Meet the Sports Stars of Split: Toni Kukoč

Daniela Rogulj

A look at one of the greatest-ever Croatian basketball players and part of the Chicago Bulls golden dynasty – Toni Kukoč. 

Today we continue our series featuring Split’s best sports stars with Toni Kukoč, a crucial part of the Chicago Bulls golden dynasty during the 1990s. The name is not just familiar to the ears of Split but to basketball lovers around the world. 

How much do you know about Croatia’s famed sports hero?

Toni was born in Split on September 18, 1968, to mother Radojka and father Ante. As a boy, he was a football player for Slaviša Žungul and wore the number 7 – and little did he know that when he became a professional athlete, he would continue wearing the same number. Growing up, Toni played many sports, including table tennis where he chiefly excelled. But it wouldn’t be long before he found his love for basketball.

Toni began his youth basketball career at the age of 17 at Jugoplastika in Split. He achieved significant success during his time with the club and later went on to conquer the title of the European Champion in three consecutive terms (1989–1991). His team also won the Triple Crown in 1990 and 1991, and Toni was awarded as the EuroLeague Final Four MVP both times.

After Jugoplastika, Toni moved to Benetton from Treviso, Italy where he was named the best European player three times. During that period, he won the FIBA World Junior Championship (1987 for Yugoslavia), the FIBA World Championship (1990 for Yugoslavia), and two Olympic silver medals in Seoul (1988 for Yugoslavia) and Barcelona (1992 for Croatia).

It wasn’t long before Toni was drafted into the prestigious NBA league, and the Croat was chosen by the Chicago Bulls then team manager Jerry Krause in 1990. Drafted in the second round as the 29th overall pick, Toni eventually came to play for the Bulls in 1993 after the recent retirement of Michael Jordan. 

Toni would receive an annual salary of $4.3 million and made his NBA debut on November 5, 1993. 

Toni was envisioned as an alternative to Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, the two wingers on the Bulls who sometimes played the role of the shooter or even the center. Toni achieved a solid debut season averaging double-digit scoring, earning him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. 

Already in the 1994-95 season, after Grant’s departure, Kukoč became a standard member of the starting five. It was the season he became the second-best shooter, rebounder, and assistant, behind Pippen.

In the 1995-96 season, Michael Jordan made a return to the Bull’s court, and the team received a new center – Dennis Rodman. Toni then returned to the bench where he became the sixth player in the next three seasons – in which the Bulls won three NBA titles. Kukoč was the team’s third-best scorer (behind Jordan and Pippen) and was given the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award during that time. Toni is the 4th and last player to win this prize and the NBA title in the same year.

In the 1997-98 season, Toni continued being the sixth man off the bench and helped the Bulls win their fifth and sixth NBA titles, maintaining his position as the team’s third-best leading scorer.

After the departure of Jordan and Pippen in 1999, the Bulls had to undergo serious reorganization. That season, Toni was the first player in shots, rebounds, and assists. 

It was clear that the glory days were over for the Bulls, and Toni was transferred to the Philadelphia 76ers, and then again to the Atlanta Hawks. While he did not stay there long either, he eventually moved to the Milwaukee Bucks where he played solidly until the 2005-06 season. Toni retired from professional basketball in 2006.

Today, Toni lives in Highland Park, Chicago with his wife Renata and two children, son Marin and daughter Stella. He spends his days playing golf, and in 2011, won Croatia’s national amateur golf championship. He is also currently Special Advisor to Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago Bulls.

Known as “the spider from Split”, “the White Magic”, “the Waiter”, and “the Pink Panther”, Toni is a 3x NBA champion with the Bulls, NBA Sixth Man of the Year (1996), NBA All-Rookie Second Tea, (1994), 3x EuroLeague champion, 2x EuroBasket champion, 4x Yugoslav League Champion, 2x Yugoslav Cup winner, Italian League champion, Italian Cup winner, 3x Croatian Sportsman of the Year, FIBA World Cup MVP, 3x EuroLeague Final Four MVP, 4x Mister Europa Player of the Year, 5x Euroscar Player of the Year, FIBA EuroBasket MVP, FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players, and one of the 50 Greatest EuroLeague Contributers. 

What an incredible career. 

Sources: Vecernji List & Wikipedija


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