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UW men's basketball: Progress is personal for Penney

Kirk Penney didn't spend much time thinking about an answer when asked what his greatest learning experience was during his four years at the University of Wisconsin.

"I learned how to learn," said Penney.

Anybody who has watched his development on the basketball court won't argue that point. He arrived at the UW as a skinny, 6-foot-5, 195-pound 3-point specialist and will leave as a strong, savvy, 235-pound National Basketball Association prospect.

Tonight will mark yet another big moment in the storied career of one of the UW basketball program's greatest players. A Big Ten Conference regular-season title is on the line when the No. 24 Badgers (21-6 overall, 11-4 Big Ten) play No. 14 Illinois (20-5, 10-4) at the sold-out Kohl Center.

Penney also will be honored in Senior Night ceremonies, but that is secondary to the 22-year-old New Zealand native. He lives for playing in big games and he has played - and excelled - in plenty of them over the past four years.

"I'm absolutely pumped for this game," Penney said.

But when Penney said he learned how to learn, he wasn't just talking about basketball. As he sat on the Wisconsin bench in an empty Kohl Center after honoring a handful of interview requests earlier this week, Penney reflected back on his four years in Madison.

He thought about what he learned from his friends, teammates, coaches and teachers as well as the changes that have occurred in his personal life. So much has happened and it has left Penney equally as pumped.

When he arrived in Madison after getting the scholarship former Madison West and current Louisville star Reece Gaines turned down, Penney knew he was smart enough to breeze through school without much effort. The same could be said on the basketball court.

But Penney said the school - and the basketball program - made it easy for him to learn how to set goals and then find ways to reach them.

"When you're in an environment like this where everything is at your fingertips, where nothing holds you back, you can't help it but reach out and want to achieve your goals," he said. "That's how I look at it, anyway."

So as Penney set goals for himself on the basketball court and became stronger, more versatile, smarter and harder to guard, he also was setting high goals and reaching them in the classroom and everywhere else.

"It's something that will carry on for the rest of your life. You'll always set those goals way up there so you'll always be challenged and want to achieve them," said Penney, whose New Zealand accent has softened after four years of listening to the nasal twang of the Midwest.

Penney has been challenged every year that he was here. His freshman season was a fun ride as a reserve that included a run to the Final Four. It also included worrying about his roommate, Julian Swartz, who has had suicidal thoughts while battling obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Penney won't talk about Swartz, who left the team after his freshman season and eventually transferred to UW-Green Bay and is now at Carroll College.

"I don't want to be someone who touches on that. That's not my role," said Penney, who was close to Swartz and his family. Penney's father, Paul, even lived with the Swartz family when he moved to the United States during Penney's freshman year.

His sophomore year included dealing with the retirement of coach Dick Bennett early in the season and the dismissal of Brad Soderberg after the season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Georgia State.

That was a difficult moment for Penney because of his ties to Bennett's son, Tony, who "discovered" and coached Penney in New Zealand and then brought him to Madison.

Penney's transition to the Bo Ryan era was eased partly because Tony Bennett stayed with the program as an assistant. They remain the closest of friends. "He's like a brother to me," said Penney.

Penney's junior season began with making adjustments to Ryan's system that forced him to get away from staying in his comfort zone outside the arc. He added 40 pounds, figured out the system after a few games and enjoyed a season-long coming-out party while helping lead the Badgers to a share of the Big Ten title.

Few have challenged Penney to reach his goals better than Ryan.

"He's such a good coach because he finds a way to trigger your buttons in a positive way," Penney said. "What I mean by that, you don't feel like you're slacking, but maybe you are a little bit and he'll sense it and he'll get you going. I feel like he has an intuitive sense for getting people ready and prepared for games."

This year started joyously when he was part of the New Zealand team that took fourth in the World Championships in Indianapolis. But it took a bad turn when the long-time boyfriend of his mother, Marie, died suddenly in New Zealand. Penney returned home in September to spend time with his mother before returning to classes.

Most everything back home has changed for Penney since he left for Madison. His older sister, Lara, moved to London, where she is prospering in commercial real estate. His older brother, Rod, is living in London, too.

His father, Paul, moved to Madison during Penney's freshman year.

And his mother moved away from North Shore City, a suburb of Auckland where Penney spent his first 18 years, to a small city 90 minutes away called Matamata. Penney has no friends there.

"Things sure are different," said Penney, who almost considers Madison more of his home now.

"There's a difference between spending 18 years of your life somewhere and four years of your life somewhere, but still..." he said as his voice drifted off.

"Right now the comfort level here is amazing," Penney added. "I have always felt so welcomed. Now it's beyond that. Friends and family are coming over and I've been welcoming them to Madison. It's an awesome community."

As Penney spent this season keeping the Badgers in the Big Ten title race, he welcomed his mother to Madison for her first visit. It turned out to be one of the highlights of his four years here because he watched his parents, who were divorced four years before Penney came to Madison, reintroduce themselves to each other.

"My mom and dad were talking, hanging out - just the two of them - and I heard stories from both parties," said Penney, whose parents rarely, if ever, spoke to each other after the divorce.

"It's cool because I hadn't seen them together for seven, eight years. It was neat," he said with a smile. "I understand why everything happened, but it's your family and at the end of the day you all want to share in each other's experiences. You don't have to live in the same town, but you want to be able to communicate and share in every family member's experiences."

Thus, another one of Penney's goals had been reached.

Penney has many more, too. For instance, he wants to return to New Zealand for a long visit and learn more about his country.

"It's not until you leave that you appreciate what it's like," he said. "I come over here and people say, 'You're from New Zealand? Wow, that's like paradise.' And I'm like, 'It is, really?' "

But he doubts he wants to return to live in his native country. Not now, at least. He wants to play professional basketball, hopefully in the NBA.

"But the focus isn't on that goal, either," Penney said. "Right now the focus is with this team and achieving what we can achieve. I don't want anything to be taken away from that."

His father, Paul, and his long-time coach from New Zealand, Kurt Dammers, will join him for the ceremonies tonight. It will be an emotional moment as Penney gets one more chance to reflect on all that has happened over the past four years.

"I came here feeling like I had accomplished a dream," he said.

But the dream was just starting because he was just learning to learn.

"When you come into a completely different environment, it's the people around you who are so important - your friends, your teammates, your coaches," Penney said. "They are making the experience for you, ultimately, because you share with them the times that you look back on and reflect on. If you're surrounded by good people, things are so much better."

Penney exemplifies that fact, and the Badgers have never been better since he has been here.

Published: 10:12 AM 3/05/03

Copyright 2002 The Capital Times