Before Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili, there was a skinny kid from Croatia.
Toni Kukoc grew up in the town of Split, Croatia, on the Eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea. Like Chicago, Split is considered a sports town, rich in tradition. The surprising part is that Kukoc didn't start his sports resume with basketball.
"My first sports was table tennis. Yes, ping-pong," Kukoc told CSN Chicago. "And I was decent at that as a kid. Then obviously, like every other kid, I tried soccer. My dad was a soccer goalie and I liked playing soccer."
Kukoc outgrew the ping-pong table and the soccer field. By 1989, he was part of the Yugolsavian National basketball team that won the European Championship. His teammates included Vlade Divac and the late Drazen Petrovic.
"That was actually was the most fun I had playing basketball because we were still kids; 18, 19 years old. You don't think about anything. Just basketball."
Soon everything changed.
Civil war broke out with a bloody conflict between Serbs and Croats. Petrovic and Kukoc were divided from their teammate and friend, Divac. Then on June 7, 1993, Petrovic was killed in a car accident after enjoying a breakout season in the NBA. Kukoc was a pall-bearer, and he's never fully recovered from the loss.
"Well, you can't get over things like that," he said. "You see him one day, you talk, you joke...and then one day it happens and you start thinking, 'Is that really...It takes a second to take all these dreams, take all these goals, take a life away?' And then you'll see how fragile everything really is, then you try to enjoy every day."
Kukoc carried on in Chicago and helped the Bulls to three NBA championships. Twenty years later he now looks back at what he and his friends accomplished.
"When we see each other, this old squad, I'm talking [Arvydas] Sabonis, Dino Radja, Divac, a couple of other guys, we do feel like pioneers that came here and kind of discovered the NBA, to put European players on the map of basketball," Kukoc said.
There were sacrifices with the Bulls, but not the kind that shaped his teenage years. Kukoc may have been an All-Star on another NBA team. Instead, he was content being a key piece alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Winning is all he wanted.
"I will never trade the experience that I had with these guys here with the Bulls," he said. "Basketball is a team game, team sport, and I always say winning championships beats being an All-Star. If you asked Charles Barkley, if you ask Patrick Ewing, if you ask Reggie Miller, if you asked, I don't know how many other players that did not win a championship, if they would trade a couple of their All-Star games for a championship, I'll bet you they will say 'no problem.'"
Kukoc still lives in the Chicago area and watches the Bulls on a regular basis. He hopes someday he'll be remembered as "a good person, as a decent guy, somebody you can have a drink with, you can talk about anything. That's it. I know basketball was a great thing, but it lasted while it lasted."