By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In one of his first encounters with the man who’s now his boss, Kirk Penney made an indelible impression. It was 1996, in Penney’s hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, where Tony Bennett was wowing the locals as a guard for the North Harbour Kings.
Penney was only 15, but he was one of the brightest basketball prospects in his rugby-crazed country, and the Kings wanted to evaluate him. And so they set up a one-on-one game between Penney and Bennett, whose NBA career had recently ended.
“On one of the first plays, I just drove at him, went through him for a layup, and broke his nose,” Penney recalled. “So he’s on the ground in the fetal position and there’s blood and I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’ll never talk to me again. I’ve completely wasted this opportunity. What have I done?’ “
Penney, whose brother was a professional rugby player, smiled. “When you get to know Tony, who’s from the ilk of Dick Bennett, you know that toughness goes a long way. It probably was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I was included on the team, and suddenly I’m 15, 16 years old, playing with men and really improving my game and playing against guys like Tony.”
A friendship was born in Auckland between Penney and the Bennetts –– Tony and his wife, Laurel –– that continues today. “I guess he’s like a little brother to Laurel and me,” said Tony, who’s in his 11th year as head men’s coach at the University of Virginia.
Penney, 38, also is a brilliant basketball mind, and that’s why he’s now living in Charlottesville. His professional career ended last year, and Bennett hired him in August to be the Cavaliers’ director of player development/coaching staff consultant.
“Tony’s given me a wonderful opportunity to come into the coaching world, and I’m very thankful for that,” Penney said.
Under NCAA rules, Penney is not allowed on the court to work with players. But his voice is heard when the coaches meet to discuss strategy, personnel and recruiting, and he interacts with players away from the court.
A 6-5 guard, Penney played professionally for 15 years after starring at the University of Wisconsin, where he was twice named to the All-Big Ten first team. He played in the NBA for the Heat (2003) and the Clippers (2005) and also in Spain, Israel, Lithuania, Germany, Turkey, and Australia. He was a mainstay on New Zealand’s national team, the Tall Blacks, and represented his country at two Olympics (2000 and 2004) and four FIBA world championships (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014).
“He’s played at every level imaginable,” said Bennett, who was a groomsman in Penney’s wedding. “After watching him in college and in his professional career, I thought, ‘OK, this is a guy that can help our program.’ “
Penney said: “What I bring is just a wealth of experience from across the globe. There are so many different systems you can play, so many different ways to operate, and you bring that experience with you. I think probably my goal post-college was to have a 10-year NBA career, but my journey was different. Through God’s grace, that’s what happened. But the result of that is probably a lot more knowledge and a lot more understanding of how the game can be played on so many different levels.”
Especially intriguing to Bennett is Penney’s familiarity with the European game. “Those coaches don’t always have the elite athletes like the NBA,” Bennett said, “and so they have to manufacture offenses, and strategically there’s some things I think you really can grow and learn from in Kirk’s experiences. And that even played out in him helping us put some things in offensively last year, just because of our relationship, that were huge in our run.”
The Wahoos are coming off a season in which they won their first NCAA title, and Penney played an important behind-the-scenes role. The 2017-18 season, of course, ended in much different fashion for UVA, which became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in an NCAA tournament.
“Tony called me after the UMBC game and just said to me: ‘You’ve played in a lot of places and you’ve seen a lot of different systems and you watch us play. What do you think we need, and what’s really worked for you?’ ” Penney said. “And I gave my answer. And then as the [2018-19] season went on, we spoke a lot, and sometimes it would be 6 in the morning in New Zealand. I’d be walking the beach and talking to Tony and evaluating the game.”
After the 2017-18 season, Bennett tried unsuccessfully to persuade Penney to join the Virginia staff, but the effort paid long-term dividends. Penney flew to Charlottesville several times in the summer of 2018, and during those visits he and Bennett discussed ways to tweak the Cavaliers’ offense.
