By Aris Barkas/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and there was nothing more beautiful on the basketball courts of Europe in the early 90s than Toni Kukoc. While in the NBA Kukoc was just a part of the legendary Chicago Bulls of the 90s, in Europe Kukoc was a phenomenon. A Doncic-like phenomenon.
To be exact there’s a fine line that connects point-forwards from Kukoc to Dejan Bodiroga and now to Luka Doncic. A Croatian, a Serbian, and a Slovenian, all sharing the ex-Yugoslavian basketball school mentality and the idea of positionless basketball. In Kukoc’s case, that happened long before it was a trend.
The NBA audience never really got to see Kukoc’s full potential and the European fans were puzzled when they have seen for the first time a bulked-up Kukoc at the start of the 1993 season, who had gained weight because the Bulls wanted to use him as a power forward.
In a way, Kukoc was Giannis before Giannis. His nickname in Europe was “Pink Panther” because of his finesse and silhouette that reminded everyone of the cartoon. He was a playmaker at heart, a born leader, and a perimeter player, despite being 6ft11. Ironically, Kukoc was more himself with the Croatian national team, from which he retired after the 1996 Olympics and of course as a member of KK Jugoplastika, a team that remains the stuff of legend in Europe.
And since the Naismith Hall of Fame includes him in the class of 2021 after being nominated by the International Committee, Kukoc’s achievements in Europe can’t be overlooked. He was arguable the best player on the continent from 1989 to 1993.
Kukoc, born in 1968, was just 21 years old when he won for the first time the EuroLeague title – named at the time European champions Cup – back in 1989 and went on to win a three-peat. How rare is that in Europe? No other team in modern history has achieved a three-peat and only ASK Riga did it between 1958 and 1960 when continental competitions in Europe were still more an experiment than anything else.
Kukoc was the first-ever player to win three Final Four MVP titles – with recently retired Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis tying him two decades later – and in one case, he won it in 1993 despite losing the final as a member of Benetton Treviso.
He won the FIBA World Championship and was also the MVP in 1990, playing with Yugoslavia. He was the 1991 Eurobasket Champion and MVP, again with Yugoslavia, after winning it also in 1989 and went on to win three NBA titles between 1996 and 1998 with arguably the greatest team of All-Time.
So when Michael Jordan will present him in a few hours and most NBA fans will remember his years with the Bulls, in Europe Toni Kukoc will be celebrated the way he was meant to be. As the first-ever European basketball unicorn, a complete player who could run the point while having a body that permitted him to guard centers.