CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WFXR) — It’s a friendship that dates back to the 1990s and started halfway across the world in New Zealand.
“It’s just been great to be working with Tony again,” Kirk Penney said.
Of course, the “Tony” that Penney is referring to is Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. And Penney is the team’s director of player development, a position Bennett created specifically for him in the offseason.
The story of how Bennett crossed paths with Penney dates back nearly a quarter century.
“After I played for the Charlotte Hornets, I went over to New Zealand and he was 15 years old,” Bennett said. “And I remember, there’s a guy there who said, ‘Hey, there’s this young guy who is one of the best players in the country, would you just work out with him and see what you think.'”
At the time, Penney wasn’t sure if he’d have a future in basketball.
“I was a stoned nose 15- or 16-year-old kid in New Zealand who was probably going to go on to Auckland University and basketball was just something that I loved to do,” Penney said.
Penney played some one-on-one basketball with Bennett. And the Auckland-native ended up breaking Bennett’s nose in the process.
“We were playing and went for a loose ball and I said either this guy is really tough or he’s a little crazy,” Bennett recalled. “But either one was good. he’s tough minded but that’s a memory I’ve tried to forget.”
Despite the mishap, Bennett invited Penney to practice with his pro team.
“Just from that moment on,” Bennett said, “I just watched his career progress and you could see he had special written all over him as a player.”
Penney went on to play at Wisconsin, helping the Badgers make the Final Four in 2000 under the direction of Tony’s dad, Dick Bennett. And while the younger Bennett went on his own coaching path, Penney enjoyed a 15-year professional playing career, including NBA stints with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers. He also represented New Zealand at two Olympic Games.
Fast forward to the offseason, shortly after UVA’s national title run, when Bennett brought Penney on to his coaching staff.
“I mean my wife and I were evaluating the different opportunities and we’re going back and forth on it. We decided that I always wanted to coach,” Penney said. “Finally, with my career ending, we pulled the trigger on it.”
The opportunity has allowed Penney to give back to the sport that’s given him so much.
“I’ve learned that I really enjoy it. I’ve learned that I really enjoy being around the guys and breathing back into their lives and the thing about this, it’s not always about basketball,” Penney said. “It expands into life.”
Penney has made Charlottesville his second home with his wife and three kids. And the tiny college town could also be the launchpad for a long and successful coaching career in the future.
“He has a lot to offer to the game and what an incredible experience he’s getting,” Bennett said. “Being here at the college setting, he’ll have opportunities to coach.”
As the Cavaliers embark on the postseason as the No. 2 seed in this week’s ACC Tournament, Penney is grateful for the friendship that started thousand of miles away.
“The one thing about Tony is that it’s been a very, very special relationship. He opened up the world to me,” Penney said. “By him coming to New Zealand for three years, not only did it provide a way to develop into a player that would be good enough, but it opened a door that otherwise wouldn’t have been open.”
Bennett now opening the door to a new path for Penney, further strengthening a life-long connection.
Penney said: “And I’ll always remember that.”