By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Nov 08, 2002 at 5:03 AM

Toni Kukoc is still finding his way around Milwaukee, but the 34-year-old native of Croatia knows his way around the basketball court very well.

"How do I get from here to the airport?" Kukoc said in only slightly accented English after he had scored 26 points in the Bucks' win over the New Jersey Nets Wednesday night.

After this reporter gave him directions, Kukoc stood in front of his Bradley Center locker and gladly answered questions. "Don't jinx me," he joked. "This is the best I've shot the ball in some time."

Kukoc was on against the Nets, with five of seven from 3-point range. He ranked as the second highest scoring reserve in the NBA after the game and already has demonstrated he is a key man for the Bucks.

You saw further evidence of Kukoc's value Thursday night, when the Bucks lost a heartbreaker at Minnesota. Kukoc was ejected in the second quarter after picking up a double technical for protesting a foul call. Without the 6-11 veteran, the Bucks just could not hang with Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves down the stretch,

"I think we all knew that Toni Kukoc was a good basketball player," Bucks' coach George Karl said of the player acquired in the Glenn Robinson deal with Atlanta. "We're only learning now how good.

"We knew he was a good passer, but didn't know he was this good. He seems to like to have the ball come through him and then dish off to others. He plays good fundamental basketball."

Kukoc said he feels passing the basketball "is the easiest way to play the game." Not every player in the NBA necessarily agrees with him.

In part, Kukoc likes passing and team basketball because he learned the game in Europe, while becoming known as The Pink Panther, the Spider of Split (his hometown in Croatia), The Waiter (for his ability to dish the basketball) and Kuki. All except the latter name are the types reserved for players who have become legends.

Kukoc was a three-time player of the year in Europe before joining the Chicago Bulls in 1993. In Chicago, he played with Michael Jordan and further learned how to play winning team basketball.

"I learned to play team basketball in Europe, and learned that winning makes the game the most fun," Kukoc said. "Most of my goals are team goals. It was that way with the Bulls too, even though we had some great players on those teams."

Kukoc, who also has played with Philadelphia and Atlanta, has adapted quickly to Karl's game plan with the Bucks. "When we share the basketball, and look for the open man like we did tonight, we can be very good," Kukoc said Wednesday. "I like the style here and my teammates. I think we can do good things here."

No calls at Target Center

In addition to missing Kukoc, the Bucks fell victims to several questionable calls in their 114-110 loss Thursday at the Target Center. First, the refs had quick whistles on the two technicals, which led to Kukoc's ejection.

Kukoc was assessed a personal foul while fighting for a rebound with Garnett. Kukoc complained to referee Jason Phillips and was assessed a technical. When Phillips turned away, Kukoc kicked the basketball in his direction. Phillips did not see the kick, but fellow referee Derek Richardson did, and immediately tossed Kukoc.

Sam Cassell also was whistled for a charging call that was very questionable in the closing minutes of the contest.

Garnett is a great player, as demonstrated by his 28 points and 24 rebounds in the game, but he also gets too many star protection calls when the Wolves play at home.

The refs had nothing to do with a court judgment call in the closing seconds by Ray Allen, who opted to go for a two-layup rather than a 3-point shot that would have tied the score. The layup still left the Bucks a point behind and gave the ball back to the Wolves.

Visitor At Sea

Elm Grove's Tim Kent had a welcome visitor as he continued on the lonely journey around the world in the Around Alone sailing competition. Here's Tim's e-mail account from his boat, the Everest Horizontal:

I have a visitor today. A young hawk had been circling the boat for some time, and then surprised me by entering the cabin from the sail locker! She had obviously flown in the forward hatch. She has been in and out of the boat several times now. I have put out some water for her, but she has not chosen to try it yet. She must have been blown offshore by the same storm that covered the boat with sand yesterday. We are more than 475 miles from Africa - a long way home for a tired and thirsty young hawk.

Everest Horizontal must have been a lovely sanctuary for her as she was making her way home. She flew off a little while ago as she has several times -- perhaps she has spent enough time in her sanctuary and found it time to continue home. I wish her all the best.


Hot Tix

The Milwaukee Wave will be going after a team record eighth straight win to start a season when it hosts the Kansas City Comets at 7:05 p.m. Friday at the Bradley Center.

In case you didn't see the addendum to last week's Sports Buzz, coach Keith Tozer will apparently be staying with the Wave. The Chicago Fire, who had interviewed Tozer for its coaching job, hired another coach.

The Bucks host high-scoring Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Bradley Center.

College basketball hasn't started its regular season yet, but you can see Marquette play a team of Wisconsin All Stars at 7 p.m. Sunday in an exhibition game at the BC.

The Milwaukee Admirals are on the road at Utah, but both of the major state football teams are at home. The UW Badgers host Illinois at 11 a.m. Saturday at Camp Randall.

Finally, the Packers host Detroit at noon at Lambeau Field. You can read about that game in On The Pack on OMC Monday.

Gregg Hoffmann writes The Milwaukee Sports Buzz on Fridays and On The Pack on days after Packers' games.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.