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Shooting high

22 March 2003

Wisconsin, they love Kiwi basketballer Kirk Penney. Now he's got a chance to impress the NBA scouts as well. Ian Anderson reports.

Geography has never been a strong suit of US college students.

In a survey last year, 30 per cent of American students aged 18-24 couldn't find the Pacific Ocean on a map, and 83 per cent couldn't find Afghanistan.

But Kirk Penney has certainly opened Wisconsin University students' eyes to Kiwiana.

For the past four years, Penney has enraptured regular crowds of 17,000 at the Kohl Centre - the home of basketball at the university's campus in Madison.

This month he's hoping to catch the eye of NBA scouts and fulfill his dream of making it into the American professional league.

A group of hard-core Wisconsin fans have christened Penney's prolific three-point shots as "jandals". When Penney was interviewed in an internet chat room this week, a number of questions from the university's faithful were about "that weird Maori dance" they'd seen him perform as part of the New Zealand team at last year's world championships, and why he'd become a basketballer rather than a rugby player.

PENNEY'S path to Wisconsin was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

The promising teenager from Rangitoto College came under the eye of then North Harbour Kings NBL coach Tony Bennett.

Bennett was a star at Wisconsin under the coaching of his father Dick, and played in the NBA for the Charlotte Hornets. The former guard felt he had a potential protege in Penney and arranged for him to join his father's Wisconsin squad in 1999. Dick Bennett was replaced by current coach Bo Ryan in 2001.

Penney has flourished under both men.

The 22-year-old is an outstanding shooter, often deadly from behind the three-point arc. He has a great catch and release on his shot and can make baskets under intense defensive pressure. What's most pleasing for hoops aficionados is the way Penney has developed a strong game driving to the basket and improved as a rebounder and defender.

His list of achievements at Wisconsin is impressive. He has been an All-Big Ten conference first team selection for the past two seasons.

He has been to the NCAA (US college basketball) Final 64 tournament every year since arriving at Madison and is one of just 11 players in the US college game this season to average at least 16 pts, 6 rebounds and 3 assists.

Penney and the Wisconsin Badgers yesterday played the first match of this season's NCAA college basketball's showcase tournament against Weber St.

The Kiwi was hoping a couple of wins in the tournament - with a possible regional quarterfinal match-up with Mid-West top seeds and perennial college basketball powerhouse Kentucky - would help him attract the attention of an array of NBA scouts. Most already have the Kiwi on their lists.

Penney has a host of attributes from four seasons in a programme respected for its ability to produce sound and disciplined prospects for the professional ranks.

Also in his favour is the experience he has gained from two campaigns with the Tall Blacks - the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2002 world championships.

What may count against Penney is the depth of competition for the 2003 draft, which takes place in late June. Teenager LeBron James, a 2.01m shooting guard, has dominated draft talk since declaring he would go straight to the draft from high school. But there is a host of capable college prospects who could push Penney down the ratings.

"When I first came here I didn't know where I was going or how I'd do," he said from Wisconsin this week.

"It was hard to be away from family and friends but I always wanted to come over here and see what the whole American college experience was about.

"The adjustment was made very easy thanks to the friends and support I've received here," said Penney, whose father Phil moved to Madison three years ago to share the experience of his son's college career.

One Wisconsin student Penney has had a lasting effect on is Emily Christopherson. The 21-year-old has created a comprehensive website dedicated to Penney and his basketballing achievements with Wisconsin and the Tall Blacks.

It's an impressive collection of articles, photos and personal observations on her favourite player.

It could be regarded as an unhealthy obsession, but Christopherson - an aspiring high school teacher with a refreshingly ironic sense of humour - isn't a stalker in the making.

"I am not obsessed with Penney. Yes, I have a website on him. No, I don't think about him every second of the day. I have the website because I think it's fun and I know others enjoy it," she writes.

Penney enjoys it too.

"It's cool. I don't check it every day - I think my girlfriend does, though," he laughs.

BACK home, Tall Blacks' coach Tab Baldwin would like to see his charge make the big time.

"He dreams of playing in the NBA, which is wonderful, and he's on the brink of doing that. When Kirk left, he was a very good young player with a lot of potential. His experience has turned him into a far more complete player at both ends of the floor," Baldwin says.

"He was a promising young player, now he's a professional basketballer. While he doesn't get paid yet, in his career he will be able to make a lot of money and will deserve it.

"We should be really proud of what he's done - while he had some tools, most of what he's achieved has come from hard work."

Baldwin says Penney, who gets ribbed for being the youngster in the national side, was a pleasure to work with.

"He's a very intelligent, academic individual and is set to leave college with a degree in landscape architecture. He's been able to ensure he can provide for himself at a young age with different career paths."

Baldwin says Penney never gets star treatment and never seeks it.

"His humility is a key attrribute - he's confident in who he is and what he can do but that humble Kiwi attitude makes him stand out."

Badgers coach Bo Ryan thinks as much of his Kiwi star as Baldwin does.

"He doesn't do anything halfway. In personality, socially he's an A, leadership he's an A. He just does everything well ... the rest of the players look at him and say `Wow, that's what it takes to be pretty good'," Ryan says. "I'm hoping all of them say `This is what we have to do'."

PENNEY hasn't thought too hard about where he will head when his college career finishes - the NCAA tournament has dominated his focus throughout this month.

"I could have just one more college game left. It's a difficult feeling because it's been such an awesome experience.

"Right now I just want to enjoy the final stretch of the season with the guys and not let anything else take away from the hard work we've put in. I'm just keeping my focus on the season at hand. Once the season ends, I'll explore my opportunities."

If the NBA doesn't come calling, Penney is likely to head to Europe where he will be sought after by many leading clubs.

He would probably prove too expensive for the new Kiwi franchise entering next season's Australian National Basketball League, owned by Hamilton's Proteam Holdings, though Penney isn't writing off the suggestion.

"You can't rule out anything."

But his past suggests Kirk Penney has more worldwide spheres to spread the Kiwi jandal gospel.