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On Wisconsin

Penney's in Heaven

As captain of the Badger basketball team, Kirk Penney finds himself in a unique role this year. He's the team's only senior, a lone graybeard among a bunch of guys who barely need to shave.

But Penney has plenty of experience at being in a class by himself. When you grow up shooting baskets in a country that favors cricket bats and rugby balls, you get used to being on your own.

Penney was born in Auckland, New Zealand, with virtually no template for his hoop dreams. The island nation had few basketball stars no native Kiwi had been drafted by the National Basketball Association until 1998 and most athletes gravitate toward the nation's greater passions of rugby, cricket, boating, or running.

Yet Penney's course was clear from an early age at least to him. When he was twelve, he wrote a school essay in which he outlined his plans to play basketball in the United States. His teachers thought he was dreaming.
He was. "I had this whole scenario in my mind of what would go on. I thought it would just be awesome," Penney says. "And to be honest, it's been even better to experience it. When you're actually living a dream, it's so much more than dreaming a dream."

To be fair, Penney's visions didn't exactly come true. He had imagined suiting up for UCLA, whose games sometimes came on television in the middle of the night, making it the only U.S. university Penney really knew. When assistant coach Tony Bennett recruited him to Wisconsin, he had barely even heard of the state. "Green Bay Packers. Milwaukee Bucks. That's about it," he laughs.

But he couldn't be happier with how it's played out. "I'm just so proud to be a part of the Wisconsin program," he says. "The whole college experience here is so unique. And the support of the fans is just second to none."

Penney, a six-foot, five-inch guard whose jump shot is as soft as his humble, friendly manner, broke into the lineup as a freshman in 1999-2000, during the Badgers' run to the Final Four. Last season, he emerged as a star, leading the team in scoring, averaging more than fifteen points per game, and helping the Badgers earn a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship. Along the way, he became only the fifth UW men's player since 1948 to earn consensus All-Big Ten honors.

He's done it all while keeping up a double life becoming a Badger by winter, and a Kiwi by summer. Penney has spent nearly every moment away from school competing for his home country, appearing in the 2000 Olympics, the 2001 Goodwill Games, and this year's World Basketball Championships. At that last event, held this summer in Indianapolis, Penney and the New Zealand team became a dream team to upstage the Dream Team. The Kiwis, who had to beat rival Australia for the first time since 1978 just to make the sixteen-team Worlds, knocked off Goliath after Goliath en route to a stunning fourth-place finish. That put them two spots ahead of the host United States, and, in New Zealanders' eyes, on top of the world.

"The whole country was behind us. It was a really special experience," says Penney, who was New Zealand's second-leading scorer. "Things like that don't come along very often. For little old New Zealand, it was just a great run."

And so has it been a great run for Penney. He's determined to cherish his final year in Madison from the charged energy of the Kohl Center on game day to the laid-back idyll of hanging out at the Terrace. "I know this is a time in my life that I will always treasure," he says. "I don't want to think ahead into the future too much. I just want to enjoy the now and enjoy the time I've had here. Everything else will fall into place."

Michael Penn