Originally written on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 6/27/12

The Chicago Bulls of the 90’s were not only the locale of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman; they also featured some of the deepest benches in basketball. An integral piece in the Bulls’ second three-peat was the sixth man and versatile Croatian Toni Kukoc, a 6’11” Small Forward that fits the stereotype for what we’ve come to know about European players. Kukoc was drafted with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round by the Bulls, and actually stayed in Croatian leagues for three years after getting picked. His nicknames gained from prowess oversees include, “The White Magic”, “The Spider From Split”, and “The Croatian Sensation.” His length and athleticism allowed him to enjoy an advantage on both sides of the ball against wing players, and when needed, Kukoc could also slide into the four spot when the Bulls wanted to play ‘small’.

Kukoc made an immediate impact when he finally came to the Bulls for the 1993-4 season, garnering All-Rookie Second Team honors. However, Kukoc began to play at a truly high-level in the NBA when Jordan returned after his brief foray into baseball. The 1995-6 season was perhaps Kukoc’s finest during the Jordan years, with the Croatian averaging 13.1 points/game on 49% shooting, while connecting on a little over 40% of his shots behind the arc. He also racked up 4 rebounds and 3.5 assists while playing 26 minutes a game. It was this potent combination of versatility and his defensive ability that allowed Kukoc to gain NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors for that season. He continued this success as a sixth man until Jordan’s second retirement from the Bulls after the 1997-8 season. After MJ’s retirement, Kukoc was one of the few Bulls players remaining from that second dynasty, and he was forced into a ‘starring’ role for the woeful post-Jordan Bulls. He averaged almost 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists a game in an injury plagued 1998-9 season, and was traded to Philadelphia the next year. He then moved from the Sixers, to the Hawks, and then finally the Bucks. He was injured frequently, never obtaining the same level of success he had during the Bulls glory days.

Kukoc will be remembered for his classic European-style of play. A 6’11” Croatian forward complete with ball handling skills, a three-point shot, and defensive expertise is a player not unlike current European transplants Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Galinari, and Dirk Nowitzki. Kukoc did not approach the levels of play shown by Dirk, and was ultimately best suited for his early role on the Bulls as a sixth man. However, the lanky Croatian’s success in the NBA may have helped trigger more interest from GMs for tall European finesse players. Toni Kukoc retired before the 2006-7 and now lives with his family in Highland Park, Illinois.

-Fitzburgh

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