"We were sure we could play in the NBA," Kukoc said. "But even when we came here people were like, 'They all are soft and don't play defense and they don't rebound.' Nobody said we had so many different skills other people don't. I wish I would have come here with a coach who said, 'Here is the ball, we trust your decisions.' Like you see now with (Luka) Doncic, with (Nikola) Jokic, Giannis (Antetokounmpo).
MORE: Kukoc to be inducted in Hall of Fame's Class of 2021
Although he was already a high-calibre player in Europe, in the United States, he was a nobody. Today, it is unthinkable for a European player, who has achieved as much as Kukoc did before he came to the NBA, to go in the second round of the Draft (like Kukoc in 1990).
His career in the best league in the world will always be remembered for being an important piece on Michael Jordan's second three-peat. How would his career have turned out if he had more of the ball instead of sharing the team with Jordan and Scottie? Having said that, the "what would have become" argument applies to a lot of former league legends.
"They weren't ready for us then," Kukoc says .
From the illusion of playing with Jordan to leading the amazing Bulls
After years of Jerry Krause chasing him for his signature and a year since Jordan's secret postgame message at the gold medal game of the 1992 Olympics, Kukoc finally made the leap to Chicago in the summer of 1993. It was something that was already clear. This was the next step in his career after succeeding in Europe and making good money with Benetton Treviso in Italy.
However, soon after joining the reigning three-time champions, the misfortunes began for Jordan and the franchise. First, the tragic murder of Michael Jordan's father on July 23 and then, after a tearful funeral, Jordan himself announced his first retirement.
He did it on October 6, shortly before the 1993-94 season would begin. The Bulls went from winning 57 games with MJ in 1992-93 to having a squad for the 1993-94 season that had only a couple of major roster additions in Steve Kerr and Kukoc.
Although Pippen had a good reputation, he was nowhere near the recognized figure he is today. In fact, much of his reputation was built by being the Bulls' star without Jordan, finishing third in the MVP race in 1994. While Horace Grant and BJ Armstrong were the other recognizable faces, Kukoc demonstrated why they nicknamed him "White Magic. "
The sacrifice from a star, to a role player
The two great moments of Kukoc's rookie season
January 21, 1994: Reggie Miller celebrates at the United Center with a great shot over Steve Kerr that puts the Pacers up by two points. That celebration would be costly, no matter how tough the shot was because Phil Jackson trusted Kukoc and drew up a play with less than a second on the scoreboard.
He had 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting and the Pacers defence forgot about him. After a terrible pumped pass, Kukoc would launch a shot that went in off the board. It added three points, gave the Bulls the win and blew up the United Center.
The Knicks-Bulls rivalry was legitimate in the early 1990s. For several years, the Jordan-led Bulls dominated but without No. 23, Patrick Ewing's men had their greatest opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals. Behind a heroic Pippen and a European rookie named Kukoc, Jackson surprised all by leading the team to 55 wins.
However, they still entered this Conference Semifinals matchup as the underdogs.
The Knicks had won the first two games and were preparing to win Game 3 at United Center. With a shot-clock violation off Pippen and just 5.5 seconds to go, Ewing scored in the post to tie the game up at 102 with just 0.8 seconds left. The Knicks center was already celebrating, probably anticipating overtime, but Phil pulled out the board again.
The shot would be for Kukoc but that annoyed Pippen, who decided to stay on the bench.
The Croatian's response was sensational, knocking down another impossible shot with just 1.8 seconds remaining. Chicago went wild again with Kukoc's game-winning shot, the second in a matter of months. He finished his rookie season with averages of 10.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals in just 24.1 minutes off the bench.
"I had to change my style," Kukoc acknowledged. "I think that is what also hurt me when they look at records. I was winning championships, but I am not scoring, 14, 15 points. Those other guys, Drazen, Dino, they say they scored more, that I am not an All-Star-by the way, how could a team with 72 wins have just two All-Stars when other teams had like three and four and we are winning everything?-but they are not even getting into the playoffs. It's OK. I am glad I got to be the one with the winner."
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.