Toni Kukoc, Hall of Famer: 6 revealing facts about the ultimate 6th man
Let's celebrate the Waiter!
“I had a dream. My dream was Toni with the ball on the break, with Michael on one side, Scottie on the other and Horace coming up from behind.”
— Jerry Krause, October 1993
In the spring of 1998, my grandmother and I were locked in a fierce sports debate. She thought that the Bulls should continue to start Toni Kukoc in the playoffs and bring Dennis off the bench. He’s earned it, she would tell me. I thought Dennis played better as a starter and that Toni was fine in either role.
As she was about so many things, my grandmother was right. Toni had indeed earned his place in the starting lineup, and started 17 of our 21 playoff games in ‘98, including all six Finals games.
On the other hand, it didn’t matter, because even when Kukoc was coming off the bench he was closing games. He was a unique talent; in the ongoing “which three-peat was better” debate, Kukoc is the intriguing x-factor, the man who fit his own mold.
Tonight, Toni enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he will be presented by Michael Jordan and Jerry Reinsdorf1. (The ceremony airs at 6 p.m. CST — viewing details here.) Let’s take a look at 6 revealing facts about the ultimate 6th man — The Waiter, The Croatian Sensation, The European Magic Johnson, the 1996 6th Man of the Year:
1. Kukoc reached the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame from the international committee
Toni Kukoc was the 29th pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, making him a second round pick in a draft where the first round was 27 picks. If he came along 10 years later, he likely would have been a top 10 pick. If he came along 15 years later, GMs would have considered him for the #1 overall selection.
That’s because as a 6’11 point guard who could play three, possibly four positions, and shoot the hell out of the ball from deep, Kukoc was ahead of his time. He was also incredibly accomplished even by draft day 1990, including:
MVP of the World Junior Championships in Bormio, Italy in 1987
Solid contributor on the silver medal-winning Yugoslavia team in the 1988 Olympics at age 19
Star of the Jugoplastika Split team that won the 1990 European championships, averaging 19.5 points on 63% shooting
By the time Kukoc came to the Bulls in 1993, he was a three-time Euroleague Final Four MVP, a leader of a multitude of champs in multiple leagues, had another Olympics silver medal and was on a six-year, $25 million deal from Italian pro team Benetton Treviso.
HOW KUKOC MADE THE HALL OF FAME
Explaining the international committee
Despite never reaching the NBA All-Star Game nor ever averaging 20 a night in the NBA, Kukoc is headed into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on the combined strength of his total professional career, with his pre-Bulls years weighed heavily.
That’s technically the case for every Hoop Hall inductee — the Hall purportedly weighs a person’s entire career, including college and high school (though transparency is minimal, as Dr. Curtis Harris notes).
But the value of international play is particularly important for the players who are elected from the “direct-select” international committee, which has operated since 2011, electing one international player directly per year.
Scraping up a full list is surprisingly difficult, but my research shows that these are the inductees from the international committee:
2011: Arvydas Sabonis
2012: Lidia Alexeeva
2013: Oscar Schmidt
2014: Šarūnas Marčiulionis
2015: Lindsay Gaze
2016: Yao Ming
2017: Nikos Galis
2018: Dino Radja
2019: Vlade Divac
2020: Patrick Baumann
2021: Toni Kukoc
2. MJ knew that Toni was clutch
In September of 1993, I was at a White Hen in Evanston, Illinois, when I saw a Street & Smith’s 1993 NBA preview issue, all about the Bulls’ drive for a four-peat. We were getting a bit older after the ‘93 season, having won only 57 games compared to 67 the year before, and no longer holding home court in the league, or even the East.
Toni Kukoc was going to inject new life into this three-time champ.
I did not buy the magazine — an unfortunate oversight I could not have foreseen, because MJ retired the next month, making the issue a wild collector’s item and a preview for a season that in many ways never was. (At least for us.)
You know what happened: Despite losing the best player in the game (to say the least), the Bulls actually won just two fewer games in 1994 than they did in 1993. Part of that was Scottie Pippen taking his game to the next level and becoming an MVP candidate. Part of that was Horace and B.J. continuing to push their games up a few notches, with each man reaching the All-Star Game for the first time.
Part of that was the balance provided by the triangle offense, which helped create opportunities for everyone on the roster.
Part of that was the new blood, guys who would become crucial for the second three-peat, including Luc Longley, Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington.
And part of that was Toni Kukoc, who took over MJ’s role as the man with the late-game magic. Toni hit three game-winners in the ‘94 season, including one against the Pacers on the exact same play that Phil would dial-up in the controversial Bulls-Knicks Game 3.
Here are Kukoc’s three game-winners:
One man for whom this was not a surprise was minor league baseball player Michael Jordan, who told Melissa Isaacson that he knew Toni would hit the shot against the Knicks, noting that “I predicted the whole scenario.”
