Kirk Penney is the sole playing survivor from the Tall Blacks historic 4th place finish at the 2002 FIBA World Cup, a run that captured the imagination of the basketball world and the entire country here in New Zealand. He could therefore be forgiven as the elder statesman in the current World Cup roster if he was to be in reflective mood, but there is plenty of gas left in the tank of this premier shooting guard.
Penney has arrived in Spain with his team mates after a seven week build up that has the team primed for their opener against Turkey on Sunday morning NZT.
“This might be the best tour I have ever been on. Early on we had maybe lesser talented opponents but had to fight to win, then we went up a level to Europe and tested ourselves against better opposition and here we are now at the big show where we have to take a step up in every moment. We have been in Spain now for 5 or 6 days which is crucial, it is great. We are in the time zone, feeling good. I am hoping that our preparation bodes well for us. I have loved the tour, whoever organized with Nenad and Claire (Dallison – team manager) has done a great job for us.”
Penney says there is a quiet confidence in the group for the difficult task that lies ahead of them.
“It hasn’t quite started so it is a bit of that calm before the storm when you are excited to play. We have had two days of practice in Bilbao but we are excited to be here, we have worked so hard over the past seven weeks and hopefully we can come out and play the way we want to play.
“I have played in Spain a couple of years, they have a new exhibition center for games here in what is a basketball city, it is a massive facility, hopefully the fans enjoy and I know we will enjoy being on the big stage.”
Penney says the confidence from their most recent game can be taken into the tournament, but ultimately will count for little once the buzzer goes for game one.
“The Serbia win was great for us to get over the line against a world class team, they are stacked with high level players across the world, we played well against other teams including the first game against Serbia, but we have been playing well and not finishing games, that was a huge confidence boost to get over the line.”
Fit and ready to go, Penney says he sees some good omens from that 2002 campaign.
“I am all good, Nenad has done a great job to get us fit and in shape to play basketball on the international level, I hope we are more polished now than when we started, the prep is great to get into a rhythm and play well, but this is when the lights come on and defence gets tougher and you have to fight for all you can get.
“12 years ago in 2002 we beat Serbia in preparation as well, maybe that is a good omen – they won gold in that tournament. There are similarities to then for sure, the depth of the team being one – we can play ten-twelve deep. I’m just looking forward to the tournament and hoping we embrace it and play the way we can play. That was our best year, I hope we can aspire to achieve something similar again this time around.”
Penney is energized by the new generation of players coming through, some of whom he hasn’t played with before this tour.
“I am loving it, it is great to see the new guys coming through, some I haven’t played much with if at all. There is a good balance in the team, it is just cool to come on tour and spend time in the conversations we have on buses, planes and in rooms, with a great crew of Kiwis and speaking English which I don’t get to do much in this context.”
Penney says one player in particular has caught his eye on tour.
“The second I saw Corey (Webster) seven weeks ago I knew something had changed, his whole demeanor, his physical shape, he is a much better player, moving better and you can tell he has put in a lot of work. He is awesome to have on the crew, scoring, creating opportunities for others. I am very happy to see where he is at and what he has achieved. Also his brother Tai is very talented and I am looking forward to seeing what he is going to do in this tournament, there are moments where he is incredible and I hope he embraces the opportunity.
“There are more than two though, there are a lot of guys, it is fun to watch. I am going to be playing but part of me is watching to see who comes to the party. A lot of talented guys will put up their hands and want to be counted. I like where we are at – it is a massive challenge with Turkey and we will go from there.”
Penney knows his first up opponents well, having spent the past few seasons playing in Turkey.
“I have never called our pool the pool of death, every game is difficult and will be a challenge. We have watched these teams on film, I have never played Dominican Republic and haven’t played Ukraine and Finland for a few years. Hard to say until we get on court but outside the USA we have to back ourselves against every team – even the USA we have to get on the floor and enjoy the process. We played them in 2002 and in Florida in a friendly and maybe once more. They are so athletic, I know the guys will enjoy the opportunity, I am excited to just go at them and see what happens but that is not until the third game.
“I know Turkey very well, all but one play in the Turkish league. I am looking forward to going against them and seeing how we match up.”
Tall Blacks Game Schedule: Bilbao, Spain
All times below are NZT
Sunday 31st August
2:00am v Turkey
Sunday 31st August
10:30pm v Dominican Republic
Wednesday 3rd September
3:30am v USA
Thursday 4th September
1:00am v Ukraine
Friday 5th September
1:00am v Finland