The preliminary round game gets most of the attention, the one where Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan made it their personal mission to hound and harass Toni Kukoč at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Tired of Jerry Krause’s consistent crowing about Kukoč, whom the late general manager had drafted and stashed after using a second-round pick on the Croatian star in 1990, the All-Star Chicago Bulls gave no quarter defensively on that night.
It’s well documented that Kukoč missed nine of 11 shots with seven turnovers in Team USA’s 103-70 shellacking of Croatia.
What doesn’t draw as many headlines — but speaks volumes to Kukoč’s skill and character — is the gold-medal game. Yes, the Dream Team earned its gold medal with a 117-85 victory.
But Kukoč stuffed the box score with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Croatia earned a silver medal with its 6-2 record. Their only two losses came to arguably the greatest assembled basketball team of all time.
Perseverance in the face of pressure is among the many traits that elevated Kukoč to the game’s pinnacle. And it seems fitting that Jordan will stand alongside Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf as co-presenters when Kukoč officially enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday in Springfield, Mass.
Kukoč, whose role acceptance, big shotmaking and sublime passing and ball-handling played such a critical role in the Bulls’ second three-peat, takes his place among the game’s greats. That includes Jordan, Pippen, Krause, Reinsdorf, Phil Jackson, Tex Winter and Dennis Rodman from that Bulls dynasty alone.
“It was probably the greatest time I had on the basketball court,” Kukoč said at a Friday news conference in Springfield of the Bulls’ dynasty.
That’s saying something given Kukoč’s dominance on the international scene before he finally arrived in Chicago in 1993. Kukoč won EuroLeague, Italian and Yugoslav League championships, racking up numerous most valuable player awards in the process.
It’s why the international committee voted him in for Hall of Fame enshrinement. And it’s why he’s proud of the influence that players like him, Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Dražen Petrović had on the NBA.
“When we came here, it was different times. People didn’t actually know about us,” Kukoč said. "They heard about it. They maybe saw us play one or two games, maybe five games. But we were pioneers coming into the NBA... That was a time, the early 90s, when the NBA became a global game.”
Jordan’s larger-than-life personality helped as well. The Bulls became a worldwide phenomenon.
And through it all, Kukoč delivered, winning an NBA Sixth Man of the Year award and earning the respect of teammates and coaches alike. Even those hard-to-please ones like Jordan, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2009.
“In every way possible,” Kukoč said Friday, when asked how Jordan influenced him. “He wasn’t the nicest of teammates. But in a way, he was pushing everybody to practice good.
“I don’t want to say what part of my speech is going to be (Saturday). But our practices were actually harder than games we played. And it was all because Michael and Scottie were there each and every day, together with Phil, to make us believe that there’s always a chance to get better. That there’s always something new, something else to learn in a game. And that I think it’s one of the biggest reasons why we had that kind of run and won three championships in a row.”
And produced multiple Hall of Famers along the way.