The Relentless Drive of Toni Kukoc

Plenty of retired athletes take up golf. But when the Chicago Bulls’ legendarily versatile sixth man picks up a new pastime, he’s not playing any games.

The Relentless Drive of Toni Kukoc

Toni Kukoč takes a long stare down the first fairway at Briarwood Country Club in Deerfield, Illinois, a private course about thirty miles north of Chicago. It’s a picturesque day for golf; warm and sunny with a slight breeze pushing towards the pin. At this hour, the only other patrons on the course are chirping birds and the white oak trees surrounding the fairway. Kukoč sizes up his shot, mentally game-planning how to attack the 421-yard, par-four first hole. Standing at six feet, eleven inches tall, Kukoč grabs a massive driver from his bag, takes a few practice shots then steps to the tee with a slight limp, one of his battle scars from a two-decade basketball career and a hip replacement surgery. A lefty, the three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls lets his enormous backswing rip. After following through, Kukoč looks up with a smile, happy that the first of his thirty-six tee shots for the day drives right down the middle of the fairway. He walks over to his cart, places his driver back in the bag and rumbles on down towards the green as the sun rises high over the surrounding trees.

Kukoč’s obsession with golf began during the height of his NBA career, at a chance photo shoot with Jason Zuback, a long-drive champion who handed Kukoč a right-handed golf club to take a few swings. “This guy was just hitting the crap out of the ball,” says Kukoč. “When he gave me a club to hit I figured if a five-foot, six-inch guy can hit 400 yards, I can hit it even further.” That was easier said than done. “A couple of times I missed the ball or barely got it in the air. From there I got interested in the game and I ordered clubs from my old basketball team back in Europe. They sent me two sets of clubs and about 1,200 golf balls, which I lost in the first three months of playing. I don’t know why [I loved it]. Maybe it was because it was something completely different than basketball. Maybe because it’s nice and quiet. There are no players, no coaches, no referees. You totally depend on yourself and control your nerves, your muscles, your head.”

Now, eight years after retiring from the NBA, it’s an obsession that is borderline unhealthy. Before his first tee shot, Kukoč is at the driving range for hours, running through the gamut of his elongated clubs to work out the kinks that come with such a big swing. After his final putt, he heads back to the range for a few more hours before heading home. Once home, his eyes are glued to the Golf Channel. Eventually, he’ll get a few hours of sleep before doing it all again the next morning. Starting as a complete novice who could barely hit a ball, Kukoč is now a two-handicap golfer and won Croatia’s national amateur championship in 2011.

It’s not uncommon for basketball players to turn to golf upon retirement. Though they can’t compete on the court at a professional level any longer, their need for competition doesn’t simply vanish. Golf helps fill a void. But for Kukoč, the transition from the hardwood to the links is a peculiar one. Golf simply isn’t a game designed for men his size — especially not a lefty. In professional golf’s storied history, only nine lefty golfers have won a major championship. As a six-foot-eleven-inch southpaw, Kukoč is easily the tallest man to win an amateur championship and almost certainly owns the longest set of lefty golf clubs in the world. Physically, he’s totally out of his element on the golf course. Then again, Kukoč’s growth and success as a golfer is a testament to the hard work and perseverance that made him one of the greatest European players in basketball history.

Toni Kukoč was born September 18, 1968, in Split, Croatia (then Yugoslavia), a city located on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Kukoč’s father worked for the shipyard while his mother worked part-time in an office. Thanks to the city’s favorable climate, the young Kukoč spent most of his childhood days outside playing soccer with friends. But it wasn’t soccer or basketball that was his first love; it was ping pong. “I played [ping-pong] from years eight through twelve and I was a Croatian champ,” explains Kukoč. “My dad was a soccer goalie and I played from twelve to sixteen.” Then, “when I was sixteen, I grew seven or eight inches during the summer and decided that basketball was the sport to pursue.”

