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The Sixth Man and Family Ties are all coming together at Asbury University this basketball season.
“He’s like a brother to me,” C.J. Penny says of his Asbury teammate Alex Dennis. “Now that he is here, I want to protect him and make sure everything is OK.”
“C.J. is always there for me,” says Dennis, a freshman. “He’s always asking how my day is and always trying to make my day better.”
Even though Penny is black and Dennis is white, the bond goes far deeper than skin color.
It is a bond that might seem strange, given that Penny was an All-State selection at Anderson County High School while Dennis was a good, but not great, player four years later at rival Spencer County.
That matters little to the teammates. They are just brothers bonded together by a tragedy.
It was Martin Luther King Day, 2001. School was out.
“I was a junior at Asbury,” recalls Eagle coach Will Shouse, who, like Penny, graduated from Anderson County High.
It was a day that changed many lives, including those of C.J. Penny, Alex Dennis and Will Shouse. Alex’s older brother, Allen Dennis, tragically drowned in a pond near Alton.
Like C.J. Penny, Allen Dennis was a fourth-grader at Saffell Street School. They were best friends.
“We did everything together,” Penny recalls. “We played basketball together. Kenton Bottoms and Ed Ruggles were our coaches.
“We played baseball together.”
The coaches? “Kenton and Ed,” Penny says with his trademark smile.
“That was the first time I had ever seen C.J.,” recalls Shouse, who had already decided he would become a basketball coach. “C.J. turned into an outstanding basketball player and he is here so that connected us.”
Now in his sixth season at Asbury, Shouse previously had a two-year stint leading the program at Kentucky Christian University and also served as an assistant coach at his alma mater.
But Shouse was already connected to Alex Dennis. Alex’s mother, Staci, is a first cousin to his father, Johnny Shouse, who grew up in the Mount Eden area of Spencer County.
Allen lived with his mother, Lisa Hughes, when he died.
When his cousin’s step-son drowned, it was a difficult time for Will Shouse.
Alex Dennis, four years younger, had lost a hero. “He was playing every sport that was around,” Alex Dennis remembers. “I was always the one who was hanging around.”
And C.J. Penny had lost that friend he knew he could count upon. It’s a terrible lesson in reality for a fourth-grader.
“Allen was always a positive-thinker,” Penny remembers. “If you had a down day, you could always count on him to make you smile and brighten up your day.”
That changed on that fateful Martin Luther King Day.
“It was hard waking up and knowing he would not be there at school,” Penny continues. “It was rough.
“I would go to school and walk around the hallways and not get a chance to talk to the person I talked to every day. That was just rough. That first week, I left school every day after, I think, the second period because I couldn’t handle it. About four days in a row, I just couldn’t take it.”
Penny eventually recovered to become a four-year starter at Anderson County becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,101 points in his career. He led the Bearcats to two 30th District championships and drilled a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Shelby County in the Eighth Region Tournament championship game to send the Bearcats to the state tournament.
But he never forgot Allen Dennis.
“I still think about him every day,” Penny says. “Every day.”
And Penny became Alex Dennis’ big brother.
“When I was growing up, we were always going to Anderson County games to watch C.J. play,” says Dennis, whose family also lives around Mount Eden. “We were always pulling for C.J.”
Despite the numerous accolades, Penny returned the affection. “I have watched Alex play since he was in the sixth grade,” he says. “Now that he’s here, it has been great.”
At Asbury, C.J. Penny and Alex Dennis are teammates for the first time.
To say that the virtual brothers would become teammates was improbable is an understatement as big as Penny’s basketball resume. At one time, some considered Penny to be Kentucky’s top prospect in the Class of 2009. Several major college programs coveted him.
Penny, however, bounced around five schools before settling into his family at Asbury.
First he signed with Southeastern Illinois, a junior college. He stayed less than a week. The rumor mill had him connected to Georgetown College and Eastern Kentucky University. Penny eventually had short stays at Volunteer State, another juco in Tennessee, and Kentucky State University.
“I didn’t get the kind of offers I wanted coming out of high school,” admits Penny, who had met all the NCAA eligibility requirements with room to spare in high school. “I felt like (signing) was the thing to do. I realized that junior college was not for me. A lot of people there, I don’t want to say they were ‘troubled,’ but they were people who had not qualified.”
Meanwhile, Dennis had become part of some of the finest teams in Spencer County High School history. The Bears won the 30th District title and advanced all the way to the Eighth Region championship game in 2011 when Dennis was a sophomore.
Among his biggest fans was C.J. Penny, but college basketball seemed to be only a dream in the Dennis household. “I just didn’t think it would be possible,” Dennis says.
But that’s when Will Shouse, the blood relative, stepped in to offer a place on the Eagle team.
It was the second recruiting call he had made to the Dennis home. The first had been two years earlier.
“When I was in college, I was hoping to have a chance to coach Allen one day,” Shouse says with a smile. “Then when I heard C.J. was not playing anywhere, the first person I called to talk about him coming here was Donnie Dennis, who is Alex and Allen’s father. I told Donnie, ‘Tell C.J. we will take care of him here and he would have a family here.
“I knew C.J. and Alex were close and if C.J. came here, Alex would too.”
Today, C.J. Penny is one of the best players in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He only played one semester last year but was named to the all-conference team. On Nov. 23, Penny pulled down 25 rebounds against Virginia-Lynchburg to set a school record.
Alex Dennis doesn’t own any eye-popping stat lines. He’s content to play on the junior varsity team and get some limited varsity minutes. His cousin is the head coach and the man he considers his brother is one of the team’s main cogs.
They never forget the one who brought them together.
Penny has taken a marker to write “A.D.” on his adidas basketball shoe. Dennis has printed, “Bubba” in honor of his brother.
“The bond between them has always been strong,” says Shouse.
“It’s even stronger now,” Dennis adds.
That’s because they believe they have a teammate not listed on Asbury’s official roster.
“I think, if Allen was alive,” Penny says, “he would be sitting right here with us, in uniform.”