About Kukoc’s clutchness, Jordan said:
“One thing I did see in (Kukoc) was that he was the only guy out there with the confidence to take the game-winning shot. He didn’t worry about the pros and cons. He felt, ‘If I miss it, so what?’ He had that confidence. And to take those shots, that’s how you’ve got to think.”
Toni’s biggest clutch contribution to the title run? His 21 points in Game 7 of the ‘98 East finals against Indiana, including 14 points in the third quarter.
3. Phil Jackson wanted to feature him in a new type of lineup — that would change basketball
In the week before Michael retired, Phil Jackson gave an interview to Sam Smith in which he told Smith of his plan for a “unique” lineup that would be “interchangeable at almost every position.”
“I already have envisioned a team in which Jordan is the shortest guy on the floor, with Pippen and Kukoc and Grant and maybe Williams2, a quick, big team playing a switching zone defense.”
Of course, that plan went out the window when MJ retired, but two years later, the ‘96 Bulls brought Phil’s vision to reality, as he regularly employed a lineup of Harper, Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc and Rodman, each man between 6’6 and 6’11. The Bulls actually trotted out that starting lineup 17 times in the regular season from 1996 to 1998, going 16-1.
Additionally, because of Toni’s ability to stretch the floor, take clutch shots, pass the ball and create blistering matchup problems, he was on the court for every one of our most famous close-out possessions in the second three-peat.
1997 1st round, Game 3, Pippen’s game-winning dunk: Kerr, Harper, Jordan, Pippen, KUKOC
1997 Finals, Game 1, MJ’s winner: Kerr, Jordan, Buechler, Pippen, KUKOC
1997 Finals, Flu Game, MJ’s 3: Kerr, Harper, Jordan, KUKOC, Longley
1997 Finals, Game 6, Kerr’s winner: Kerr, Jordan, Pippen, KUKOC, Rodman
1998 Finals, Game 6, MJ’s last shot: Kerr, Jordan, Pippen, KUKOC, Rodman
4. Kukoc played a key role in an NBA labor dispute that changed how contracts were written
The end of the NBA’s one-year opt-out clause! A wild story from my 1996 Bulls book — featuring Horace Grant going to the Magic, Ron Harper coming to the Bulls instead of the Knicks, Toni, Craig Ehlo, A.C. Green… and Chris Dudley.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Read it here.
5. Kukoc had a chance to hit the final shot of the dynasty
Michael Jordan was the Bulls’ leading scorer in 32 of our 35 Finals games. The other three games:
Scottie Pippen: 27 points, Game 3, 1997 (MJ had 26)
Toni Kukoc: 30 points, Game 5, 1998 (MJ had 28)
That Game 5 of 1998 is a stunning Bulls “what-if”: What if Toni Kukoc hit the final shot of the dynasty?
Yes, the final play of that game — and the would-be final play of the series, and the dynasty — was called for Toni. Something went awry, and the ball ended up in MJ’s hands.
Jordan airballed a desperate 3, and the series went to Utah.
6. Kukoc is the eighth member of the 1996 Bulls enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame
I am always quick to point out that the 90s Bulls weren’t just about Jordan. They weren’t even just about Jordan and Pippen. We had many people who were the best at their particular job, and as proof, eight members of the ‘96 Bulls are now in the Hall of Fame3:
Congratulations to Toni on a great career! I hope everyone has a great weekend.
“Presenting” at the Naismith Hall is like a sponsorship in a way. The Hall inductee selects a member of the Hall to go on stage with him or her and stand witness in a sense. Again, the presenter must already be in the Hall — that’s why Scottie (class of 2010) picked Jordan, but Jordan (class of 2009) picked David Thompson.
This was news to Williams when I shared it with him last year: “No, I wasn’t aware of that. Thank you for sharing that with me. My summer of ‘93 to ‘94 wasn’t great with Phil and Jerry. I was a little down. I was always on non-guaranteed contracts, and it was always bonus-laden. If you get so many blocked shots and so many rebounds and your team makes the Eastern Conference Finals, you get a couple more nickels, and if you do that, blah blah blah.
“It was just like, I got two championship rings, these guys are making ten or fifteen times more than me who are sitting on the bench, you can’t even just guarantee my salary? You’re only paying me the minimum. Just guarantee the minimum. (Laughs.) You’re going to make me sweat until January, in case I get hurt? It’s ridiculous.”
Presenters for the 1996 Bulls entering the Hall, with everyone’s respective HOF class:
Phil Jackson, 2007 — Bill Bradley, 1983
Michael Jordan, 2009 — David Thompson, 1996
Scottie Pippen, 2010 — Michael Jordan
Dennis Rodman, 2011 — Phil Jackson
Tex Winter, 2011 — Phil Jackson
Jerry Reinsdorf, 2016 — Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen
Jerry Krause, 2017 — No one. Thelma spoke on his behalf.
Toni Kukoc, 2021 — Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan