukoč actually went on to become a pretty solid golfer after his playing days officially ended! Go figure, right?
Koč Wars: The European Menace
The Waiter wasn’t just some skilled flash in the pan; he had been a big time player from the moment he set foot into the NBA.
As I said above, it’s easy to overlook the latent greatness of Kukoč because of the legends he played with in his 15 seasons [and because of his lack of All-Star selections], but what people don’t realize is that those Bulls teams wouldn’t have gotten out of a lot of the scrapes they found themselves in without Kukoč’s contributions. It wasn’t just Michael and Scottie winning games for those teams. In honor of the recently-released Star Wars sequel, we’ll divide these instances into episodes.
Episode I – The Rookie: It’s the 4th game of the season, and the Bulls are without Scottie Pippen for a road game in Milwaukee. Horace Grant was able to register a solid performance, with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists, but with Pippen out, the Bulls needed a lead man. Enter the European rookie soon to be known as “The Waiter.” As referenced in the video clip above, Kukoč would score 18 points, including a gutsy 28-footer with the Bulls down two with 1.9 seconds left. Bulls win.
Episode II – Christmas In Chicago: For the first time in ten years, Bulls fans are forced to rely on memories in order to see Michael Jordan (now retired) light up the scoreboard on Christmas Day 1993. While football has Thanksgiving, professional basketball has Christmas Day as one of the biggest days of the season. Though still a rookie, Toni Kukoč did not shy away from the spotlight. Though Pippen filled the stat sheet vs. a young Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic with an impressive 28 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals, the Bulls still sought a big shot-maker to fill the void created by MJ’s absence. Seventeen points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, and one game-winner later, Kukoč happily obliged.
Episode III – Take A Bow: Less than a month later, a dangerous Indiana Pacers team comes to Chicago to test the mettle of a team still finding its way after Michael Jordan’s retirement. The game was close throughout, until Reggie Miller broke free off a screen to put the Pacers ahead 95-93 with 0.8 seconds left. To add insult to injury, the always-heelish Miller decided to bow to the Chicago faithful on his way back to the bench, a chorus of boos following him the whole way back.
But The Waiter had other ideas. Receiving a well-placed inbounds pass from Pippen, Kukoč launched a three that banks home as the buzzer sounds. Bulls win. Miller’s celebration turns out to be a tad premature, and another strange irony takes place here–Pippen willingly inbounds the ball to Kukoč for the win, and celebrates with him. Let’s move to Episode IV to see what I mean.
Episode IV – Prime Time: It’s Game 3 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. Though the Bulls won 55 games that season, the favorite to win it all that season was the New York Knicks, and they looked every bit the part en route to a 2-0 series lead returning to Chicago. With Jordan busy playing baseball, Knicks fans everywhere figured this would be the year New York broke through; after all, without a closer, the Bulls would be doomed, right? Granted, the Knicks would ultimately win Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, but tonight, Knicks fears would continue to be realized. Despite a major comeback in the 4th to tie the score, it wasn’t meant to be that night for Ewing and the Knicks, and they had Toni Kukoč to thank for that.
This final shot would be by design—Phil Jackson’s to be exact. Given Kukoč’s late-game heroics throughout the season, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but not everyone was happy about that coaching decision…
Here’s a fun fact for you: During The Kukoč Era in Chicago, the Knicks won at The Waiter’s Restaurant just three times, two of those defeats coming in the depleted, abominable 1999 season, and the third coming at the end of the 1993-94 season.
Episode V – The Starter, Part I: It’s 1994-95, Kukoč’s second season, and The Waiter, thanks to the dramatic offseason departure of Horace Grant, is now inserted into the starting lineup alongside Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, and B.J. Armstrong. Before Michael Jordan’s eventual return from the basketball dead, it was Kukoč helping Scottie Pippen keep the Bulls’ ship afloat throughout 1994-95; in fact, before MJ’s arrival, Kukoč’s production was naturally higher, with averages of 16.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and 4.6 apg in 32.3 minutes a game. Kukoč’s 50.4 FG% was a considerable rise from his rookie shooting percentage of 43.1%, signaling an increase in efficiency over time.
Episode VI – December 17, 1996: The band is officially back together again. This evening, Scottie Pippen had a stat line to remember, with 35 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists. Shaquille O’Neal, newly christened as the Los Angeles Lakers’ next franchise center, came into town with a stacked roster of talent featuring Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell, and a skinny kid from Lower Merion High School (Philadelphia) named Kobe Bryant. Usually when one goes against five, it’s not good.
