Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Toni Award

At 23, Toni Kukoc, a 6'10" guard, is already Europe's best player and a prize coveted by the Chicago Bulls

The Videocassette goes by the idiomatically impaired English title of Enjoy Like Me, and the star, who calls himself Kuki, lends the video scant credibility by gracing its cover. Kuki is skinny to the point of apparent malnourishment. He is flashing a doofus grin, balancing a basketball on two fingers and wearing a sweatshirt that says DRIBBLING. The cover photo is cut off just below the waist, but you suspect that if it weren't it would reveal Kuki wearing black socks and running shoes and carrying a tote bag embroidered with the heraldry of Liechtenstein's national team.

No, you're told, Kuki is a Croat. And this clinches it, for you know all about Yugoslav basketball players. In two NBA seasons the singular achievement of the Boston Celtics' Stojko Vrankovic, Red Auerbach's latest human cigar, has been to make Henry Finkel seem like Bill Russell. If Vlade Divac's body isn't going on or coming off the Los Angeles Lakers' disabled list, his head is. Zarko Paspalj chain-smoked through his single season with the San Antonio Spurs, logging 181 minutes in 28 games in 1989-90. And while Drazen Petrovic finally proved he can knock down an NBA jump shot, it took his going to the New Jersey Nets to find the playing time to prove it. EuroHoops? EurnoFool.

But you pop the tape into the VCR anyhow. You are not pleased to discover it is narrated in Croatian and set to a sound track of dreadful Dalmatian lounge music. Whereupon the images begin flickering across your screen.

Swat! That's Patrick Ewing's shot Kuki just sent into the stands during a 1991 McDonald's Open game between Pop 84 Split and Ewing's New York Knicks. Swoosh! An adolescent Kuki bottoms out the first of 11 three-pointers he will make in another game—and an American team, on its way to losing to Yugoslavia in the 1987 World Junior Championships, is looking for shelter from the hailstorm. Zip! Pass after pass sails past, over and through oblivious Israelis, Greeks, Spaniards and even a few New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, always into the hands of some teammate perfectly positioned to score.

Boom! Kuki teaches another lesson to a master, stripping Maurice Cheeks, then with the Knicks, and gliding in for a breakaway slam. Soon Kuki is slamming some more: assaulting the hoop, gobbling up ground with loping strides, throwing down dunk after dunk, including an afterthought jam in which he approaches the basket along the baseline, leaps up and on by, then insouciantly whips the ball back through at the last possible instant. Goodness, you mutter to yourself. All that, and he has a face that would put dollar signs in Wesley Snipes's eyes.

By the time the video has run its 24-minute course, you are left with the daunting task of deciding whether Kuki, more formally Toni Kukoc (pronounced KOO-kotch), is the rest of the world's Michael, or its Magic, or its Larry. In the broad contours of his wealth and celebrity he seems most like Jordan, who starred in a video with the somewhat similar title of Come Fly with Me. Kukoc enjoys a five-year, $13 million personal-services contract with Italian clothing magnate Gilberto Benetton, who essentially loans Kukoc out to his basketball team in Treviso. The deal is larded with such perks as a Lancia sedan and a villa set in a wooded park. Benetton, having evidently decided that ads depicting smooching clerics and Technicolor condoms can sell only so many sweaters, hopes Kukoc's homegrown likability will connect in Eastern Europe, where millions of young torsos are as yet unswathed in laughably expensive clothing.

In action, however, there seems to be rather more Magic to Kukoc. He plays as if the game is his party and the ball a tray of canapès. At 6'10", he can be effective anywhere on the floor. And he lets his lighthearted disposition run free. "He's a joker by nature," says his father, Ante, an engineer at the shipyard in the Adriatic port city of Split, where Kukoc grew up. "And he jokes when he plays. A game really is a game." Just as Magic so thoroughly reinterpreted our notion of the well-rounded player that we invented a new stat, the triple double, to do him justice, Kukoc is threatening to ratchet up the Continental game's standards anew. He has turned in several quadruple doubles, like the 19-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist, 10-blocked-shot line he dropped on the Italian national team in 1991.

