Identity Crisis Even rookie guard Mike Penberthy finds it hard to believe he's a Laker

April 08, 2001

There are still plenty of skeptics when apple-cheeked Mike
Penberthy says he's a guard on the defending champion Lakers.
Witness: On March 4, the 26-year-old rookie with the short blond
hair tried to attend a shootaround at the Staples Center but was
stopped at a police barricade set up for the Los Angeles
Marathon. Riding in his new Acura sedan, Penberthy was directly
behind teammate Ron Harper in his Range Rover. A police officer
let Harper pass; he turned Penberthy away. "Hey, I play for the
Lakers," Penberthy pleaded.

"Yeah, right," the officer replied.

After a few more futile attempts to get through, Penberthy made
the 45-minute drive back home to Valencia, Calif. When Los
Angeles coach Phil Jackson was told why Penberthy missed
practice, he didn't even fine him, calling the officer's act "a
case of racial profiling."

Roundabout routes are nothing new to Penberthy, who in two years
has gone from a forklift driver too strapped to spring for a new
pair of sneakers to a three-point specialist earning the rookie
minimum salary. A regular in L.A.'s rotation, Penberthy was
averaging 5.1 points through Sunday's 79-78 loss to the Knicks
while ranking ninth in the league in three-pointers per minute.
"He's the geeky white guy in the park who can shoot, like in
White Men Can't Jump," says Shaquille O'Neal.

A better title for Penberthy's odyssey from the NAIA to the NBA
plays would be The Long Shot. The 6'3" Penberthy was the alltime
leading scorer at The Master's College, a nondenominational
Christian school founded by his grandfather in Santa Clarita,
Calif., but after making the rounds of predraft camps in 1997 he
wasn't selected by any team. He worked out for the Pacers that
July, and later that month he was scheduled to try out for the
Bulls, who had favorable scouting reports on him. He tore his
right hamstring in Indiana, however, and never made it to
Chicago. After taking three months off, Penberthy joined the
CBA's Idaho Stampede, which had drafted him out of college. He
was the last player cut and wound up playing for the Hamburg
Tigers in Germany's second division, angling for another NBA
tryout in 1998. Then the lockout hit.

After a stint earning $8.50 an hour behind a forklift at his
cousin's drainage warehouse in Riverside, Calif., Penberthy
played for Athletes in Action, returned briefly to the CBA, and
finished 1998-99 on a team in Caracas, Venezuela. He headed back
to Hamburg the next season. Last year, while playing in the L.A.
summer pro league, Penberthy was scouted twice by the Lakers and
invited to their minicamp with a chance to fill the sniper's
role held by Craig Hodges, Jim Paxson and Steve Kerr during
Jackson's days with the Bulls. Penberthy was the only one of the
20 minicamp invitees to make it to training camp, where his
familiarity with the triangle, which is similar to the offense
run at The Master's, helped him stand out. "Shaq and Kobe
[Bryant] like me," Penberthy says with a smile. "That's all you
need around here."

Some who do know that Penberthy is a Laker have shown up
unannounced at his home lately to snap pictures with his
PENBERTHY doormat. Though he was due to earn $317,000, Penberthy
drove his '97 Hyundai for the first six weeks of the season
before buying the Acura. "I'm still pretty cautious," says
Penberthy, whose wife, Wendy, expects their first child this
month. "I appreciate everything I get because of what I've been
through."

--Kelvin C. Bias

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT MORA/NBA ENTERTAINMENT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)