Had Kukoč decided to stick with soccer or ping pong, or if he hadn’t sprouted up nearly a foot, the basketball world would have been robbed of one the greatest international teams ever. As a member of the Yugoslavian national team, Kukoč teamed up with future NBA players Dražen Petrović, Vlade Divac and Dino Radja to dominate competition. From 1987 to 1991, the team never finished worse than third in international tournaments and won the silver medal at the 1988 Olympics, the gold medal at the 1989 FIBA European Championship, gold at the 1990 FIBA World Championship (where Kukoč took home MVP honors), and gold again at the 1991 FIBA European Championship (where Kukoč once again was MVP).

“I would certainly say that the ex-Yugoslavian team with Vlade, Dražen, Dino and myself, that was probably the best team, I would say besides the 1992 Dream Team, in the whole world,” says Kukoč.

Kukoč had about as unique a skill set as you can find on the court. Despite his size, he was silky smooth in transition, able to handle the ball like a guard or pull up and hit a jumper in a defender’s face. He could take smaller players into the post, spin and dunk through traffic. Dubbed “The Waiter” while playing in Europe, Kukoč served his teammates with pinpoint passes for easy buckets.

Four thousand, seven hundred and seventy-five miles away from Split, in the offices of the United Center arena, Toni Kukoč had become the obsession of Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. In 1990 Krause selected Kukoč in the second round of the NBA draft and, from that point on, talked about the European superstar nonstop to anyone within earshot.

Without Kukoč, the Bulls were already one of the top teams in the NBA and had two future Hall of Famers on the roster in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, plus one of the best head coaches in NBA history in Phil Jackson. Following a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bulls came back in 1991 and won their first of three straight NBA titles. While the Bulls owned his rights, Kukoč continued to play in Europe and the already legendary team was doing just fine without him.

But there was trouble in the ranks. Despite being one of the top players in the league, Scottie Pippen was only the sixth-highest paid player on his own team, earning $765,000 during the 1990-1991 season, behind solid but unspectacular teammates like Bill Cartwright, Stacey King, Dennis Hopson and Horace Grant. For months Pippen and his agents went through a painstaking negotiation period with Krause to rework his contract for more money.

Normally a team would do anything in its power to make a player of Pippen’s caliber happy, and the Bulls were operating at $1.5 million under the salary cap, enough to keep Pippen satisfied. But word soon leaked that Krause didn’t want to give the money to Pippen because he wanted to keep the cap room available for Kukoč if and when he decided to join the Bulls. This angered Pippen, Jordan and the rest of the Bulls roster, because Pippen had already proven himself as a legitimate NBA All-Star while Kukoč hadn’t even stepped foot on an NBA court.

Pippen was eventually rewarded with a five-year, $18 million contract extension, but the bad blood between player and front office remained. At the Summer Olympics, Pippen and Jordan got their chance to exact revenge on Jerry Krause.

The 1992 United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Team, better known as the Dream Team, was the greatest team to ever grace a basketball court. The first time the U.S. sent NBA stars instead of college players, the Dream Team featured eleven future Hall of Famers, and was treated like a touring rock band everywhere they went, with massive crowds awaiting their arrival at each stop. Though they crushed every team they went up against, it was Kukoč who felt the wrath more than anyone that summer.

To get back at Krause, Jordan and Pippen made Kukoč’s life a living hell from the opening tip when the Dream Team and Croatia squared off. “We played them in the group stage and only a couple of years did I find out through the ‘Dream Team’ movie that they were actually going to hunt me from the first second in the game. I really had no clue about it,” says Kukoč. “ I didn’t expect that kind of game and they did shut me down.”

“I was anxious before the game,” Pippen told the Hartford Courant. “I wanted to shut [Kukoč] down and embarrass him. I can’t put Krause out on the court.”

“I’m pretty sure Scottie will take the film and send it to Jerry, really quickly,” echoed Jordan. “I’m sure somewhere, Jerry’s watching.”