Yet Kukoc, who is only 23, is rara avis enough to merit comparison to the young Larry. He has that Bird-like ability to make everyone around him better. When Benetton Treviso won the Italian League title last May, Vinny Del Negro, someone you may have heard of, led the team in scoring. When Pop 84 Split won the 1991 European Club title, Zoran Savic, someone you probably haven't heard of, led the team in scoring. When Yugoslavia won the 1990 Goodwill Games title, Jurij Zdovc, someone you have only heard of when you've heard someone sneeze, led the team in scoring. The point is that all of these titles—and the 1990 world championship, the '89, '90 and '91 European championships and virtually every cup, saucer or sundry other piece of international flatware Toni has taken home during his short career—can be attributed to Kukoc's exercising his full and subtle range of talents. You could even argue that he deserves at least a footnote's worth of credit for the Chicago Bulls' 1991 NBA crown, given how management's energetic courtship of him prodded the Bulls into proving that they didn't need any imported help.

The only commodity Kukoc seems to lack is strength. His 210 pounds are spread thinly over a shoulderless frame. "Strength is not necessary for his style," says Ante Vuckovic, who covers basketball for the Split daily Slobodna Dalmacija. "His game is invention. And he is the best man, yes? The best human. He has only friends, nothing else."

Why, then, did the young men who play for the Bulls not want to be his friends? Why did they cluck and scowl and think the worst of the idea that he might play with them? When he lines up at the Barcelona Olympics against Jordan and Scottie Pippen—if any team might give the U.S. a test at the Games, Croatia could be the one—Kuki will look at them and wonder why.

By most accounts it was a Sunday afternoon in 1983 when Igor Karkovic, a coach for the local club team, Jugoplastika, took his son out for a cruise along Split's Marjan peninsula. Karkovic might as well have been on the bridge of the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria. He spotted a boy on the beach—running, diving, swimming—who cut a graceful figure. Karkovic asked who this boy was who had eluded the broad net the coach dragged through the city to snare young talent.

"Oh, that's Toni," his son told him. "We call him Feet."

Karkovic took the boat in, tracked the boy down and soon discovered why he had missed Feet. Kukoc, then 14 and 6'1", had shot up eight inches during the previous year. As it happened, he had quick hands, already apparent during a brief table tennis career in which he beat a boy who would go on to become national champion. He had quick feet, too, developed during a turn with a local soccer club—although his nickname stemmed from their size, not their quickness.

Soon Kukoc was making the short walk from his family's apartment to Jugoplastika's gym. (Why do great ballplayers, irrespective of hemisphere, so often come from urban high rises with graffiti in the stairwells?) Four years later he was in the Italian Alps with the junior national team, dropping those three-pointers on such NBA-players-to-be as Larry Johnson and Gary Payton. Three years after that the Bulls made him their first draft choice.

Over the 1990-91 season, Chicago G.M. Jerry Krause behaved like a college recruiter who has just heard that David Berst got fired by the NCAA. Krause flew to Split twice, including once with his owner, Jerry Reinsdorf. He sent Kukoc a personalized Bulls jersey and boxes of Bulls game tapes. He phoned Luciano (Lucky) Capicchioni, Kukoc's agent, every day, and he jawboned Bulls center Bill Cartwright and coach Phil Jackson into calling Kukoc. He set final deadline after final deadline, at the risk of alienating Pippen, whose new contract had to wait until Kukoc made a decision. To any request from the Kukoc camp, Krause would respond refiexively with that most commonplace of Croatian phrases—nema problema ("no problem").

The Bulls offered essentially the same amount of money as Benetton. The primary reason Kukoc gave for passing up the NBA—he wanted to stay near his family during the then developing political turmoil in Yugoslavia—seemed at the time to be a thin pretext. Some wondered if he really wasn't insecure about throwing his skinny self into a league in which one of his best friends, Paspalj, had flopped, and in which Petrovic, the Mozart of Yugoslav hoops until Kukoc came along, had struggled. After all, Kukoc had said, "It is my dream to play in the NBA. It is not my dream to sit on the bench."

