Basketball: Penney's practice pays off

By Michael Brown

Kirk Penney makes a drive for the basket. Photo / Dean Purcell
Kirk Penney makes a drive for the basket. Photo / Dean Purcell

The absolute physics of it makes the art of shooting a 25cm basketball into a 45cm hole an immensely difficult task.

Of course, it becomes increasingly difficult the further away from the basket it's shot and that's before factors like an opponent's outstretched paw or the pressures of a game are thrown into the equation.

Kirk Penney has made a career out of it. A very good one. He's acknowledged as the best shooter in the NBL (he averages a league-leading 20.5 points a game) and, if Lady Luck had been more of a friend than a foe, could be proving it in the NBA.

It has taken countless hours of practice to get to this point and requires countless more to stay there. To observe him in training is a little mesmerising.

He shoots, and shoots, and shoots. He imagines a defender on him. He pump fakes, and then shoots. He mimics coming off screens, receiving the ball, and then shoots.

It's all done quietly, methodically and religiously. Usually with the ball falling effortlessly into the basket.

Penney will follow this routine before Wednesday's first game in a best-of-three grand final series against either Townsville or Cairns. He will then play a significant role in deciding whether a first NBL title - a first Australian league title across any sport - comes to New Zealand.

The Breakers have scoring power across the team but few who can deliver like Penney. He netted a season-high 38 points in game two against Perth and followed it up with 18 important points in Wednesday's series decider.

He might not have been as prolific in that game but nailed five of eight three-pointers under heavy attention, as well as six rebounds, three assists and one steal.

Like all players, Penney can be streaky. But like the best, he never acknowledges that.

Regardless of what happens in a match, the shooting guard will retain an unbridled confidence in his shot. He has to.

"I don't ever think I'm off," he says emphatically. "I always think I'm on. If the first few [shots] don't go in, from my experience, you can always turn it around. Your rhythm can come quickly again. It's muscle memory.

"You always have to keep the confidence high. If I'm open, the team and coach have given me the green light to let it go.

"You have to be aggressive. Everyone has to be aggressive at every point in the game, otherwise you become too easy to guard. For me it might be three-pointers, for Dillon [Boucher] it might be driving to the bucket and creating for someone. It's still aggressive."

It's an approach he took as he chased a prized NBA contract before the season started.

After impressing at last year's world championships in Turkey, where he was the competition's second-highest scorer, he went on trial with the San Antonio Spurs but was cut soon after arriving.

He stayed in the US to try to find another NBA club interested in him even though the Australian season had already started and returned only after exhausting his options.

He realised that, at 30, there might not be many more opportunities to add to the handful of NBA games he played with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers.

But at 30, Penney was also better equipped at dealing with disappointment.

"It's always difficult when you get cut from a team, regardless of the reasons," he says. "But as you get older, you get pretty quick at changing your goals because you have to.

"To be a part of Pauli's [Paul Henare] last year and the emotion around that and being part of a Breakers team that goes 22-6 ... if I wasn't part of that, I would want to be here.

"This is what I have worked towards for the last three or four years; to be on a team like this. It's a very positive spin-off to be here and a part of this. It's turned into maybe one of the greatest years of my professional career."

That 'maybe' is because one thing has to happen first. The Breakers are on the verge of an inaugural title but the verge is not somewhere Penney is happy to stand. He wants to be on the top step.

If he does, he will acknowledge his team-mates. It's what he does. He talks about "the team", "the group" and his "love" of being a Breaker.

There's little room for ego on the Breakers bench - not just because they're all over-sized athletes with big sneakers - but Penney is genuinely unassuming. Gary Wilkinson fist-pumps his chest occasionally and CJ Bruton likes to raise his arms in triumph when he scores a three-pointer but Penney's expression rarely changes.

It's often hard to know from Penney whether they are winning or losing - and not just because of the goatee beard with tinges of ginger he has begrudgingly grown (it will come off within hours of the end of the season).

Penney is a star and he's clearly enjoying getting the chance to prove himself on the biggest stage Australasia can provide.

He has been a league MVP (2008-09) and for the past four seasons selected for the league's first team. But a title has eluded him and most of his team-mates.

That should change if he continues to defy the laws of probability and puts the ball through the hoop at the end of the court.

SHOOTING STAR
Kirk Penney's statistics for the 2010-11 Australian NBL season

* Age: 30.

* Points: 20.5 a game (first in league).

* Three-point percentage: 43 (third for players averaging more than 10 points a game).

* Rebounds: 3.7.

* Assists: 2.2.

- Herald on Sunday

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