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Tony Bennett finds a mission in New Zealand

January 20, 1997

MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ Tony Bennett has exchanged his NBA dream for a higher calling.

``If you had told me one year ago that I was going to go to New Zealand to be a missionary instead of pursuing an NBA career, I would have told you that you’re crazy,″ said Bennett, 27, son of Wisconsin basketball coach Dick Bennett.

Bennett, formerly of the Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers, now plays for a New Zealand pro team called the Burger King North Harbor Vikings.

``They pay me in Whoppers,″ Bennett said, jokingly.

The former Wisconsin-Green Bay guard injured a foot early in training camp with Cleveland in 1995. The Cavs waived him and, rather than waiting for another NBA offer, he signed to play in the Australian pro league.

Bennett played five preseason games in Australia and averaged more than 20 points per game. But he was released, told only by team management that ``we want a bigger guard.″

So Bennett and his wife, Laurel, thought about returning to Madison. But they decided to stop in New Zealand for an extended honeymoon.

The Bennetts fell in love with New Zealand, its mountains and deep blue ocean. They also met a pastor, Jeff Vines, and learned they shared the same dream.

Together, they have started a non-denominational Bible Christian church in Auckland, New Zealand’s second-largest city.

``The peace I feel is indescribable,″ Bennett told The Capital Times of Madison.

``What I experienced pursuing the NBA was a strong desire. But when this situation arose and I started thinking about it, I suddenly realized I had never experienced so much peace with something.″

One of the most difficult moments Bennett faced after making his decision was informing his father. But it went much easier than he expected.

``He sensed I was moving toward something instead of away from something and that gave him a sense of peace, too,″ Bennett said.

Plus, Bennett’s basketball career is not over. He enjoys playing for the BK Vikings in the New Zealand pro league, which runs from April to September. He also is helping develop basketball in the country.

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