|Monday, October 15
Kukoc: 'I worry for the future of the world'
By Jeffrey Denberg
Special to ESPN.com
If all of Toni Kukoc's life were basketball he would be a reasonably happy man today. At age 33 his career is ascending and his physical condition has not been this good since his early days in Chicago.
Recovering from two treatments of Shock Wave therapy to relieve debilitating plantar fasciatis in his left foot, Kukoc has not missed a practice and is steadily working his way back into playing shape. He is being installed as the catalyst for the vastly improved Atlanta Hawks' offense and his teammates are learning to keep their hands up and their eyes focused when he has the ball.
After a disappointing calendar year in which he could not please Philadelphia's Larry Brown, Kukoc has the respect of and admiration of his new coach, Lon Kruger, and the promise of a satisfying season.
So, for Kukoc, one of the world's truly great international players, life should be free and easy right now. But that became impossible on Sept. 11 when madmen flew jet liners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
After years of dealing with the Balkan wars that killed hundreds of thousands and brought destruction on his homeland of Croatia, Kukoc discovers that terror has followed him to what seemed the world's last safe haven.
"This was strange, so strange a thing because you don't suspect something like to happen, not here," Kukoc said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As someone who has lived more than half his life in Europe you always think about every other place in the world it might happen but not in the United States. You feel from the long time history none of that happens in the United States unless it is a civil war. Every part of the world. But the United States was always sort of separated from that kind of activity.
"Then everything turned around. I figured, 'life is precious every day. You never know when people with sick minds can destroy your life. It doesn't matter how well life is going on for you that moment. If that can't happen in the middle of New York City, it can happen anywhere else. If the terrorists can hit the Pentagon or the White House I don't see where it's safe. It's going to be a sad thing if we have to get used to that."
"How do you get used to it? I could never get used to what happened in my country. It's a terrible thing to think that you would get used to a world like this, that our children would come to accept a world like this."
Parents back home in the city of Split asked Toni and wife Renata to pack up their small children, Marin and Stela and come home to War-torn Croatia. "We talk about it with them. We talk a couple times a week. There are different opinions. They say come home. But I tell them if it happens in the United States it's going to happen everywhere else in the world. There's no place to hide."
In '91, a year shy of NBA draft eligibility for international players, Kukoc was about to lead his team to its third European championship when the shooting began. "We were in Rome. My roommate was a Slovenian. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon and we were about to go play the semifinal game. He got a call and I hear him say, 'oh, yeah, sure, okay, I'll do that' and hangs up the phone and he says I'm going home. War started.'"
What followed was seven years of bitter conflict. Captives were starved in prison camps, then fed soup laced with ground glass. Snipers ruled the roof tops in Split, relatively safe from attack because it is snugged between the Dalmatian Alps and the sea.
"I couldn't get anybody on the phones. I couldn't get home. I couldn't do anything. I was 22 and I'm away from everybody. I'm away from everybody over there. I can't talk to them. After a while I get the phone calls but during regular hours because everyone is down in the shelters and the only time I can call is 3 o'clock in the morning when they have access to go up to the apartments."
His parents lived in one of those high rises the Communists loved to build. "They were in a 10-story building and my father would watch out the window with binoculars as snipers shot at people and then the police chasing them across the roof tops. It was a terrible thing. My uncle was almost hit by a sniper while dropping his son at basketball practice. Missed him by inches and he didn't know until he saw the bullet hole."
He was playing professionally in Italy when he became desperate to go home. "It was late April, the next Spring. In those days I would drive from Italy and then I would go to the ferry because it was only way you come into Split. The ferry went at night and it never had lights on because it was dangerous. Every time you would pass one of the harbors they would shut down the engines to a minimum so no one would hear. You couldn't feel safe."
Soon sport became irrelevant to the sons of the warring former provinces. Kukoc and Vlade Divac, a Serb now playing in Sacramento, experienced the dissolution of their close friendship, since repaired with the cease fire of 1998.
"I had a great relationship with Vlade. But when the war started friendships went away. Look, I know he's a great guy and I know he would never do something to hurt me. You can ask, 'how's your season going,' something like that, but when you raise the question, 'how's your family?' It's already difficult for me to say well they've spent the last couple of months in the shelters because your army is shooting at them. And that was the thing that was going on for a good six years. It was very strange for us."
Kukoc was with the Chicago Bulls during the final years of the war, trying to stay focused on his job, winning three titles with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, but keeping his fears from the public.
"There were plenty of times I couldn't concentrate on playing the games. I'd hear they'd attack [the town where an aunt and her family lived]. The house burned. My father tells me both your cousins are in the army they haven't called for 10 days, we don't know where they are or what's going on. So, after that it's not easy to switch on and off and go play the games with 24,000 people eating popcorn, drinking beer, having a good time."
Phil Jackson, the Bulls coach, understood, Kukoc said, but he could not talk openly about his fears. "I actually didn't take the time to explain to the media and the fans. I tried to deal with it on my own time. It wasn't difficult to talk about but there was the sense of not being able to do anything about it. You can be as smart as you want, but you feel powerless."
"So now, it comes to this country. You think to yourself, been there. If you are lucky you are okay. If not... I bet everyone of us got on the plane today didn't think about how nice it would be. You don't worry so much about the weather. It's a very strange thing. I worry for the future of the world. For my children."
Jeffrey Denberg, who covers the NBA for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.