And it wasn’t. The Lakers led by 22 points at halftime and 18 points at the end of three quarters. Enter Toni Kukoč. To make up for a miserable 10-32 performance by Michael Jordan, Kukoč erupted for a season-high 31 points (18 of them in the fourth quarter), 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and 6-9 from the three-point line to ignite a thrilling Bulls comeback, eventually resulting in an exciting 129-123 overtime victory. Kukoč was also the one to hit the game-tying three with 47 seconds left in regulation.
It should also be noted here that this is one of my favorite regular season games of all time. Considering who was a part of this affair (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Kukoč, Kerr, Harper, Shaq, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, a young Kobe Bryant, an old Byron Scott, Elden Campbell, and so on), this game would essentially become a precursor to the “changing-of-the-guard” storyline NBC ran to death the next year year when MJ and Kobe faced each other three separate times. It also didn’t hurt that I adore both the 90s Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, but I suppose we can talk about that another time. I still have this game’s original airing stored somewhere in two versions (the Lakers’ home broadcast starring Chick Hearn and TBS’ feed starring Doc Rivers). Okay, this went on much longer than I wanted it to, and I’m sorry for that. Let’s just chill, and move to the next episode.
Episode VII – Back-To-Back: It’s Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan’s 39 points carried the Bulls vs. Utah throughout the night, and a Steve Kerr jumper with under 10 seconds to play put the Bulls up 88-86. But the Jazz had one more chance to tie the score, and Toni Kukoč would have the responsibility of pressuring the inbounder. Standing 6’11 and hopping wildly like a madman, Kukoč would force a misdirected pass into the waiting hands of Pippen, who would tip the ball back to a streaking Kukoč. The Waiter jubilantly slams home the finale at the buzzer and the Bulls win, 90-86, clinching the title and winning their first back-to-back titles since 1993.
Episode VIII – The Starter, Part II: During the 1997-98 regular season, with Pippen recovering from offseason foot surgery and Dennis Rodman being Dennis Rodman, would you venture to guess who served as MJ’s running mate until Pippen returned to help the Bulls to a 62-20 record? Yep, you guessed it! It was Toni Kukoč, starting 28 of those 34 games Pippen missed, and averaging 14.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.2 steals a game in the process. Definitely an able replacement for the best small forward of the 1990s on an interim basis.
Episode IX – The Last Ride: It’s Game 7 of the 1998 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls are on the ropes. The home team has won each game through the first six, and a determined cast of Indiana Pacers (Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Rik Smits, Dale Davis) coached by Larry Bird are on the verge of ending that particular winning streak. But not on Kukoč’s watch.
The Croatian Sensation would erupt for 15 third quarter points, propelling the Bulls to a hard-fought 88-83 victory and finishing with 21 points and 4 rebounds. If Kukoč doesn’t catch fire in the second half, it’s very likely that Indiana escapes with the upset. Jordan (9-25) and Pippen (6-18) were miserable from the field, and the only other players to score in double-figures aside from Steve Kerr.
Episode X – Close, But No Cigar: It’s Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals: Okay, the Bulls lost this one, setting up the now-legendary Game 6 involving the last shot by MJ that everyone remembers, but work with me here. Everyone—Michael included—shot horribly while Karl Malone finally decided to carry the Jazz the way he was supposed to. The Bulls lost 83-81, but Kukoč was the one that kept the game close the whole time with 11-13 shooting and a career playoff-high 30 points.
Episode XI – The Big Finish: You remember Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, but you might not remember that Pippen was a shell of himself [8 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 26 minutes] due to a back injury he suffered [or aggravated, depending on who you want to talk to] at the end of Game 3 of the Bulls-Bullets series. Kukoč was—again—MJ’s running mate, shooting 7-14 from the field (15 points) to Michael’s 45. The rest is history: Kukoč won his third championship, and the dynasty soon disbanded.
Episode XII – Passing The Torch: It is the year 2001 [23 January 2001, to be exact], three years removed from championship glory with the Bulls, and a few months into a season where Phil Jackson is, once again, a defending champion head coach, and Toni Kukoč is on a team seemingly destined to win the Eastern Conference Championship led by Allen Iverson, the game’s best scorer, at the time.
This time, the setting is Dallas, Texas, and the versatile forward is suddenly faced with the man who would become his successor–Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki. That evening, Kukoč turns back the clock and puts on a show for both Nowitzki and the Dallas crowd, scoring 25 points en route to a convincing Sixers victory. In many ways, this seemed symbolic–Kukoč’s career would wind down not long after this night, and Nowitzki’s would rapidly rise from this point on.