“The UMBC loss excited me,” Penney recalled, “because I felt like something special could happen [in its aftermath]. That’s a moment in time where it makes you or breaks you, and with Tony at the helm, I was like, ‘It’s probably going to make them.’ “
Penney and his wife, former University of Wisconsin volleyball player Audra Jeffers, weren’t ready to relocate to Charlottesville last year, he said, “but I was able just to breathe a little bit into some offensive stuff. It was pretty elementary, but it was probably still important that some things evolved offensively, and Tony allowed me to do that, and I was privileged to be part of that.”
At the other end of the floor, “I don’t think you can look at Tony’s defense and say there’s a flaw,” Penney said, laughing.
If not for Bennett, Penney might never have come to the United States. After returning home from New Zealand in 1999, Bennett joined his father’s staff at Wisconsin as a volunteer assistant. The Badgers’ freshmen that season included Penney, whom Dick Bennett, at the recommendation of his son, had offered a scholarship.
The elder Bennett had occasion that season to question his son’s judgment. On Feb. 5, 2000, Wisconsin won 66-64 at Minnesota in a Big Ten game in which Penney had no points and three turnovers in 13 minutes. In the locker room afterward, Dick Bennett approached Tony and said, “Penney’s not good enough. You gotta send him back home. He can’t play at this level.”
Tony Bennett thought otherwise, and a heated argument followed until Brad Soderberg, a Wisconsin assistant then and a UVA assistant now, separated father and son.
“My dad is a fiery Italian,” Bennett said, laughing.
The Badgers reached the Final Four that season, and a similar scene unfolded during their Elite Eight game with Purdue. During a timeout, Dick Bennett informed Penney in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t good enough to play on that stage.
“And then the timeout ended, and I put my tail between my legs and sat down to watch the end of the game,” Penney recalled. “Tony came down and he goes, ‘Hey, just be ready, you might have to go back in in a few minutes.’ In my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m done. I’m done for the season. I’m done for eternity.’ ”
He wasn’t. Penney re-entered the game and helped the Badgers defeat the Boilermakers.
At Wisconsin, Penney played first for Dick Bennett, then for Soderberg, who served as interim head coach for most of the 2000-01 season, and then for Bo Ryan. Tony Bennett was on the Badgers’ staff throughout Penney’s college career, though Penney didn’t necessarily peg his friend as a rising star in the profession.
“It’s hard as an assistant sometimes to truly shine through,” Penney said. “Probably even at Washington State, it wasn’t until Tony actually took over the program that you started to see what he could do. Because in college basketball, the head coach is a very dominant figure, and that’s OK.”
Late in his pro career, Penney went back to school to complete his degree. He graduated from Wisconsin in 2015 with a bachelor’s in landscape architecture, but wasn’t ready to stop playing. He spent his final two seasons with his hometown team, the New Zealand Breakers, who compete in the National Basketball League. The NBL’s other eight teams are based in Australia.
“The club means a lot to me, because it’s developing a lot of young New Zealanders,” said Penney, who like Jack Salt, UVA’s starting center last season, graduated from Westlake Boys High School in Auckland.
Former UVA standout Devon Hall played for the Cairns Taipans in the NBL last season, and Penney spoke to him after they played the Breakers.
“Tony asked me to say a word to Devon, and I was just encouraging him,” Penney said. “That first year as a professional is hard. When you’re in a bubble like he was at Virginia, everything’s provided for you. You’re in a very special environment, but it is a bubble, and when that pops, you face the reality of having to take care of everything yourself, being in a foreign country. The culture, just life in general, not having friends or family, suddenly there’s a lot of adjustments. It’s a great educator.”
Penney wasn’t planning to attend the Final Four last season, but his wife contacted Bennett and arranged for her husband to be in Minneapolis.
“I was super, super stoked,” Penney said, “and it was a real blessing that my wife had initiated it. But at the time I didn’t really want to bother Tony. I just realized how much that meant to him, making the Final Four and doing what his dad had done. And then for him to take another step, obviously, was very, very enjoyable to witness, and I was in the stands with all the Virginia fans with all my Virginia gear on, and I’m used to wearing Wisconsin gear. I’ve been a big Badger fan my whole life, and I still am. But it was cool just to be a part of it all.”
Even cooler for Penney, he now sees Bennett daily at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’m privileged that Tony is allowing my opinion to be heard,” he said.