Following the embarrassment at the Olympics, Kukoč played one more season with Benetton Treviso of the Italian League before joining the Bulls for the 1993-1994 season. Leaving a charmed basketball career in Europe for the spoils that come with playing for the best team in the NBA is something hoop dreams are made of. But as soon as Kukoč came to the States, his career took a shocking twist. “My first day when I landed in Chicago, it was the day Michael Jordan’s dad had been killed,” says Kukoč. “The third day after I had landed in Chicago, Michael had retired. That’s how my NBA career began.”

With the greatest player in the world suddenly gone from the team, Kukoč was relied upon immediately to contribute in a way he wasn’t ready for yet. Thrust into a new job and new country with new teammates, the transition from Europe to the NBA wasn’t easy. “It wasn’t just a basketball change, it was a life change,” says Kukoč. “There were a lot of trips, there was a lot of flying and different ways of playing. I needed to adjust my role.”

While Kukoč adjusted to his new life, another tragedy struck when his dear friend, former teammate and fellow countryman Dražen Petrović died in a car accident on June 7, 1993. Petrović, who was emerging as a star with the New Jersey Nets, was a hero back home and he and Kukoč spent countless hours together as members of the Yugoslavian National Team. At the same time, war raged in Yugoslavia as the country was divided, and Kukoč’s home region of Croatia fought the Croatian War of Independence against the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army.

It was a war that not only threatened Kukoč’s family, but broke up the famed Yugoslavian National Team for good. Once closest of friends and teammates, the relationship between Kukoč and then-Los Angeles Lakers center and ethnically Serbian Vlade Divac was ruined. “As long as [Divac] helps his side and I help my side, we cannot be friends because it’s war,” Kukoč told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “A lot of my friends are on the front lines. We have families without hot water, electricity. It’s a very bad situation…We were very good friends. But now it’s a very big and difficult political situation.”

It’s right around ten a.m. and Kukoč is back at the first tee at Briarwood, ready to begin his second round of the day. During his prime, Kukoč was long and muscular with boyish good looks and a warm smile. While his hair has grayed and his muscles have softened, Kukoč’s welcoming smile remains and he’s quick to crack a joke to anyone who’s listening. Before teeing off, Kukoč looks far down the fairway as the smile evaporates, the mood suddenly turning serious as his thoughts turn toward the war that tore his country apart. “Those things, you can’t do too much about it,” says Kukoč. “The war and stuff like that, it’s an issue that puts basketball and sports into fourth, fifth, sixth in life and you really begin to realize what’s important and what’s going on. The first year or so, I couldn’t even talk to my family and friends because the phone lines weren’t working and there was a lot of stuff going on in the city. Later on when the war kind of moved inland a little bit and away from the city, that was a little better because I could go home and spend the summer with my family and see that they were O.K.”

Kukoč blasts his tee shot down the center of the fairway, another perfect shot and the grin immediately returns to his face. “Coach Jackson used to joke when I played well against good teams,” recalls Kukoč. “He would say, ‘I knew he was going to play well because he had a phone call with his family today, so I knew he was O.K. and ready to play.’”

Jackson was particularly tough on the rookie early on. The coach, now an eleven-time NBA champion who is currently trying to rebuild the New York Knicks as general manager of the organization, is famous for playing bizarre mind games with his players and opponents. During long road trips, he would hand out books he handpicked for his players to read; on one of Kukoč’s early road trips, the coach poked fun at the rookie’s language barrier with his reading selection. “The first year, he gave me a comic book with just the pictures and said, ‘I didn’t think you could read,’” says Kukoč. “He came up with different ways to mess with your head so he could see your reaction and try and figure you out.”

The thick-skinned Kukoč took no offense to Jackson and soon the two recognized each other’s intelligence and formed a bond. “After I read the comic book, he asked, ‘Did you read it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it was really good. It was a lot of cool stuff in there,’” says Kukoč. “Then he figured out that I knew what the joke was and he kind of laughed at first and then so did I. He would actually take the time and take me to dinner and then we would talk about the things that were going on overseas and in my country during the war. He took the time to read a book or two about the old days in ex-Yugoslavia.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the Bulls to embrace Kukoč for his play on the court.