But soon federal gunboats were menacing the Croatian coast. After a perilous autumn, his parents were able to escape to Italy in January and move in with Toni and his fiancèe, Renata. His decision to stay in Europe was suddenly vindicated. Meanwhile he had a chance to develop confidence, adjust to life in another country and bulk up. A year earlier his mother, Radjoka, had spoken ruefully of the 125 games a Yugoslav national team member would sometimes play over a 12-month period. "Just let me have him for a couple of months straight," she said. "You'll see. I'll fatten him right up." Now Mama Kukoc had her wish, and Toni gained a dozen pounds last season. It turned out that choosing between Benetton and the Bulls was the perfect situation. There was no way Kukoc could lose.

One other misgiving influenced Kukoc's decision. He knew of the open hostility of the Chicago players to management's efforts to sign him. He knew, too, how in the Bulls' locker room he had become a convenient bogeyman. According to Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules, Jordan refused to watch the tapes of Kukoc that Krause had plied him with, refused to call Kukoc—"I don't speak no Yugoslavian," he told Krause—and even gave his agent, David Falk, orders to explore a trade if the Bulls were to sign him. Kukoc, who had always said playing with Jordan would be a "privilege," had been stung when these sentiments reached him. "To get the feeling you're not wanted, that would affect any person," he says. "Maybe now that they've won a championship, they've proved something to themselves. But if I go to Chicago, I wouldn't go as God. I would go as someone wanting to prove to myself—and to them—that I can play in the NBA."

A couple of years down the road, when the Bulls are still one of the NBA's elite teams, and Jordan and Pippen and Horace Grant are more mature and secure, Kukoc probably will end up in Chicago, augmenting by one the largest urban concentration of Croats west of the Adriatic. Krause has vowed that Kukoc will play NBA ball in Chicago or not at all, because the Bulls own his rights in perpetuity and will never trade them. And Jordan, who has heard from more and more basketball cognoscenti that Kukoc is the real deal, is said to be weakening in his opposition. "I have to speak with Benetton first," says Kukoc, whose contract contains an escape clause that would allow him to move to the NBA after next season. "But even after you win everything, people always want you to win something more. And I have won everything there is to win in Europe. The NBA would be a new challenge."

It is the carefree time before practice, and Kukoc is recounting for his national teammates a move of Michael's he has seen. "For Jordan it is too easy," he says, adding gestures now. "He jumps, and for one minute he can do anything he wants. He has coffee, and eats something, and maybe he says 'Hi' to the crowd...and only then, 'Oh, yes. Maybe I'll shoot now.' I can listen to a whole song from Madonna in the time he is up there."

At this moment Kukoc could be a schoolboy, unaware that all of Europe holds him in much the same awe with which he regards his prospective teammate. To see him now is to understand his reluctance to hurry to the NBA and to appreciate his decision to submit himself to more seasoning. But a similar reluctance, taken to the court, is why he'll be a model Bull. Join any of the pickup games that rage in Croatian schoolyards and you'll see why Kukoc was bred to fit in. No one wants to shoot. Player after player barrels toward the basket only to give the ball up at the last instant possible, usually with some look-away flourish. The next player does the same thing, and so on, until the game devolves into a beautiful hybrid of hot potato and musical chairs, and the ball is shot, finally, out of no recourse.

But after all this dawdling, a shot eventually does go up. So it will be with Kukoc. Anyone who's up at three, four, sometimes five o'clock in the morning, whenever Chicago is playing live on European TV, clearly wants to be a Bull. And any club that sent its general manager to Italy in March to follow Kukoc around again like a wounded puppy, as Chicago did with Krause, clearly still wants him to be a Bull. "Toni's wasting his talent," Krause said then. "He should be playing for the best team in the world. It's as if Picasso had settled for being a decorator."

Years ago Ante Kukoc would take his boy down to the shipyard for a ship's christening. Toni would stand enraptured as a 160,000-ton vessel slid into the sea. Someday, vowed the young man who would be discovered on the shore from a boat, I will be on a ship discovering foreign shores.

He still talks about sailing around the world as a grand adventure to be taken up when he retires. Yet of all the great trips in Kukoc's future, none will be so great as the voyage he will likely embark upon before he stops playing basketball.



As his foreign foes can attest, Kukoc has the drive to take Croatia to a medal in Barcelona.



The Bulls wooed top draft choice Kukoc with a jersey he now says he may eventually don.



In Italy, Toni's autograph has the same cachet that Michael's signature does in the U.S.



Toni's rich Benetton deal supports Renata and him in style.