Toni Kukoc felt fortunate to be spending time in Croatia when he received the call he had been waiting on for years — that he had been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Before he became a crucial member of the second Chicago Bulls three-peat, his basketball career began in his home country. And while attending a home game of his old EuroLeague club later that night, the emotions began to hit him.
“I was watching them play and all the memories of the place we played and practiced kind of came over me,” Kukoc said Tuesday during a video conference call from Croatia. “There were some pictures of me from my younger days playing there, so in a way it’s overwhelming. But it’s so nice, so cool to see the messages (from) players, their reactions of me getting into the Hall of Fame. It’s good to be me these days.”
Kukoc joins a decorated 16-person class revealed Sunday that also includes Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Chris Webber, Yolanda Griffith and Jay Wright.
Once the news got announced, Kukoc said the texts, calls, Zooms — from numbers he didn’t know — started to flow.
Kukoc averaged 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists during his 13-year NBA career, winning three championships with the Bulls and the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996. He also racked up accolades internationally, winning three EuroLeague titles, two Olympic silver medals and a FIBA World Championship MVP.
“When Toni joined the Bulls in 1993, he had already established himself as one of the best players ever to come out of Europe,” Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said in a statement. “While we knew what kind of player he was, we were not sure how he would adapt to the NBA. He quickly proved that his game was suited to play with the best players in the world.
“He was a star player on his championship teams in Europe, and one of the best sixth men in the NBA on our second three-peat championship teams in Chicago. There are not many players in the history of the game who have excelled at the level that Toni has. Congratulations on this very well-deserved honor.”
Kukoc was excited to become the latest member of the Bulls dynasty elected to the Hall of Fame, joining fellow players Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, coaches Phil Jackson and Tex Winter, Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause, who drafted Kukoc and was crucial to bringing him to the NBA.
The Bulls drafted Kukoc at the end of the first round in 1990, but he did not join the team until three years later.
“The difficult thing for me was adjusting to the new team,” Kukoc said. “As well as I played here in Europe, it was something totally different. I had to get used to a new system, new teammates, a new coaching staff. Maybe in a way Michael not being there my first year helped me a little bit because I got a lot of minutes that first year right away and could play my natural role more than I would later in my Bulls years.”
Infamously, Kukoc was met with hostility from Jordan and Pippen during the 1992 Olympics, memories Kukoc chuckled about Tuesday.
Kukoc proved to be a valuable part of those Bulls teams and emerged as one of the pioneers of international players having success in the NBA. Now his impact is being recognized as one of basketball’s greats.
“It wasn’t easy. At that time not much was known about the European players,” Kukoc said. “We were coming in there, I don’t want to say total enigmas, but the few games we played against the Dream Team, some folks saw us playing the Olympics or World Championships and that’s about it.
“I’m really, really happy that Jerry (Krause) stuck with that idea to bring me to the Bulls. Obviously, he had a world champion team there, but his idea of how I fit in that team was something of him talking me into coming over there. And then giving it a shot was the turning point for me. I decided to come over and everything else was pretty much recorded.”