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."