1 oct. 2011

Kirk Penney: "I grew up playing rugby, but I love basketball"

New Zealander guard -second top scorer of the last World Championship- signed for Fuenlabrada this summer. After playing half a year in Gran Canaria (2003/04), he returns to the ACB in the maturity of his career. His brother plays rugby in England and his wife has joined the Alcobendas’ volleyball team.

• The North Shore gunner

Samuel Kirk Penney (North Shore, New Zealand, 1980) returns to the ACB. The ‘kiwi’ guard had four consecutive seasons in the New Zealand Breakers -champions of last NBL league-, as he headed towards the 31 years. But Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, which tried to sign him last summer, now has the reward for his persistence and may have a season with a sublime scorer trained at the University of Wisconsin and with extensive background in Europe.

Two weeks after landing in Fuenlabrada -and ten days before the start of the ACB- Kirk Penney begins to review his new adventure after training on Thursday evening: "It's nice to return to Spain. Now I'm just trying to understand what my teammates and the coach wants from us. I arrived here a few days ago, so it is too early to determine how I feel. Now I’m trying to adjust as quickly as possible,” starts the New Zealander who has so far participated in four preseason practice games, highlighting the 22 points scored by UCAM Murcia in Avila.

"Spain is a country that I love. Fuenlabrada wanted me a year ago, but I could not come because I had a contract with another club. Now I decided to come to Spain with my wife and return to play in a league as good as is ACB, being an older and more experienced player,” says with enthusiasm the right-handed shooter on his return to Europe.

The shooting guard is cautious about the objectives of a campaign that marks the return of Fuenlabrada to European competitions, "I know that last year they were able to qualify for the play-off, but this season has not started yet, and I am very new here to really say what my goals are. First, I need to see the team in league games to see how good we are. Now we have to get healthy and improve, and I must quickly learn the language because it is very important for me to understand my coach and my teammates."

Penney, during a practice game in Guadalajara (Photo: Fran Martinez / Fuenlafreak)

• Family of sportsmen

The act of leaving his native country again is not a problem for Penney; he used to travel after playing in the U.S., Spain, Israel, Lithuania and Germany: "My family is everywhere. My wife is American and his family live in the States. My brothers live in London and my parents in New Zealand, the world is our home!”, said the guard, who met his wife, Audra Jeffers, during his early years in America and he married her last summer: "She played volleyball at the University of Wisconsin while I was on the basketball team. Then, we went back to New Zealand, where she played 'beach volleyball' professionally. Now, in Spain, she has joined the Alcobendas’ volleyball team", a northern club of Madrid that will participate in this season in the Superliga 2, the second category of women's volleyball (there is not local teams in First Division).

Meanwhile, his older brother Rodd plays rugby for the Saracens, the powerful current team in the Premiership: "My brother is a professional player in England, as he has been for many years. Both of us grew up watching rugby. He plays the number thirteen, 'center', and I, for my body type, play seven (wing) or eight (eighth)," Kirk joked about the heftiness of his brother. The new player of Fuenlabrada explains how he opted for basketball in a country where most of people worship the sport of the oval ball: "I always love basketball. I picked up a ball for the first time when I was four. I practice many sports: rugby, tennis, cricket, but I love basketball the most; it has been always my favorite. I keep playing and I’m glad indeed. It’s taking me around the world and I love playing the game at the highest level."

Kirk Penney and his wife, Audra Jeffers, at the gala for the NBL title obtained by the New Zealand Breakers in May 2011 (Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung / photosport.co.nz)

• Language, music and painting

The proximity to Madrid has been one of the factors that influenced the decision of Penney to anchor in the Fernando Martín: "Fuenlabrada it’s very close to Madrid, it’s a good place to be. Spain it’s a good country. The people are very warm, very friendly, so makes it easy to come here and adjust. My wife is enjoying Spain too. We try to learn Spanish. It’s a challenge for both of us,” said the guard, who also mentioned which teammates are acting as a translator for him in these early days: "Álvaro Muñoz and Lubos Barton are by far the best English speakers. Then Sergio Sanchez and Ferran Laviña are pretty good," laughs the new number 'six' of Fuenlabrada, number that used in the club the legendary Velimir Perasovic: “It's my favorite number since I was a child, whenever I can choose, I prefer the number six.”

