“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Toni Kukoc – The Pink Panther of basketball
It was April of 1991.The final series of the Yugoslav League between the great Jugoplastika Split and its biggest rival those years, Partizan Belgrade. After winning the first game in Split, 85-74, Jugoplastika also won the second game in Belgrade by the score of 95-91. The third game was also played in Belgrade but Jugoplastika didn’t wait to celebrate the title at home. With an 86-64 victory, Jugoplastika swept the series and lifted its fourth straight trophy. With 4 minutes and 18 seconds left in the game, Split coach Zeljko Pavlicevic decided to sit Toni Kukoc. Then something unforgettable happened: the Partizan fans, even if hurt by the tough defeat of their team, rose to their feet and gave Kukoc a one-minute-long standing ovation. It was a gesture of admiration towards a basketball genius, but also with a feeling that that would be the last time that Kukoc would play in Belgrade.
Even though in June of that year the Croatian players would be on the Yugoslav team that won EuroBasket 1991 in Rome, the political climate was very tense already. The basketball world was already making plans for a united league the following season under the direction of YUBA, a recently formed club association. However, it was pretty clear that the third game of that final series was to be the last of the history of the Yugoslav championships, and that Jugoplastika would be the last champion of a country that gave so much to basketball.
The day after the final, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Partizan’s point guard at the time, talked to Borba newspaper and said the following: “Congratulations to Jugoplastika. They are born winners and they have a winning mentality. I think that Toni Kukoc, despite being only 23, is the best Yugoslav basketball player ever.”
I don’t know if Djordjevic still feels the same way about that, but I do know people who would agree with every word that he said 22 years ago. Bozidar Maljkovic, the coach and builder of the great Jugoplastika, doesn’t compare Kukoc to players from other eras, but he does say: “Toni Kukoc is the best player I ever coached. Huge talent, versatile, able to play all five positions. He also won all the important titles.”
Signed at the beach
If genes have something to do with a career as a sportsman, Toni Kukoc was somehow destined for sports because of his father, Ante, who had been a goalkeeper on the teams of Nada and Split and was crazy about any sport. Since he was a child, Kukoc, who was born on September 18, 1968, showed a talent for all sports, but basketball would enter his life rather late. First, there was table tennis. Radojka, Toni’s mother, was happy to enroll him in table tennis because practices took place in Gripe pavilion, just a hundred meters away from the Kukoc family apartment.
Soon enough, Toni showed a great talent for the sport and at just 10 years old, he was champion of Dalmatia, a coastal region of Croatia. However, his true love was football and, like any kid in Split, his dream was one day wearing the jersey of the famous local club Hajduk. With the support of his father, Kukoc passed the texts at 11 and joined the Hajduk cadet team. He was good, some even say very good, but problems started when he began growing fast. At 13 years old he was already 1.90 meters, but he was very thin, too, and that earned him the nickname “Olive” – after Popeye’s girlfriend in the comic strip.
Kukoc kept playing football until he was 15. In the summer of 1983, Igor Karkovic – a young talent scout for Jugoplastika – saw a group of young kids playing several sports on a beach close to Split. His attention was caught strongly, however, by a very tall kid with great movements and coordination who was also a great swimmer. Karkovic was surprised when the kid told him that he didn’t play basketball at all. So Krakovic invited him to a tryout, to which Toni agreed. He practiced football and basketball at the same time for a while, but – fortunately – basketball won.
That was the start of a brilliant career. He was a starter soon after that, but in his first final, against Cibona for the Croatian title, he suffered his first disappointment, a loss at home in front of all his people. He felt some consolation with the Yugoslav championship played in Kraljevo (Serbia) where Jugoplastika dominated strong opponents like host Sloga – who had a pair of future NBA big men like Vlade Divac and Milos Babic – or Buducnost Podgorica, with Zarko Paspalj, Zdravko Radulovic and Luka Pavicevic.
In the summer of 1985, coach Svetislav Pesic called Kukoc for the U16 European Championship in Ruse, Bulgaria, where Yugoslavia won the gold medal in what was only the first step of a great generation, with Divac, Nebosja Ilic, Slavisa Koprivica, Radenko Dobras, Emilio Kovacic and Zoran Kalpic. Jugoplastika coach Slavko Trninic included Kukoc in the first team at 16 years old. He made his debut in Podgorica against Buducnost. In the 1985-86 season, he played 20 games, totaling 52 points (2.6 ppg). In Ruse, Kukoc had a scoring average of 5.5 but he already increased that number to 12.6 in the summer of 1986 for the U18 European Championship in Gmunden, Austria. More new players came to the team, like Pavicevic Dino Radja, Sasha Djordjevic, Teoman Alibegovic, Pavicevic and Samir Avdic. The following season, with Zoran “Moka” Slavnic on the Jugoplastika bench, Kukoc scored 317 points in 22 league games (14.4) and 46 more in three playoff games.
The great summer of 1987
For the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, Yugoslav coach Kresimir Cosic called four kids to the team: Divac, Radja, Djordjevic and Kukoc. They won the bronze medal and right after that, they joined the expedition of the junior team to the U19 World Cup in Bormio, Italy. Pesic put together a great team that won all of its six games, including two against a powerful American team with Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, Stacey Augmon, Kevin Pritchard, Lionel Simmons, Scott Williams, Dwayne Schintzius, Brian Williams and Larry Brown as coach. The scoring average of that team was 112 points per game! The showdown against the Americans in the first stage ended 110-95 with Kukoc in a state of grace: 37 points on 11 of 12 three-pointers!
