When Mike Penberthy watches an NBA game, the former Hoover High standout can’t help but feel as if he was born a couple decades too late.
“Man, I would’ve loved playing in today’s game,” he said with a hint of regret.
Largely on the strength of a deadly jump shot, Penberthy carved out an 11-year professional career highlighted by season-long run on the 2000-01 Lakers squad that won the NBA championship.
His playing days in the past, the 41-year-old Penberthy has developed a second career as a private shooting coach. The Timberwolves, who employed Penberthy full-time during the 2014-15 season to help develop their young roster, referred to him as “The Shot Whisperer.”
Rather than stay on another year, Penberthy opted to return to his family in Valencia and a list of clients that includes Fresno State product Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Evan Turner and Ricky Rubio.
“I get calls probably once every three months for an opportunity in the NBA, but it would have to be the right situation because my private business is so successful,” Penberthy said recently.
“I definitely can’t have any more clients. I could do more social media and stuff like that to be more well-known, but that’s not my goal. I like the anonymity, and the players like it, too.
“I’m kind of the ghost in the background. I’d rather be that guy.”
Penberthy doesn’t just instruct NBA players. He also hosts a series of elite development camps for youths ages 9 to 18, including one at Fresno Christian High from June 20-23.
To understand why Penberthy’s services are in such high demand, simply flip on any basketball game.
Never before has shooting, and specifically the three-pointer, been a larger, more significant part of the sport. It’s no coincidence the NBA’s two best teams from beyond the arc, the Warriors and Cavaliers, reached the Finals.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the game of basketball is more skilled,” Penberthy said. “Basketball is a skill game, and it’s good to see that side coming back instead of it being all about how tall you are and how high you can jump.”
Listed at 6-foot-3, Penberthy wasn’t all that tall compared to most basketball players. Nor was he a supreme athlete. But the guy could certainly shoot, as attested by the 50-40-90 mark (50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on threes, 90 percent on free throws) he averaged over an eight-year pro career in Europe.
Having that kind of résumé in today’s game is akin to the man who owns acres and acres of Texas oil fields – when the price of oil suddenly doubles.
“That’s a good point,” Penberthy said. “I’m definitely busy, getting a lot of calls. I’m having to say ‘No’ to people, which I guess is a good sign.
“But I wish I was playing right now. The emphasis on spreading the floor and shooting is the highest it’s ever been. I love to watch the game now, especially teams that are good at it.”
Asked to name his favorite shooters in today’s NBA, Penberthy rattled off the names of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, Ryan Anderson and Dirk Nowitzki.
“What’s amazing about Steph is no matter how many moves he makes before shooting, no matter what he does off the dribble, he always regains his balance,” he said.
Penberthy recognized Thompson’s shooting prowess early on, relating a story of sitting next to Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak at a UCLA-Washington State game:
“(Kupchak) said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told him I was watching the best shooter in college basketball, Klay Thompson. He asked me, ‘Do you think he’s that good?’ I was like, ‘Sheesh. He’s amazing. He is special.’ ”
What does it take to be a good shooter? Whether messing around on a playground or pulling up from 27 feet at Oracle Arena, the basics remain constant: balance, backspin and arc.
“If you have those three things, you’re probably on track to shoot the right way,” Penberthy said. “Whether it goes in or not is more the element of repetition.”
Penberthy believes “90 percent” of shooting is mental rather than physical, meaning practically anyone can learn to become a good shooter if he has a solid foundation and is willing to put in the work.
“It has to be an obsession. You’ve got to hate missing. You’ve got to be obsessed with it,” he said. “I was obsessed with the sound of the swish. That’s what I wanted to hear. I wouldn’t leave the gym until I made 10 swishes in a row. I couldn’t stand hitting the rim, not just missing. It becomes an obsession.
“I always say, ‘I create addicts.’ My guys are addicted to swishes. They just want to hear that thing snap. I hate gyms where the nets are long because it doesn’t make that snap. It’s more of a whooshing sound, which drives me nuts. I want that (net) to pop. I want to hear that sound.”
Penberthy worries a little bit about the trickle-down effect of all this shooting. He cringes when he sees someone chuck up a bad shot from far too great a distance at the expense of other skills.
“I don’t want to overload the shooting, where shooting comes before everything else,” he said. “Because it becomes sloppy, becomes like church league. No one wants to watch a bunch of old men chucking threes. But I think the game is really, really good right now.”
Especially when you’re known as “The Shot Whisperer.”
Starting 5 Elite Player Development Camp
- When: June 20-23
- Where: Fresno Christian High
- Fee: $200
- Details/signups: www.starting5.net