Penney also declared to be a passionate music lover: "I like many kinds of music, depending on my mood. I listen to many bands like Coldplay, Kings of Leon, U2, Crowded House and all the classics.” "My wife plays the piano very well, indeed, she has made me a song for me," he adds proudly.

Kirk, playing guitar with his teammates of New Zealand Breakers, performing ‘Time of Your Life’ by Green Day (2009)

For Kirk Penney, the painting is a hobby, "Sometimes I just want to think and relax." Also admits he would like to attend for the first time a soccer stadium: "Last week I watched the match between Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid on TV. I would like to go to a game, taking the atmosphere and understand what it’s like. I know how rugby games are like, but I love to go to a Spanish League soccer game and feel it. Watching on TV, I think, is different."

Although not very regular at social networks, the basketball player wants to send a message to supporters of Fuenlabrada: "I use social networks but really not too much, I am a private person. Also, I think it's great to interact with the fans, but I'm old school. I hope they are as excited as we are about the season. I hope they all come and watch. We have a very good team. We will train very hard for them.”

Álvaro Muñoz, principal 'translator' from Penney, during Fiestas de Fuenlabrada Trophy (Photo: Fran Martínez / BF)

• New Zealand, home of the All Blacks

Currently in New Zealand is taking place the seventh edition of the Rugby World Cup, a country "beautiful, with beaches and lakes" and "loves this sport." "Now with the World Cup at home, the madness is even greater. We are all very excited about the All Blacks, I hope they can win the Cup this year," express Penney about a title that they didn’t win since the first World Cup in 1987.

The North Shore’s shooting guard also explains the importance of the traditional Haka, which also dance the "Tall Blacks' basketball before each game: "Culture and heritage. It’s important that we do it because represents a country and its history. It’s something we have done for many years and we’ll continue to do for many years to come. I like to do it. It’s good to keep you ready for the game.”

Former Maccabi Tel Aviv, Zalgiris Kaunas and Alba Berlin also referred to the devastating earthquake in Christchurch in February: "It was very bad. When these things happen you put life in perspective. How hardest it’s a game compared to people losing their lives. For a month or two, the whole country was very dark and very sad. Slowly Christchurch is being rebuilt, but is difficult because there were several aftershocks after the earthquake. It was scared for lot of people.”

The guard was the second top scorer in the last World Championship (Photo: Fran Martínez / Fuenlafreak)

• NBL and NBA

Almost at the same time as his brother Rodd celebrated the first title on the Saracens in the English Premier Rugby, Kirk celebrated the first crown of the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL, the League of Australasia (now compete eight Australian teams and one New Zealander), and is the first ‘kiwi’ team to win an Australian sporting competition. "It was important for my country, we are very proud to have achieved it.”

While the 'Tall Blacks' have played the last three World Championships -in addition to the Sydney Olympics and Athens- only two players have been able to debut so far in the NBA. Sean Marks was the pioneer in 1998 (Toronto Raptors, Portland Trail Blazers currently), while Penney scored just six games between Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers. However, the right hand shooter of Fuenlabrada wishes a good future for the basketball of his land: "Steven Adams is a really good guy and could be chosen in the Draft number two in a couple of years. Hopefully he will be the third New Zealander in the NBA, and I hope that basketball continue developing in New Zealand." Adams, that recently turned 18 years and is 2.13 meters tall, is the great pearl of younger players of New Zealand.

"I grew up in the time when the Chicago Bulls won their championships. I used to watch a lot of Chicago Bulls games with Michael Jordan, John Paxson and Steve Kerr. That was my era. I’m thirty, so everyone who is in their thirties watched those Bulls," says Penney about the six-times champions in the NBA. Professionally, he feels further away than ever from the American league where he played for a short period: “It’s not something that I am thinking about right now. I’m really excited to be playing in the ACB now, focused here. I really like my teammates, my coach. That’s all I think about right now. NBA is in my past.” The present of Kirk Penney is called Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, that will open the ACB season on October 9th, visiting the Real Madrid of Rudy Fernandez and Jaycee Carroll, almost nothing.

Penney, number 6, doing the Haka against Greece

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