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International man of basketball

by Lee Ironside, Sports Editor

Badger Herald
October 03, 2002

Some students work part-time jobs, some take a few classes, and some just sleep and drink the long days away. Kirk Penney, on the other hand, spent his summer traveling the globe, playing basketball for the New Zealand National Team.

Penney guided New Zealand to a fourth-place finish at the World Basketball Championships, an event that featured NBA and international stars. Though Penney played in the Olympics in 2000, his experience at the World Championships was a totally different one in his mind.

"I think New Zealand basketball has really improved, and for me to be part of that was a really awesome experience," said Penney. "My role was to go out there and play hard and just help the team in any way that I could, and, thankfully, this time I got a little bit more game time which was an awesome experience."

Penney and his New Zealand teammates played nine games in 11 days before losing the bronze-medal game to Germany. It was a run no one expected the Kiwis to make. In fact, qualifying for the tournament was an uphill task as New Zealand beat the rival Aussies two out of three times. Previous to those wins, New Zealand had not beaten Australia since 1978.

Penney was second on the team in minutes with 31.1 and was also second in scoring with 16.9 points per game while shooting an outstanding 45.5 percent from beyond the three-point line. Penney scored 24 points in a loss to Yugoslavia, but it was his 16 points against Team USA and former Badger Michael Finley that stands out for many Badger fans.

"That is a thrill to go up against those guys. It is such an honor," said Penney. "I went up to coach Karl after the game and told him it was an honor to play against players of that caliber and against a coach of that caliber, because they have accomplished so much, both in college and in the pros. It was such a thrill."

New Zealand fell to the United States in that game, as Michael Finley out-dueled Penney and led all scorers with 20, but for Penney, the experience of taking the court and being around players of that caliber was a little surreal. Nevertheless, Penney used the game against Team USA as a chance to get in a few words with Finley.

"We were talking about the game, and obviously I'd love it if he would come back and work out with us or do something, because he is an alum of the school," said Penney. "Then Paul Pierce just ran up and was ripping on Finley. It was just cool to be in that environment."

Beyond just having fun and traveling, Penney's experience with international play this past summer is something he expects to pay dividends when the Badgers begin play in early November.

"You're going to get more confident and feel like you belong at that level. When you are 19 years old and playing in the Olympics, it is an awesome experience, but this is a whole different deal now," said Penney. "If I can take anything from the summer, then I hope confidence is one of those things.

"[Coming back] you are playing against younger guys, and I think just even thinking that at times gives you confidence. When you do have the opportunity to play against top NBA players and come back and play college guys, you should be confident. If I can rub it off on the guys, then that is a good thing, obviously."

Penney is by far the team's most experienced player, having played three seasons in the Big Ten as well as participating in the Olympics and the World Championships.

Yet, the 2002 Badgers are the first team Penney has played on that will be looking to him as the on-the-court and off-the-court team leader. Gone are Travan Davis and Charlie Wills, and Penney understands those are not easy slots to fill, even for a player with his accolades.

"I am just going to go out there and play my game and do everything I can for us to be successful. If that requires a greater leadership role, then so be it," said Penney. "It is as simple as that. I have no pre-thoughts going into the season in terms of that. If Coach feels like it needs to be there more vocally or by example, then I'll have to be there."

While the team is the foremost focus for Penney this season, he has been named to the 2002-2003 Wooden Award Preseason All-American Team, marking him as one of the best college basketball players in the country after he was named first team all-Big Ten last season.

Penney's international play has given him a chance to more closely measure his game against some of the world's best, but Penney is keeping a close guard on any thoughts of the NBA at this point.

"If any of those thoughts came to mind, they were put out. I just don't feel like that is a good way to think. I am in college; this is a dream and has been for so long," said Penney. "I want to enjoy this. I don't want to take any of that enjoyment away by wanting to play professionally somewhere. There will be opportunities for me somewhere. I just want to enjoy my last basketball season as a Badger. It is the time of your life, and there are so many good times to be had that I just want to enjoy it."