Wilkinson (left) and Penney played under Dick Bennett, Brad Soderberg and Bo Ryan.
Before Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky there was Kirk Penney and Mike Wilkinson.
Penney, a native New Zealander shooting guard and small forward, was a freshman during UW’s 2000 Final Four run and finished his Badgers career second on Wisconsin’s all-time three-pointer list with 217.
Wilkinson, a graduate of Wisconsin Heights High School in Mazomanie, arrived as a forward the following season, redshirted his freshman year and went on to become only UW’s second player with at least 1,500 career points (1,532) and 800 rebounds (856).
Dekker and Kaminsky led the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team to back-to-back Final Fours in 2014 and 2015 and now play in the National Basketball Association. Penney and Wilkinson also dreamed of playing in the NBA. But after bouncing between five NBA teams in short succession (including the Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat), Penney always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, paid Wilkinson a per diem to simply to be, as he says, “a body for practice.”
Neither player secured a multi-year deal.
The NBA’s loss was rest of the world’s gain. As things turned out, coaches of several international professional basketball teams had their eyes on Penney and Wilkinson, so both players dusted off their passports and headed overseas to play the game they loved as strangers in strange lands.
This summer, Isthmus reunited the 35-year-old former teammates — who each, incidentally, played under Dick Bennett, Brad Soderberg and Bo Ryan — at the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar on East Washington Avenue. They stayed in touch over the years and even competed against each other a few times.
Wilkinson played for six teams during a nine-year international career before retiring in 2014 after repeat shoulder injuries; he lives in Sun Prairie, owns a farm near Mazomanie and runs a tool-distribution company.
Kirk Penny (left) and Mike Wilkinson in 2002.
Penney played for 10 international teams on several continents and maintains a condo in downtown Madison with his wife, former Badgers volleyball star Audra Jeffers, and their young daughter. In late July he headed back Down Under to play for the New Zealand Breakers of Australia’s National Basketball League.
“Mike and I can’t just sit here and say, ‘Oh, we would have been NBA All-Stars.’ We don’t know that,” says Penney, who signed with a professional team in Las Palmas, Spain, in 2003. “We went through the typical process, the typical training camps, and we were deemed not good enough to sign a multi-year deal. That’s reality. Do we think we could have gone out there and played well in the NBA? Absolutely. But I think there are 400 other basketball players who would say the same thing.”
Far fewer U.S. players, though, are cut out to pursue a career overseas.
“It takes a certain type of person to do it,” Wilkinson says. “There are some guys I’ve played with who are a heck of a player but who just couldn’t handle living the lifestyle we lived overseas.”
For example, when Wilkinson played for BC Khimki in Moscow, an away game sometimes meant waking at 3 a.m. for a nine-hour cross-country flight to play BC Spartak Primorye in Vladivostok — located just northeast of North Korea on the Sea of Japan shores seven time zones ahead of Moscow.
Violence in the midst of lax security also was a common occurrence in many of the cities where Penney and Wilkinson played ball.
“We were playing in Turkey, and we came out after halftime and all our fans were gone,” Penney remembers. “All the visiting fans were gone, too. I asked one of my teammates, ‘Where’d our fans go?’ He said, ‘Oh, they’re just out having a fight. They’ll be back in 10 minutes.’ So they go have a brawl and then come back in. That’s just part of the scene there.”
At a playoff game during his second season with Aris Thessaloniki in Greece, Wilkinson remembers being pelted with raw eggs and Coke cans by fans of the opposing team. Another time during a Greek playoff game, the visiting team’s fans weren’t even allowed into the venue. But that didn’t stop them from crashing through police in riot gear and ripping out the seats to celebrate a victory.
“That really opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t in the United States anymore,” Wilkinson says.
There were other eye-openers, too. International teams, often funded by sponsorships and TV deals, typically include living arrangements and a vehicle as part of player salaries. Grocery stores in some countries are open only eight hours a day and closed on Sundays. Skype barely existed at the time Penney and Wilkinson moved overseas, and staying in touch with friends and family back in the States wasn’t easy. And although many international teams include one or two “import” players on their rosters — usually Americans — English isn’t always commonly spoken.
“What you learn more than anything living this lifestyle is how to adapt,” Penney says. “In Spain, I liked my coach; he was a pretty cool dude. But I never spoke to him. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Spanish. All the timeouts and all the coaching was really quick Spanish, so I focused on the visuals, the Xs and Os. Sometimes I would ask my teammates, ‘Dude, what are we doing?’”
Even the game itself is different — with multiple levels of competition, transcontinental travel, arenas built either for a few hundred fans or several thousand fans, and a style of play that’s foreign to today’s NBA.
“It’s not run-and-gun, one-on-one basketball,” Wilkinson says. “There’s no defensive three-second violation over there — you can have as many people inside the lane as you want. Teams scout every player super-well, and they have entire game plans for leading scorers.
“My game always adjusted well to Europe, because it’s a lot more similar to the college game,” he continues. “It’s more of a team game. So I got over there and I fit in. The hardest thing for me was adjusting to the different lifestyle, different food and different language.”
Fortunately for Penney and Wilkinson, Madison remains friendly and familiar territory — which is why they both still call the city home. “The university does a great job of keeping us, as former athletes, informed and involved,” Penney says. “We feel like we’re still a part of the community; it’s not over just because our playing days are past.”