Kirk Penney - Deadly jump shot brings Breakers marksman back to where it began

By Kris Shannon

Pre-season rest might not be a bad thing for Kirk Penney, who is good to go now. Photo / Greg Bowker
Pre-season rest might not be a bad thing for Kirk Penney, who is good to go now. Photo / Greg Bowker

Kirk Penney, who has been around the basketball world in between bookending his long and eventful career on the North Shore, may this season be facing an unfamiliar role.

Educated at Westlake Boys High before becoming the second Kiwi to play in the NBA, a veteran of European basketball and now back with the New Zealand Breakers, Penney could be preparing for the relatively unfamiliar experience of riding the bench.

That status, ahead of next week's tip-off in the Australian NBL, has nothing to do with the calf injury that has plagued his pre-season. Penney participated in full practice the last couple of days and has reported to coach Paul Henare that he "feels as good as he ever has".

No, Penney's possible task with his hometown club is less about poor health and more the result of a richness of options. He and Corey Webster are gunning for the same position, and the latter may have the inside running.

There's little to separate the shooting guards on the stat sheet. Last season, Webster at times carried the Breakers and finished with 19.8 points a game, third in the competition, while Penney poured in 20.4 during a one-year liaison with the Illawarra Hawks, good for second on the scoring charts.

They'll still see similar time at the two-spot; rotations mean none of Henare's guards is expected to average more than 30 minutes on the floor. And both players can dabble in other positions, Penney moving up to small forward and Webster backing up at point guard.

But, with Henare enjoying the luxury of managing minutes, one number is likely to see Penney initially consigned to the pine: the eight-year age difference between the former Tall Blacks shooting guard and younger man who took over that title.

So Penney and his 35-year-old legs may, for the first time since he chased an NBA spot with far fewer miles on the odometer, could become accustomed to watching the start of a game from the sideline.

"I have no idea," Penney says when asked about his potential role. "I have no idea how that's going to go. That's a question for Pauli [Henare]."

Okay, coach, with a couple of scoring aces up your sleeve, what hand are you going to play?

"I do like the balance," says Henare. "Fully-fit, I think we can play a couple of different ways, and I do like the versatility that we have.

"When we are at full-strength, I don't think we need guys playing 35 minutes. Really, we're looking at playing hard for 26-28 minutes. Fully-fit, I don't think we need to be stretching guys in terms of their workload."

That news, to any normal athlete in their mid-30s, would probably be as pleasing as the post-game massage that rubs away aches and pains. But as his longevity suggests, Penney, with respect, is abnormal.

Assiduous in his health-care and fitness, a proponent of proper diet and exercise deliberately designed to extend his playing days, Penney is an exception.

And, happily for the Breakers, having signed the former favourite son to a three-year contract, his current ailment may eventually prove a positive.

"The body feels like it did last year, so hopefully I can play well and help the team as best I can," Penney says. "It's been nice to get a good break. It's hard to do that during the year, so it was relatively good timing for an injury, if you can ever have good timing for an injury."

That final qualifier is certainly relevant. The Breakers endured a winless pre-season and, while it was certainly preferential for Penney to have worn street clothes when the results counted for nothing, that troublesome calf strain would have hardly helped him settle in.

Yet, this, of course, is far from foreign territory for the sporting nomad. This is no Israel, no Lithuania or Turkey. This is a group of coaches and players with whom Penney has enjoyed regular acquaintance throughout a professional career now entering its 14th year.

"Obviously, for me personally, it's not a hard transition, because we have guys in here who have played together for a long, long time," Penney says. "I think we all feel pretty comfortable right now.

"But there's a lot of work to do. We have a game a week [yesterday], so it's very soon. Playing Melbourne, who I think will be one of the favoured teams, we'll get a good idea of where we're at. And we're working very hard to be ready for that game."

Few will be working harder than the new recruit. Even if, at this point, Penney has little left to achieve, having last season confirmed his status as among the best players in the league and, in another life, having led the Breakers to their maiden championship.

But there's no denying the turning of pages on the calendar, no rejecting the undeniable truth that athletes are subject to the whims of aging.

So perhaps Penney does have something to prove to his home fans and, of equal import, himself. Surely, even one of the best basketballers this country has ever produced, will at some point feel the effect of all those jump shots?

Father Time, after all, remains undefeated.

"I think last year I was supposed to slow down, but I felt normal," Penney says. "I was working out at a gym in Madison, Wisconsin [in the off-season], playing one-on-one with this guy, and he didn't know who I was.

"He said, 'Man, you're pretty good, I've played here, where are you from, where's that accent from?' I said, 'Well, I'm 35, man, you shouldn't be losing to me'.

"He said, 'When do you lose it, like 31 or 32?' and I said, 'Oh, that's a good question'."

One for which Penney, whether or not he's in the starting five come Friday, has no answer.

- NZ Herald

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