Episode XIII – Sixer, Interrupted: Once again, the setting is Philadelphia, and the MVP candidate and aspiring scoring champion in question is a six-foot guard named Allen Iverson. Prior to the trade which saw perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Dikembe Mutombo arrive in Philadelphia, Kukoč is finally finding a niche on a winning team for the first time since the Chicago years. On top of that, he is putting up impressive numbers. With starting center Theo Ratliff injured, Kukoč was asked to carry a heavier load for the Sixers.
The Waiter happily obliged for the next 16 games, stringing off averages of 20.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 6.4 apg in 36.7 mpg. But history tells us that Larry Brown and the Sixers front office, impatient with Ratliff’s recovery time, decided to ship out the center (as well as Kukoč) in exchange for Mutombo. At first glance, one would imagine this to be a brilliant trade; the Sixers might have landed themselves an All-Star defensive anchor in the middle, but eventually found themselves staring down a Los Angeles buzzsaw in June of that year, armed only with a volume-shooting Allen Iverson and a roster filled with scrappy role players, none of whom were talented enough to be a legitimate second scorer and playmaker.
Aaron McKie, the only other player after Iverson and Mutombo to average double-figure points for the Sixers that season, compounded Philly’s scoring problems by suffering a broken ankle in the Sixers’ Game 1 upset victory over the Lakers. Kukoč would go from an Eastern Conference contender to a lottery team in Atlanta, followed by Milwaukee, where he would finish his career.
Toni Kukoč is a legend, plain and simple. His accomplishments here in the United States and abroad are truly something special. His successes as a three-time NBA Champion and Sixth Man of the Year on the greatest team ever assembled brought the concept of a productive European player on an NBA even further than the work of Drazen Petrovic and Detlef Schrempf did in the 1990s. Despite his immense talent as seen during international play, Kukoč had the strange, though rewarding fate of being an integral cog on Chicago’s championship wheel. His stats did not blow you away, not due to a lack of talent, but as a result of the players that ranked ahead of him on the team’s hierarchy. Remember, he played behind the likes of Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and ultimately, Michael Jordan. Nevertheless, he still managed what he did, and that should be a testament to his greatness as a player.
For the sake of argument, let’s look at what Kukoč’s numbers looked like when he was tasked with heavy minutes and responsibility on amore consistent basis. At the moment, it’s the best way to get an idea for what he would have been capable of had he been a first or second option instead of a fourth or fifth option on a championship-caliber team.
In the 62 games Kukoč played 40 or more minutes, he averaged 20.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, and 6.0 apg while shooting 44% from the field and 30% from deep. Those numbers aren’t too dissimilar from the man he often backed up in Scottie Pippen, who rebounded at a slightly better rate.
But this isn’t about whether Kukoč was better than Pippen. He wasn’t. I wouldn’t dare blaspheme like that. Considering the sort of players we see in this era being invited to All-Star Weekend to play in the Midseason Classic, there’s no doubt that the Croatian Sensation would have made an All-Star team or two today. In his case, it seemed, it was just a matter of poor timing, a glut of talent between 1994-98, and the chance of possible politics getting involved.
Toni Kukoč’s stellar, versatile, and clutch play were integral to the successes of the teams he called his own, and because of his international approach to the game, many current foreign players were able to live vicariously through the Croatian Sensation before their own time came, All-Star berth or not.
Since The Waiter hung up his apron for the last time, the NBA has seen a considerable influx of productive, All-Star caliber foreign-born NBA talent, such as France’s Tony Parker [4x NBA Champion and 6x All-Star], China’s Yao Ming [the first international player drafted 1st overall and multiple All-Star], Argentina’s Manu Ginobili [4x NBA Champion], Sudan’s Luol Deng, The Gasol Brothers of Spain [Pau and Marc, Pau winning two NBA Championships with the Lakers], Russia’s Andrei Kirilenko, Lithuania’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Croatia’s Peja Stojakovic, and these players helped define the NBA between 2000-2010.
With the start of a new decade, a new batch of foreign-born stars appear primed to take the NBA by storm. One that immediately comes to mind is New York’s Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia, and there is no doubt that he has taken the NBA by storm with his impressive play through the early months of the regular season. The future is bright in the NBA for both domestic and foreign-born talents, but for those already used to foreign players gracing NBA arenas, let us never forget the greatness of the star forward that may very well have started it all–the Croatian Sensation, Toni Kukoč.
History will thank you for the homage, even if Springfield hasn’t yet.