By Dean “The Sportsman” Greenaway
After two tries within a five year span, the BVI’s Kleon Penn had all but given up on the idea of being involved in the NBA.
Making matters worst, wearing the territory’s green colors during the 2015 CBC Championships bronze medal game against Antigua and Barbuda at the Multipurpose Sports Complex in June, he badly injured his right ankle just days before he was to make another attempt to impress an NBA team during the developmental league. Everything flashed before him as he grimaced on the court between the series of shooting pains. The thought also came that he had missed his last opportunity to take his game to a higher level had evaporated right on the same court in which he played his first BVI Basketball Federation game for the HLSCC Stingrays.
“Since I was hurt, I thought I missed my chance,” Penn, the first BVI player signed to an NBA team’s training camp said. “In the last two years, every time I had a chance to go somewhere, I got hurt and was only able to play in Puerto Rico. So, when I got hurt in the CBC Championships and the invitation to Minnesota was for July 5 after the CBC, I was like ‘wow. I missed my chance.’ I thought Sam Mitchell wasn’t going to bother again. When I heard he wanted to fly me up, I realized I didn’t miss my chance and honestly, I thought I was only coming up for a tryout—one or two days. I’m just surprised he signed me to training camp and I have a real legitimate chance to make the team, so I’m really grateful.”
Penn who signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sept 18 said his short experience has been going well and they have been treating him good and taking care of him.
“I still haven’t fully recovered from the really bad ankle sprain I got in the CBC Championships,” he stated. “I’ve been able to do movements on it but, it’s still kind of swollen and they have been working with me and doing everything to help me recover faster.”
First Sam Mitchell encounter
When Sam Mitchell—a Timberwolves assistant at the time who has became interim head coach after Flip Saunders became ill—and was coaching the U.S. Virgin Islands Men’s national team to the CBC Championships gold medal in June, Penn had no idea who he was.
“I started playing basketball late so I didn’t know about Sam Mitchell playing in the NBA back in the day and all his accomplishments and coaching in the NBA,” he said. “I think it was in the second game, he said ‘alright big fella, I came to see you play’ and I was like ah, ok, he’s putting extra pressure on me, but I really didn’t know him. There is where he saw me, we got in contact and he brought me here.”
After graduating from the McNeese State Cowboys in 2009, Penn tried out for the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks, but didn’t make the cut. Since then, Penn has played in leagues in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Being signed by the Timberwolves who recently moved into a new facility, is nothing like he has ever been to. He was welcomed by Timberwolves General Manager Milt Newton of St. Thomas, who told him where he’s from and they chatted a bit about the islands. “Puerto Rico was the closest thing to it. There are saunas, hot tubs, cold tubs—every amenity imaginable. You come down here in the morning, there are chefs cooking you breakfast, chefs cooking you lunch—it’s nothing like I’ve ever been to,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
He said at team workouts, all your practice jerseys, sox, tights and pants are laid out for you daily. After practice, they are washed and prepared for the next day. “There are refrigerators all over the gym stocked with water and Gatorade every time—it never runs out,” he noted. “You have so many coaches, so many trainers so that everybody can get attention. It’s not one or two it’s like four or five. Everybody gets the attention. There are two basketball courts, each has about six rims and the whole organization is behind it—it’s just so different. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
Ahead of training camp that officially opened on Tuesday when they began doing two a day practices, Penn said he should be ready to play. Last Thursday, he did some big man drills, pick and rolls, jump shots and post moves and he was told he will be ready to do everything soon.
Meeting the players
Doing the drills with NBA players he said has been eye opening. “They’re all great talent, but then you realize they are just players,” the 29 year old said. “They make the same mistakes as you. They do the same things as you. I’ve been doing drills with the No. 1 pick Karl Towns, just watching KG (Kevin Garnett) go through his workouts, it’s exciting.”
Like everyone else, Penn said he’s fighting to make the roster and won’t be on the team unless he makes it to the regular season. “Yes, they added me to the roster but all that could change in a month or two weeks, you never know,” he pointed out. “But until I make it to the regular season, I don’t consider myself a part of the team.”
To become one of the guys, Penn said he has to work hard and show coaches what he can bring to the team. “KG told me to work hard, play like you love the game, come in with a great attitude and everything should be fine,” Penn said. “He said there’s a reason why Sam Mitchell brought me here. He saw something in me that I can bring to the team that he wants.”
What was it like hearing that from Garnett? “You had no choice but to listen,” Penn said. “He tells a lot of jokes, but, everything he says is wise—there’s a lot of wisdom in what he says. Everybody in the room just looks at him and pays attention. He has that kind of affect on everybody.”
First Timberwolves Jersey in hand
After being signed, Penn arrived in Minnesota on a Monday night and went to the gym on Tuesday morning. Gorgui Dieng picked him up from his hotel, showed him around and dropped him to the gym, told him to get changed and left.
“I just looked around like holy grab, I’m here. I saw all the NBA players’ lockers—KG, Anthony Bennett, Gorgui, Wiggins—everybody’s locker was right there in front of me and you see the Timberwolves symbol,” he said. “I was just looking at it like ‘wow, am I really here.’ Then, I sat in my chair then I saw my shirt. When I put it on, it was amazing that I’m here so I had to take a selfie right then. It was just an amazing feeling.”
Penn said after trying with the Pistons and the Bucks and nothing happened, then last year he attended the developmental league tryouts and thought he did really good. “I thought I was among the top two or three people there and not to get a call back discouraged me a little bit, so I kind of gave up on it, really and truly,” he pointed out. “But, now that I’m here, it’s just amazing.”
From Long Look Christmas League to the NBA
The players have all asked him where he’s from Penn said and he told the British Virgin Islands. “They are like ‘wow. You come from a hot climate to come to this cold place?’” he said of the question. “But, you have to do what you have to do,” he tells tem.
Reflecting on his journey, Penn who didn’t touch a ball until he was in his teens, recalled his cousin Cleave Davis inviting him to play in the Long Look Christmas League. “He told me you just need to stand in the middle and just be big,” the 7 foot 300 pounds specimen recalled.
“I said I’d give it a try. Lord have mercy. I went over there and I could only run up and down the court once and that was it,” he recalled. “I was so out of shape and couldn’t do anything. From the first tip, I’d run down on offence, run back on defense, but never pass half court again. To see that I have come from that, right here, next to the Minnesota Timberwolves, that’s something crazy man. But, thanks to Eddie Fahie. He used to take me to the Belle Vue Gym just to shoot around, then I got picked up by Morris (Wattley) and eventually played for the HLSCC Stingrays before moving on to McNeese State. It has been an amazing journey.”