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Toni Kukoc is Overlooked as the Truly Great Player He Was

Basketball   |   June 16, 2020

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‘The Last Dance’ was an incredible documentary. Putting it together took years off director Jason Hehir’s life and everyone who made it possible should be incredibly proud. That said, it should have had more episodes because many players and personalities around the Bulls deserved more time to tell their sides of the story.

Yes, Toni Kukoc was in this documentary and for a fair amount. Everyone who didn’t follow the Bulls in the Nineties but watched ‘The Last Dance’ understood that Kukoc was the fourth best player on the team during their second three-peat. Those who watched every game can say that the gap between Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc wasn’t huge.

Toni Kukoc was the second-best player on the team in a lot of games. Kukoc was a difference-maker in Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, scoring 21 points with many key baskets in the third quarter of that 88-83 win.

Kukoc also played a key role in the growth of European basketball. ‘The Last Dance’ covers some of his success in Europe but he was arguably the best player on the continent before coming over to the NBA. He was so good that he would have been the best or second-best player on many NBA teams at the time.

Kukoc’s team-first approach was evident in the documentary and it’s exactly why he fit like a glove with the Bulls. Kukoc sacrificed the ball and shots and it helped him co-exist with Jordan and Pippen. ‘The Last Dance’ showed some of his last-second shots when MJ retired to play baseball and he deferred on those shots again once Jordan came back. Kukoc was a great teammate and everyone in those Bulls rosters has the utmost respect for him.

Bulls head coach Phil Jackson relied on Kukoc for last-second shots when Michael Jordan wasn’t around and he covered for many of Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen’s absences and lapses.

“Toni was instrumental when Pip missed the first 30 some games (in 1997-98),” Phil Jackson said. “He was a terrific player who has been overlooked.”

A few days after the Bulls won their sixth championship, Jackson organized a dinner for players, coaches and their wives at a Chicago restaurant. Midway through, Jackson gathered the players into a private area where they had drinks and cigars in hand and each made one toast.

“It was so special,” Steve Kerr told ESPN. “That was the last moment we were ever all together.”

“I said a toast to Toni [Kukoc],” Kerr explained. “Nobody had to go through what he did — the pressure from Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen] to earn his keep. Michael and Scottie are all over him about being Jerry [Krause]’s guy. And Toni just [wanted] to play. And so I just said a toast to Toni, because I thought he was such a great player. I wanted him to know how much he meant to our team.”