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UW MEN'S BASKETBALL: Long-range success
2:24 AM 3/02/03
Vic Feuerherd Wisconsin State Journal

MINNEAPOLIS - Kirk Penney is not going to argue with his friend and coach Tony Bennett when Bennett reminds him that he leads a "charmed" life.

There was that visit to the NCAA Final Four as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. A few months later, Penney was in Sydney, Australia, representing New Zealand in the 2000 Olympics. There have been two more visits to the NCAA tournament, a trip to the Goodwill Games and last summer's journey through the World Championships in Indianapolis where his New Zealand team finished a surprising fourth.

"You're looking at one thing to the next, then another goal pops in your head and you strive for that," Penney said recently. "When you get time to reflect, it's something else. It's been an awesome ride."

That ride continues today when the Badgers play Minnesota at Williams Arena in a nationally televised game that will help determine whether the Badgers are going to be able to repeat as champions in the Big Ten Conference.

No matter what happens today, Penney knows there's another goal that will pop into his head, another chance to strive for success. There's a chance to play three more games, including Wednesday night at the Kohl Center where the Badgers face Illinois in Penney's farewell to the UW faithful. There could be as many as 10 more games if everything should go perfectly for the tournament-bound Badgers down the stretch.

"The goal is to extend this as far as possible," he said. "Just take care of business and things will work out."

That's been Penney's method ever since the summer of 1999 when he arrived in Madison as the personal recruit of Bennett, who was introduced to Penney while playing professional basketball in New Zealand.

Four years later, Penney is firmly entrenched in the UW record book, one of the pioneers of an up-and-coming program on the national scene and one of the architects of the burgeoning interest in the game in his home country.

"To experience that in a college career, talk about a charmed life," Bennett said. "But the thing that impresses me most is that (Penney) is so thankful for his opportunities and he's humble about it. That's what people like about him."

It's hard not to like the 6-foot-5, 220-pound, 22-year-old, who refers to friends and acquaintances as "mate" as if he were still back in Auckland. Fans and foes alike respect him. His teammates love him.

"He's taught me not to be so uptight, to be laid-back, and don't let things bother you so much," said junior center Dave Mader, Penney's roommate who came to UW the same year as Penney. "He's a genuine person."

Genuine is as good a word as any to describe Penney.

You hear it in his short answers to questions after a tough loss, no matter how well he might have played. You hear it in his effusive praise for his teammates after a victory. You hear it in his friendly banter on just about any subject, like the relative value of the lamb shank versus the lamb chop.

"He seems to adapt to wherever he is and enjoys it. That's a good lesson for anyone to learn," Bennett said.

It's a lesson Penney has learned well. Basketball is important, perhaps the most important thing in his life. But he strives for balance. He enjoys school. He enjoys his friends. He's comfortable just plopping on the couch and watching a movie.

"You have to make sure the game doesn't consume you. You need balance in your life," Penney said.

"You meet so many people through so many different avenues. They are people you are going to remember and stay in touch with through the years.

"If I had stayed home, it might be a totally different path I'd have taken."

Uncommon zeal
If the plan devised by his junior coach in
New Zealand had come true, Madison might be just a dot on the map to Penney.

Kurt Dammers, a Champaign, Ill., native who attended Miami (Ohio) and settled in New Zealand in 1978, was pushing Penney for a national league team. The coach of that team, however, picked one of Penney's teammates for the spot.

Dammers then turned to Tony Bennett, who was a player-coach in the New Zealand pro league.

"Tony kept throwing new drills at him and Kirk picked up every one," Dammers wrote last week via e-mail. "Tony kept making them harder and more complicated. He was sold before they even started playing one-on-one."

Bennett noticed the inherent toughness in Penney's game that first time. One had to be tough to play basketball in New Zealand, not because of the way the game is played there, but because it didn't rank very high on the popularity charts. You were different if you played basketball.

"If you survive as a player in New Zealand, you play it because you absolutely love the game," Bennett said.

Dammers' relationship with Penney began when Penney was 12. It didn't take Dammers long to discover the gem he had.

