As a worldly professional basketballer, Kirk Penney has played against his former sides more times than he cares to remember.
When he suited up for his new club, Illawarra Hawks, against the New Zealand Breakers at the WIN Entertainment Centre on Wednesday night it was an emotional meeting.
The 34-year old former NBA and European guard is a proud New Zealander and the benchmark for Kiwi players in the NBL, having won a Championship and named NBL MVP across his two stints with the Breakers.
He went on to become a mainstay in the European leagues but after he and wife Audra celebrated the birth of their first child, Olivia, earlier this year Penney looked to move back to the NBL and be closer to his family.
Facing the Breakers pulled at Penney’s heartstrings but it also drove him to find his best form, sinking 36-points against his former club, following on from his 18 points against Melbourne United last Sunday.
“I invested four years of my life and career in building the club and everyone knows the Breakers mean a lot to me,” Penney said.
“To be involved in the first Championship was a great feeling and I felt happy and satisfied with what we achieved but playing against them is the nature of a pro sportsman and now it’s all about the Hawks and being the best we can be.
“You always want to play your best against your former team.”
While the Breakers have gone on to win three more Championships since he left, Penney returned to success in Europe playing with multiple clubs and excelling as a three-point shooter and reliable scorer.
His form on the continent and internationally for New Zealand left no doubts Penney was a player capable of performing in the NBA, but he was happy to play against the best in Europe.
A chance meeting with fellow Hawks recruit Kevin Lisch before they played against each other in Spain earlier this year made Penney think of the NBL.
Then, when Lisch joined new Hawks coach Rob Beveridge at Illawarra during the off-season Penney started looking closely at the team.
A call to Beveridge set the deal in motion and despite strong interest from his most recent team, Spanish club Sevilla, Penney was soon flying his family to Wollongong.
“I was curious about the Hawks knowing the NBL is a shorter season – I just thought I would give Bevo a call and before you knew it the deal was done and dusted,” Penney said.
“We’ve found out Wollongong is a little gem – it has everything you need.
“I’d been here before for games but never seen more than the beach and cafes.
“Sometimes you stumble across things and it’s better than you expect.”
With so many skilled but new players in the Hawks side, Penney sees big things ahead.
“We don’t really know how good we can be,” Penney said.
“We’ve had guys banged up all pre-season so it’s yet to be determined – the players and coaches are coming together in a new system and it takes time.
“But I believe by the time the season is over, we are going to be playing some incredible basketball.”