Labeled “soft” when he first entered the league, he quickly shed that reputation with his play on the court, showing a killer instinct that eventually led him to become a fan favorite in Chicago. Coming off the bench during his rookie year, he averaged 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game. In game three of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks, “The Waiter” came through when the team needed him most. With under two seconds left in the game and the score tied at 102 apiece, Jackson drew up a play for Kukoč to attempt the game-winner. The story goes that a distraught Scottie Pippen, who was going to be used as a decoy, was so upset that Kukoč was getting the shot over him that he allegedly told Jackson to pull him from the game. Jackson obliged and Kukoč went on to hit a beautiful fadeaway jumper from the top of the key as time expired.

After unknowingly holding up Pippen’s contract negotiations years before and now stealing the spotlight from him in the playoffs, it would be safe to assume that the relationship between Kukoč and Pippen was doomed. However, that was not the case, and Pippen was actually one of the first Bulls players to embrace Kukoč. “I can actually say that the player that helped me the most in my NBA career, especially in the early days, was Scottie,” says Kukoč. “We really developed a pretty good relationship on and off the court. I don’t think he had too much against me; he probably had it against management. Once I showed up and he had a chance to find out who I am and the stuff about me and I actually started playing, then everything changed.”

The 1994-1995 season saw a dramatic increase in Kukoč’s production and impact on the team. Starting fifty-five games, he averaged 15.7 points. In the 1995-1996 season, with Jordan back in the fold after his stint as a minor league baseball player, Chicago won a record seventy-two games, and Kukoč, now back to playing off the bench, won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. In Europe, Kukoč was a dynamic scorer, putting up huge numbers and winning multiple MVP awards. As an NBA player, he put his individual statistics aside for the betterment of the team and was a huge reason why the Bulls won three straight finals. Kukoč credits “sacrificing your game and body in order to make a team better” as one reason for his success.

Following the 1997-1998 championship season, Michael Jordan retired and the Bulls dynasty came to an end. Kukoč played another season and a half with the Bulls, then bounced around three different teams between 1999 and 2006. His career numbers aren’t overly impressive — he averaged 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.0 steals per game — but his impact goes far beyond stats. Kukoč was a hero to countless Croatian kids and, along with his former Yugoslavian National Team teammates, paved the way for European players to become stars in the NBA.

Back on the golf course, the forty-six-year-old Kukoč can go five days straight of playing thirty-six holes before a necessary trip to the chiropractor. He has considered venturing into coaching basketball — he has been asked to either coach or play with the Croatian national team at the 2016 Summer Olympics — but practices would interfere with morning golf outings. With a 2011 Croatian amateur championship under his belt, he has considered trying to qualify for pro tournaments in the U.S.

Every now and then, on a local course in Chicago or Florida, Kukoč and Michael Jordan team back up as a tandem to take on local patrons. Though they have long since retired, the camaraderie between the two is still there, and their winning ways have carried over to the links.

“We have always played as a tandem,” says Kukoč. “I guess we developed that trust during the basketball years. Although he always complains that I wasn’t a defensive player or a rebounder and I tell him, ‘I wasn’t paid to do all that.’ I joke that I’m the one with the hip replacement surgery; show me what you did to your body. I sacrificed more. Those are our jokes but we always play as partners. It’s fun, he loves competition and he doesn’t care if we play against guys who are better. He just tries to make it competitive always.”

As a professional basketball player, Kukoč competed and succeeded at the highest level. On the hardwood, he went up against some of the best in the world on a nightly basis, but on the golf course, Kukoč’s only competition is himself. Given the way he pushed his limits to overcome every obstacle in his way to become a champion, it’s no surprise that he takes a similar approach on the golf course on a daily basis.

“I love the game of golf. It doesn’t matter what I shoot today, I’ll go out there at six o’clock in the morning and try and put up the best score I can.”