"What I saw was a little kid with a big heart and real toughness, quiet with a rod of steel running through him," Dammers wrote. "He wasn't afraid of anyone or anything. He was playing against men in their 20s and 30s and not backing down.

"He had reasonable handles and good form on his shot, but it was his character, first and foremost, that you noticed. You can't coach that, only help shape it."

Always learning
Penney's game has been shaped by three head coaches in his stay at UW - Dick Bennett, Brad Soderberg and Bo Ryan. Often, changing coaches works against a player. Instead, Penney has made the most of what each had to offer.

"I've had three absolutely wonderful coaches here. Each has a different perspective on life and each of them is enlightening in a different way," Penney said.

Ryan calls Penney a "sponge" who absorbs every nuance he is taught. "It's his work ethic and willingness to keep his eyes, ears and mind open," said Ryan, who is credited with expanding Penney's offensive game to include some strong post moves.

"If you don't feel you have all the answers, you're receptive to more information. He has improved as a player, period. It certainly says a lot to your younger players. It's incentive for them."

One of Ryan's prized freshman, forward Alando Tucker, has benefited from Penney's approach. The two room together on the road. Tucker says he talks to, listens to and watches Penney, as if by osmosis he will take Penney's approach into his core.

"Sometimes I even sound like him," Tucker said with a big smile, trying to mimic Penney's very noticeable accent.
indentTucker's reaction to Penney is indicative of how Penney teaches by example. It's the same way he learns.
indent"One of Kirk's greatest strengths is that he grasps things so well. You tell him something and he has the ability to put his mind around it and master it," Tony Bennett said.
indent"All the coaches he has played for stress soundness, toughness, the things that you are going to have to rely on when you just can't put your head on the rim and rely on total athleticism. He's never been able to slack off or get soft in any area."

Respect and admiration
Opposing coaches love Penney, too. At least from afar. Up close, though, is a different story.
indent"I told Penney after the game that it's been a pleasure playing against him and I don't want to play against him again," Purdue coach Gene Keady said after the Boilermakers beat the Badgers in February.
indentMichigan coach Tommy Amaker said Penney brings the same tangibles and intangibles to the Badgers that Shane Battier once brought to Duke. "I love watching him play," Amaker said, "and hate coaching against him."
indentThat's because UW opponents have to plan for Penney no matter what happens during the course of a game. He was just 5-for-18 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point tries in a victory over UNLV earlier this season, but he still might have been the most effective offensive player UW had going for it.
indent"He puts so much stress on the defense," UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour said. "He makes you honor him all the time. He stretches you way out."

All good things ...
Penney would like to stretch his basketball career.
indent"I don't know where that will be, but I am going to work my tail off to get that chance," he said. "Wherever it may be, I hope I have the opportunity."
indentTony Bennett thinks that opportunity will come in the NBA if Penney gets a chance with the right team.
indentA sampling of pro scouts indicated Penney is definitely on the draft radar, perhaps as high as a late first-round pick. However, Penney's game is so unselfish, Bennett - a second-round draft pick by the Charlotte Hornets in 1992 - worries his abilities might be overlooked in the spring draft camps that emphasize individual talents.
indent"It always takes the right kind of situation, the right kind of system," Bennett said. "A lot of that is timing, fate."
indentBut it is the current timing that consumes Penney, and he doesn't want to leave anything to fate as far as UW's in-season and postseason chances. The obvious goal is another Big Ten championship. Next up is the Big Ten tournament. Then the NCAA tournament.
indentGiven his choice, Penney would end his career much the same way it began - at the Final Four.
indentPenney was spoiled that magical 2000 season. He was at the zenith of the college game that March. Three years later, he recognizes one visit doesn't guarantee another.
indent"But I still believe it's the way it should be," he said with a smile. "When you get a taste of it, you want to share it with your teammates. I'd be better at enjoying it.
indent"At the time, I can remember thinking, 'This is unbelievable and I want to go to this again.' Now you realize, as time has gone on, you understand that so much more."