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Mike Lucas: Take a Penney, Bennett advises

Leading up to the 1992 National Basketball Association draft, one team guaranteed Tony Bennett that it would be taking the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay guard with its first pick, if he was still available late in the round. But just before the start of the televised draft, it was announced that said team had traded its first-round pick to another team, which Bennett knew "wasn't going to take me."

And so it went.

"You start thinking, 'Nobody wants me. I'm not going to get drafted. I'm useless,' " Bennett related. "It's a roller coaster. You want to act like, 'I knew they weren't going to pick me.' But you're really hoping, 'Call my name, call my name.' It's like when you've got 12 kids on the playground and you want to be one of them they're choosing for the game."

Bennett had worked out for the Chicago Bulls prior to the draft and they had the final pick in the first round.

"Right before the Bulls announced their pick, my phone rang," Bennett said. "And I'm thinking, 'All right.' I picked it up and someone hung up on me. I'll tell ya what, that's a cruel joke and I told Kirk I won't do that to him."

Kirk is Kirk Penney, the 22-year-old shooting guard from the University of Wisconsin, the neighborly Kiwi, the winningest player in school history. Penney's emotions are bound to run the gamut during tonight's NBA draft and Bennett wishes he could be there to share the ride since he was responsible for uncovering Penney in New Zealand and bringing him to Madison.

"I'll be watching here and living and dying with him," Bennett said Wednesday by telephone from Pullman, Wash., where he's in the process of unpacking boxes in his new home, playing golf with boosters and, most importantly, establishing recruiting contacts as an assistant coach within the Washington State basketball program, coached by his dad, Dick Bennett.

"No question this is a special time for Kirk, and I'm so proud of him," Tony went on. "We've talked a couple of times and I know that he's got perspective. He knows that if he isn't picked, it isn't the end. It's not like, 'OK, I can't play in the NBA because I didn't get drafted.' It doesn't work like that nowadays with the free agent mart. You can walk into situations where there might be a better opportunity. Kirk will have a good mindset. It's kind of, 'No worries, mate.' "

To this end, the even-keeled Penney plans on taking everything in stride while watching the draft tonight with his father and a few friends. "It will be very mellow and I will just sit back and keep my fingers crossed and, hopefully, a good opportunity arises," he said.

Since the pre-draft camp in Chicago - where Penney excelled in some of the physical testing - he has taken part in some individual workouts for the Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies and the Hawks. The highlights? He got to see the facilities in Dallas, Moochie Norris in Houston ("None of the big guns were around"), Jerry West in Memphis and Rick Rickert in Atlanta, where Penney enjoyed "chewing the fat with another Big Ten boy." Rickert is a former Gopher.

The Milwaukee Bucks haven't shown any interest in Penney. No biggie. "They're looking for what they're looking for and you have your own belief and if it's not there, it's somewhere else," he said.

While he has received positive feedback from his NBA workouts, especially since he has been shooting the ball much better lately, Penney admitted, "You hope it turns out to be more than just talk."

What about the internet rumors, the mock drafts? "Bogus, in my opinion," he said.

The vibes then? "Very mixed and you can't really take them for much," he concluded.

How would Penney evaluate himself as a prospect? "Maybe a black mark against me is that I've got slow feet or I'm slow; maybe it just needs to be worked on," he said. "Obviously, I'm a shooter and that's what I bring to the table."

Tony Bennett, a pure, cold-hearted perimeter shooter, wound up being drafted in the second round (35th pick overall) by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1992 draft and played three seasons in the NBA before foot injuries cut short his career. Bennett has a pretty good work knowledge of the NBA and what it takes to survive at that level if a player is not overly blessed with talent and athleticism. In short, a skill, a specialty.

"Kirk has the ability to dial it in from deep and get you three or four 3s in a hurry," Bennett said. "Teams double the post in the NBA because they can't stop the Tim Duncans and the good players (one on one). So if the ball is kicked out or swung to your side, you're going to get some clean looks and a guy who can knock them down - and hold his own in other areas - has a chance to make it."

Bennett went on to call Penney "deceptively athletic," noting that he surprised some people at the Chicago pre-draft camp with his strength and explosiveness in certain drills. More than anything, Bennett stressed, "He understands how to play the game and there's such a value on that. Maybe his arms aren't down to the floor and he can't put his head on the rim, but he's a winner. He knows how to make good decisions and he's a complete player; smart and sound."

Bennett recalled a conversation that he had with Los Angeles Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor prior to the '92 draft. Baylor asked Bennett, "What do you think will be the biggest adjustment to the NBA?" Bennett hemmed and hawed and mentioned something about the nightly grind from city to city when Baylor interrupted and said, "It's trying to defend - being exploited defensively is the greatest challenge any rookie coming into the league faces."

In this context, Bennett knows defense will be an issue with Penney's game. "But Kirk has been well-schooled and he understands how to stay down and how to slide and all of that," he said. "I watched him guard Manu Ginobili in the world championships and he zipped by Kirk a couple of times. But then I watched Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs) play in the world championships of the NBA and he did the same thing to everybody."

Bennett is convinced that Penney can make the grade. "Whatever situation he's thrown in, the kid has a special knack for finding a way to fit in and contribute," he said. "I'm hoping that he can find a niche. All it takes is one team and the right situation."

Wednesday night, Penney was scheduled to conduct a television interview at a local station that would be relayed to New Zealand. Only one player from his country - the Miami Heat's Sean Marks - is playing in the NBA. Penney wants to reach that same destination regardless of the road traveled, hard or long.

"The youth back home are striving to be where you are and they want to see you do well so they have heroes and goals," Penney said. "And you want to be a part of that, because you were where they are at one point. I have a lot of pride coming from my country because I know everyone right now (tonight) is watching ... "

With fingers crossed.


Published: 9:44 AM 6/26/03