“Never, ever, in my career would I get even close to those numbers,” Kukoc told me much later. “The high for me in a game for triples was five or six, but that day everything was going in. I felt extremely comfortable. When my first two shots went in, I had my confidence up and I didn’t stop until the end. I was shooting over my defenders, even stopping at the arc on fastbreaks. We had a great team, well-covered in all positions, but not even we ourselves knew what the limit was for us. We had no idea what levels we could reach.”
In the final game, the Americans’ attention went to Kukoc but the heroes of the game would be the big men: Divac scored 21 points and Radja had 20 as Yugoslavia won 86-76.
Toni Kukoc’s career skyrocketed after that. In 1988, he won his first Yugoslav League title with Jugoplastika. On April 6, 1989, a very young team for Jugoplastika surprised everyone at the EuroLeague Final Four in Munich by defeating FC Barcelona in the semis and then Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final, 75-69, with 18 points by Kukoc. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he won the silver medal with Yugoslavia after losing the final to the USSR. At the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb, Yugoslavia rolled to the gold just as they did at the 1990 World Cup in Buenos Aires, where Kukoc was named MVP of the tournament. I remember the ovation he got in the final against the USSR, a few minutes before the buzzer. A man by my side rose up and yelled: “Thank you, skinny!”
Before Buenos Aires, Jugoplastika repeated the double crown with the Yugoslav League and the EuroLeague titles – the latter against FC Barcelona in the final in Zaragoza by the score of 72-67, with 20 points from Kukoc. The same thing would happen again in 1991 even though Dino Radja, Dusko Ivanovic and coach Boza Maljkovic were no longer with the team. However, the genius Kukoc stayed and was backed by Velimir Perasovic, Zoran Savic, Luka Pavicevic, Zan Tabak, Zoran Sretenovic, Aramis Naglic and Petar Naumoski. At the Paris Final Four the victim was, once more, FC Barcelona, in a 70-65 Jugoplastika win with 14 points from Kukoc – and with Maljkovic coaching Barça.
In his last three Yugoslav League seasons, Kukoc’s numbers were almost identical: 411 points (11.6 average) in 1988-89; 413 (18.7) in 1989-90 and 438 (19.9) in 1990-91. But more than his points, he was admired by everything he displayed on the court. If I had to choose only one word to describe his game, I would say “elegance”. He made everything seem so easy, so natural. Like there was nothing easier than scoring a basket, pulling down a rebound or dishing an assist. Because of his basketball genius, his moves with the ball, his long hands and his thin body, he earned the nickname of Pink Panther. We can also thank him for a great basketball quote: “A basket makes one man happy while an assist makes two men happy.”
In the summer of 1991, Kukoc had a problem with his future. The Chicago Bulls – who had chosen him with the 29th pick in the NBA Draft – and Benetton Treviso, coached by Split legend Petar Skansi, were knocking on his door. Kukoc went to Italy, so the NBA could wait. In two years in Italy, he won a league title and a cup title playing a total of 68 games with averages of 19.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists. After so many successful years, Kukoc had a great disappointment at the 1993 Final Four in Athens. Benetton was the favorite to win against Boza Maljkovic’s Limoges, but the Italian team – without Vinny Del Negro, but with Terry Teagle, Stefano Rusconi and Massimo Iacopini – could not defeat the French team, with Michael Young and Jure Zdovc, losing 59-55.
Triumph in the NBA
Before leaving for the NBA, Kukoc was part of the Croatian “Dream Team” with Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja, Stojan Vrankovic, Danko Cvjeticanin, Velimir Perasovic, Arijan Komazec and company at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Kukoc would add a new silver medal to his already impressive collection. His numbers were 11.5 points, 3.1 boards and 6.0 assists. He would win more medals with Croatia: bronze at the 1994 World Cup and 1995 EuroBasket. But his true triumphs after that would come in the NBA. He got there right when Michael Jordan retired, but since the legend was back two years later, Toni could fulfill his dream of playing alongside the best. Kukoc is a proud owner of three NBA championship rings from 1996, 1997 and 1998.
We know almost everything about his NBA career. In 15 years playing in Chicago (7 seasons), Philadelphia (2), Atlanta (2) and Milwaukee (4) he played 846 games, scored 9,810 points (11.6), grabbed 3,550 rebounds (4.2) and dished 3,118 assists (3.7). Until Dirk Nowitzki, Kukoc was the most relevant European player in the NBA. One detail explains it all: on May 13, 1994, in the third game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks, with the score tied 102-102 and 1.8 seconds to go, coach Phil Jackson designed a play in the timeout for Toni Kukoc. Afterward, Scottie Pippen remained on the bench mad at the coach and refused Jackson’s orders to get back on the court. Jackson insisted on the play and Kukoc scored the basket to give Chicago the victory. A true champion.
After putting an end to his career in the summer of 2006, Kukoc got out of basketball. His passion is golf, but he has also insinuated that he’d like to be a coach. If that happens someday, basketball will be better still for the continued presence of Toni Kukoc, the genius from Split.