CHICAGO – The person he found it out from and the place where he received some very good news this past weekend make a lot of sense.
For each played a major role in making Toni Kukoc one of the best players in the game of basketball.
“Jerry Reinsdorf called me and he said that I got in the Hall of Fame,” said Kukoc of the Bulls owner informing him of his election to the Class of 2021.
He received the news in his native Croatia, where he started playing the game as a youth then became a star both internationally and in the NBA. Kukoc said he attended a game later that night at a venue which he played in the past watching a club he previously took the floor.
“All the memories of the place where you played in and practiced kinda came over me,” said Kukoc. “There are some pictures from my young days playing here and in Split. In a way, it’s overwhelming.”
It’s a lot to process for Kukoc, who became well known locally during his days with the Bulls from 1993-2000. From a number of game-winning shots in his rookie year to a Sixth Man Award in 1996 to helping the team to three NBA championships, the forward will go down as one of the most memorable players in franchise history.
Yet the credit went to many others when Kukoc discussed his election to the Basketball Hall of Fame with a host of local and international media on Tuesday. He said he’s not picked someone to present him yet but said he wished he could bring up “a hundred” with him, since so many aided his journey to the top of basketball.
Naturally, it started in his native Croatia.
“I really feel I had a plethora of coaches, a plethora of players; I don’t want to say a bunch, that’s a bad word for it, but there’s a lot of them that are already in the Hall of Fame. So when you play with players like that, your chances to do something great or good rises,” said Kukoc. “I was fortunate from when I started at 15 years old that I had a great generation of players like Dino (Radja), like Vlade (Divac), like Drazen (Petrović).
“Just competing with them and playing with them kinda forces you to rise your idea of basketball, your physical readiness. Our coaches were amazing. That’s well-known fact in the world of basketball that ex-Yugolavian coaches were ones of the best coaches in the world.
“So having these people at the right place at the right time was a key.”
That was true in Chicago when he arrived in the fall of 1993 when he was joining the three-time NBA champion Bulls. He’d play for Hall of Fame head coach Phil Jackson along with fellow Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman.
Kukoc fit in with this strong supporting cast and helped them to a second three-peat in the decade from 1996-1998. Just as he did with his international teams, the forward said it was them that helped to elevate his game to a new level.
“I think that whole team deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” said Kukoc of the 1990s Bulls. “With the coaching staff and everything. It’s a rare occasion; it doesn’t happen that often that you have that kind of team where everybody is looking to help each other, to assist each other, to sacrifice their game just to win games and win championships.
“Then again, you have Phil and Tex (Winter) and Jon Bach and all the other coaches that were there who absolutely knew how to challenge you and put you on the right path to succeed.”
So many did from the time he started playing in Croatia to his tenure in Chicago, with everything coming full circle this weekend.