To Stela, Toni is her dad.
She doesn’t make him out to be a superhero. He’s just a 6-foot-11 inch Croatian man with three NBA Championship rings.
She doesn’t remember much about his 13-year NBA career.
She remembers moving to three different cities before returning to her birthplace in Highland Park, a northern Chicago suburb, once Toni Kukoc was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in August 2002.
That was just her life.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Oh, what is it like to have your dad play in the NBA?’” Miami volleyball senior Stela Kukoc said. “Like, I know and understand that he did a lot in the NBA and in Croatia, but I don’t know anything different than that. He’s just my dad.”
Inside Millett Hall, Stela’s different.
She’s energetic, constantly supporting her volleyball teammates and coaches around her.
She’s passionate, celebrating modestly after winning a point before dialing back into the match.
She’s a leader, directing mid-point traffic and encouraging the younger players on the RedHawks roster.
Well, she puts up that facade for the public.
“Until the end of her junior year, I don’t think she took a reason to step into my office and look me in the eye,” volleyball coach Carolyn Condit said. “I think she realized that we could talk, and I was willing to help her. She’s just one of those kids who would meld into the cement if she wanted to. She just doesn’t want any attention on her.”
Attention came to her at a young age, as it was something she couldn’t avoid due to the name on the back of her jersey.
“Sometimes I felt the pressure, because I knew that during high school games or here, people would sometimes mention my dad,” Stela said. “I kind of felt like I had to play well for him.”
One of Stela’s defining qualities is her independence. She’s had it since she started playing sports as a child.
Her two-time Olympic silver medalist father never pushed her to play basketball, but she tried: Wasn’t her style.
“For some reason, she liked volleyball better, and I was okay with that,” Toni said. “I only wanted her to get the No. 7, which she refused. She has her own mind and opinion about things. There’s not much you can influence her with. That’s her trademark, and everyone knows that.” She elected to wear No. 4.
Stela gravitated toward volleyball and soccer.
“For the longest time, I thought I wanted to play soccer,” Stela said. “I have an older brother (Marin) that played basketball at the University of Pennsylvania, so my dad kind of got his basketball fix from him. I did my own thing, and he never really pushed anything on me.”
Toni did, however, push his booming, Eastern European input among the crowd at both of his children’s sporting endeavors.
“You can usually hear him screaming from behind the bench,” Stela said. “Whether it be here or in a teeny high school gym. He would not hold back being super loud and screaming.”
It even got out of hand sometimes, Stela said.
It’s nothing uncommon – Toni’s just a supportive soccer dad (minus the minivan, mainly because he wouldn’t fit).
During one of her youth soccer games, he didn’t always agree with some of the referees’ calls or plays made by Stela’s opponents. So much so, that at one of her soccer games, the referee blew the whistle, turned to him and told him to be quiet.
“Maybe I’m just too focused on the game to hear any of that,” Stela said. “I know that my brother or my mom would have to hit him to be quiet because he’ll be yelling about random stuff.”
In Toni’s defense, he just wanted to support his kids.
“You want to follow your kids and encourage them. You have to give them support on whatever they do,” Toni said. “I actually pride myself on knowing what sport is all about, so yes, I did say those things.”
Other parents would look at him, irritated by his antics. Not because of his complaining, but because of what he would try to do from the stands.
“I would actually anticipate what is going to happen,” Toni said. “I would tell her where to run and what to do. That’s what the problem was. That’s why they didn’t want me to yell. They would always say, ‘Oh, they have a coach. You don’t need to do this yelling stuff.’”
To put aside the chaos of sports and screaming dad, the Kukoc family takes some time off every summer.
The family sojourns to Split, Croatia, where both Toni and his wife, Renata, grew up. It’s a time when Marin and Stela could be away from their responsibilities, and Toni away from his advisory role with the Chicago Bulls.
After finishing her final season of volleyball late last November, Stela will graduate next month with a degree in kinesiology. Still undecided about graduate school, she’ll have an opportunity to relax and think about her future.
“I wanted to go into physical therapy for a while, but I switched to clinical and mental health counseling,” Stela said. “As mental health has become more important, it has played a bigger role for me. I just had a liking for it.”
They spend the first part of the vacation week with their extended family before drifting around the Adriatic Sea, fishing and hopping to Brac, Maslinica or the other islands along the Croatian coast.
“At that time, we have nothing to do here in the States,” Toni said. “We go there to see the family, and you know how mad the grandparents would be. They’d kill us if we didn’t bring our kids to them!”
Separate from her Croatian roots and her team, Stela connects with a third family: her sisters of Kappa Kappa Gamma (Kappa).
“We are with the team basically 24/7 and practice five hours a day with each other,” Stela said. “It was nice to have a separate outlet.”
She even decided to live with three Kappas, rather than with other athletes.
The sorority allowed her to miss certain events due to volleyball, but she still tries to be involved with as many events as possible, even the ones that take place during the season.
“It has been a very easy time to be able to balance [academics, volleyball and Kappa],” Stela said. “Unfortunately, I can’t do as much as I want to, but it hasn’t been too difficult, because they have been so understanding about everything.”
Little to Stela’s knowledge, Condit used her as a test.
A few of her players have approached her since with the interest in rushing a sorority. The ground rules were simple: school first, volleyball second and sorority third.
“She got really into it her first year but never missed a step with volleyball or academics,” Condit said. “That was important to her, I could tell. I’ve even had two kids ask me about it since, and I told them the same thing. ‘Keep your priorities straight.’”
This never presented an issue for Stela, a three time Academic All-MAC selection.
Stela took the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” approach when it came to Miami.
She went on an official visit to a Big Ten school, the University of Iowa: too big. Next, came Wake Forest University: too small. Finally, Miami: just right.
She already knew Olivia Rusek, the 2017 MAC Player of the Year, from their days of club volleyball in high school.
“I met the rest of the team and loved them all,” Stela said. “They were all so funny and so welcoming, and that’s been true throughout all my years. All the teammates I’ve had have become some of my best friends.”
But there was a connection to Miami that the big man had in mind: Ron Harper.
Toni collected his three championships with Harper during their run with the Chicago Bulls from 1996-’98. Harper graduated from Miami in 1986 after taking the RedHawks to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The Miami connection stuck out to Toni.
“When Stela was being recruited by Miami, I talked to him,” Toni said. “He always told me that if I ever needed to talk to someone over there, or if I needed any type of advice or something, to let him know.”
He said that it was Stela’s own decision to pick the right school, but he has always been there to help.
“She always had a feeling I wasn’t a volleyball player,” Toni said. “I would always tell her it doesn’t matter what game it is. I know the game aspect, the stuff that comes in order to win games, play the right way and play hard.”
Stela said she knew he tried to help when it came to any sport – mainly basketball. But volleyball?
“Her dad always told me she was the athlete of the family,” Condit said. “I know she had to get through a lot because he was probably too loud in the stands in high school, cheering her on or getting on her case. But, he doesn’t know a damn thing about volleyball.”
Well, that’s why he’s not a volleyball player. He’s just Stela’s dad.