Toni Kukoc, the Pink Panther of basketball

Mar 04, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic at 2012 London Olympic GamesIt was April of 1991. The final series of the Yugoslav League between the great Jugoplastika Split and its biggest rival those years, the also great Partizan Belgrade. After winning the first game in Split by 74-85, Jugoplastika also won the second game in Belgrade by 95-91. The third game was also played in Belgrade but Jugoplastika didn't want to celebrate the title at home. With a 64-86 Jugoplastika swept the series and lifted its fourth straight trophy. With 4 minutes and 18 seconds left in the game, Split coach Zeljko Palicevic 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 an admiration gesture 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 play in the Yugoslav team that won the Rome EuroBasket, 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 in those final series was to be the last of the history of the Yugoslav championships, as well as Jugoplastika being the last champion of a country that gave so much to basketball.

The day after the final, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Partizan's point guard those days, talked to Borba newspaper and said the following: "Congratulations to Jugoplastika. They are natural 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 sign every word Sasha 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 asseveres: "Toni Kukoc is the best player I ever coached. Huge talent, polivalent, able of playing in all five positions. He also won all the important titles."

"Signed" at the beach

If genes have something to do with a career of a sportsman, Toni Kukoc was somehow destined to sports because of his father Ante, who had been a goalkeeper in the teams of Nada and Split and who was crazy about any sport. Since he was a child, Kukoc (norn on September 18 of 1968) showed a talent for all sports, but basketball would enter his life rather late. First of all there was tennis table. Radojka, Toni's mum, was happy to enrol him in the tennis table section because practice would happen in Gripe pavillion, just a hundred meters away from the apartment where the Kukoc family lived.

Soon enough, Toni showed great talent for the sport and at just 10 years old, he was champion of Dalmacia, a coast region of Croatia. However, his true love was football and like any kid in Split, his dream was wearing the jersey of famous local club Hajduk one day. With the support of his father, he passed the texts at 11 and he became the left fielder of the Hajduk cadet team. He was good, some even say very good, but problems started when he started growing fast. At 13 years old he was already 1,90 meters but he was too thin, and that earned him the nickname "Olive", because of Popeye's girlfriend in the comic strip.

He 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 got definitely caught by a very tall kid but with great move coordination who was also a great swimmer. Karkovic was suprised when the kid told him that he didn't practice basketball at all, so Krakovic invited him to a tryout to which Toni agreed. He practiced football and basketball at the same time 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 had 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 Pdgorica with Zarko Paspalj, Zdravko Radulovic and Luka Pavicevic.

In the summer of 1985, coach Svetislav Pesic called Kukoc for the European championship of cadets in Ruse, Bulgaria, where Yugoslavia won the gold medal in what was only the first step of a great generation with Divac, Neboja Ilic, Slavisa Koprivica, Radenko Dobras, Emilio Kovacic or Zoran Kalpic. Coach Slavko Trninic included Toni 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, totalling 52 points (2.6). In Ruse, Kukoc had a scoring average of 5.5 but healready increased that number to 12.6 in the summer of 1986 for the junior European championship in Gmunden, Austria. More new blood came to the team like Dino Radja, Sasha Djordjevic, Teoman Alibegovic, Pavicevic and Samir Avdic. The following season, with Zoran "Moka" Slavnic on the 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 which had the World championship in Bormio, Italy. Pesic put together a great team that won its six games, even 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 duel of the first stage ended 110-95 with an unrepeatable festival by Kukoc: 37 points with 11 of 12 triples! "Never, ever, in my career I would get even close to those numbers. The high for me in a game with triples was 5 or 6 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 in a fastbreak. We had a great team, well-covered in all positions but not even ourselves knew what the limit was for us. We had no idea what levels we could reach" Kukoc told me not long ago.

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, Radja 20. Yugoslavia won by 86-76.

Toni Kukoc's career skyrocketed after that. In 1988 he won his first league title with Jugoplastika. On April 6, 1989 a very young team for Jugoplastika surprised everyone in the Munich Euroleague Final Four by defeating FC Barcelona in 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 Zagreb EuroBasket of 1989, Yugoslavia rolled to the gold just the same as the 1990 Worlds in Buenos Aires, where Kukoc was 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 (against FC Barcelona in the final in Zaragoza by 72-67, with 20 points by Kukoc) and the same thing would happen again in 1991 even though Dino Radja, Dusko Ivanovic and coach Boza Maljkovic were no longer in the team. However, genius Kukoc stayed, backed by Velimir Perasovic, Zoran Savic, Luka Pavicevic, Zan Tabak, Zoran Sretenovic, Aramis Naglic or Petar Naumoski. At the Paris Final Four the victim was, once more, FC Barcelona (70-65, Kukoc 14 points) and that withMaljkovic coaching Barca.

In his last three Yugoslav leagues his numbers were almost dentical: 411 points (11.6) in 88-89; 413 (18.7) in 89-90 and 438 (19.9) in 90-91. But more than his points, he was admired by everything he displayed on the court. If I had to choose only one aspect of his game I would say "elegance". He made everything seem so easy, so natural. Like there was nothing easier than scoring a basket, pulling a rebound or dish 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". Also we can thank him for a great basketball quote which said: "A basket makes one man happy while an assist makes two men happy."

In the summer of 1991 Toni had a problem with his future. The Chicago Bulls - who had chosen him with pick 29 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 68 games with 19.8 points, 6.0 boards and 5.2 assists per game. After so many successful years, Kukoc had a great disappointment at the 1993 Final Four in Athens. Bnetton was the favorite to win against Boza Maljkovic's Limoges, but the Italian team - without Vinnie del Negro, but with Terry Teagle, Stefano Rusconi and Massimo Iacopini - could not defeat the French team with Michael Young and Jure Zdovc, 55-59.

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 Cveticanin, Velimir Perasovic, Arijan Komazec and company at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He could 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 Worlds and 1995 EuroBasket, but his true triumph would be 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. He is a proud owner of three NBA champ rings for 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), pulled 3,550 rebounds (4.2) and dished 3,118 assists (3.7). Until Nowitzki, he was the most relevant European player in the NBA. A detail explains it all: on May 13, 1994, in the third game of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Knicks, with a 102-102 on the scoreboard with 1.8 seconds to go, coach Phil Jackson designed a play in the timeout for Toni Kukoc. Scottie Pippen, at the bench at that moment but with Jackson orders to get back on court, got mad at the coach and refused to get back. Jackson insisted on the play. Kukoc scored the basket and Chicago won the game. A true champion.

After putting and end to his career in the summer of 2006, Kukoc got out of basketball. His passion is golf, but last summer he insinuated that he's like to be a coach. For now, he'd like to start as an assistant in the NBA and in the future come back to Europe to coach a big team. If he makes it, the life of his great Jugoplastika will be stretched even more. We still have many names from that Split generation still active in basketball. Bozidar Maljkovic is Slovenia NT head coach; Dusko Ivanovic is currently without a team but did great things in the bench in Spain, France and Switzerland; Velimir Perasovic is Valencia Basket coach; Luka Pavicevic coaches Chorale Roanne; Zan Tabak coaches Caja Laboral; Zoran Sretenovic coaches AZS Koszalin of Poland. Zoran Savic used to be sports director at Fortitudo Bologna and FC Barcelona and is now an agent while Dino Radja was KK Split president for many years.

Welcome back, Toni.