Hardaway Needs Your Love
Magazine, December 2004
for Best American Sports Writing, 2004)
Hardaway had a lick of sense, he’d have retired seven years
basketball player Memphis will ever see was just coming off
three of the finest seasons in NBA history. He was an
international icon, a multimedia superstar, more famous than
presidents. Then he blew out a knee—and proceeded to torpedo
his chance at immortality.
He could have been basketball’s Bo Jackson, the kind of
athlete who showed us just enough sustained excellence before
forced retirement to prove that he was indeed the Real Deal.
There’s no shame in hanging up the sneakers from a hospital
see things that way, though. He decided he was going to play
through the pain, bouncing back time and time again, returning
to the court after five different surgeries, each time waiting
for the recognition: hey, this is a warrior, a guy who just
won’t give up.
He’s still waiting.
In January 2004, the Phoenix Suns dealt All-Star guard
Stephon Marbury to the New York Knicks for a bunch of veterans
and prospects. Also in the deal, the Suns tossed in somebody
named Cezary Trybanski and a certain former First-Team All-NBA
player by the name of Anfernee Hardaway.
Talk show callers and sportswriters shook their
collective heads at Penny’s appearance on the trade wire. From
the pinnacle of the sports world to a trade throw-in, the
story ran. What the hell happened to Anfernee Hardaway?
Just so it’s clear what kind
of a player we’re talking about here, some stats: Penny
Hardaway was the third pick in the 1993 NBA draft. He was
named All-NBA First Team in 1995 and 1996, meaning that after
exactly one year in the league, he was already one of its top
five players. Along with Shaquille O’Neal, Penny led the
Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995; the next year, Penny
played on the gold medal-winning Dream Team in the Atlanta
Olympics. He averaged more than 20 points a game during four
All-star seasons from 1994 to 1997. Not even Michael Jordan
accomplished so much so fast.
But when it comes to former sports stars, there are two
categories: the immortals, and the whatever-happened-to?s.
Everybody’s got to retire someday; that’s a given. The
trouble comes when people are missing you…but you haven’t
January, and Penny is in Atlanta with his new teammates. There
are meaningful games, there are statement games, and then
there are January games against the Hawks, the NBA’s
equivalent of a visit to your distant relations—dull,
predictable, and best ended soon as possible.
more honors and accolades than any five guys in uniform
tonight. But when the pregame pyrotechnics stop and the
opening tip goes up, he’s sitting on the bench, the way he
will for all but four of the 42 games he’ll play for New
York this year. And surely—maybe not tonight, but
sometimes—surely he wonders how one of the NBA’s elite
ended up riding the pine on a below-.500 team.
eighteen years to 1986, a time when the closest Hardaway came
to the bench was passing it on his way in and out of the
Treadwell High gym. Back then, Anfernee Hardaway—nobody
outside his grandmother called him Penny yet—was a gangly
6’1”, all elbows and sneakers. But even then, barely into
his teens, he was showing flashes of athletic genius.
sportscasting legend George Lapides still recalls the first
time he laid eyes on Penny, during a high school tournament.
Lapides was there—everybody was there—to see Treadwell
senior Elliott Perry, a singular Memphis basketball talent
already well on the path that would eventually lead him to the
NBA. But as Lapides and other Bluff City basketball
cognoscenti watched, this bony kid with the unusual name
quietly drained basket after basket.
“We went to
this tournament game to watch EP, and we see this poker-faced
kid who’s so much younger than everybody else, but he’s
got an uncanny knack for always being in the right place at
the right time,” Lapides recalls.
he looked like any other skinny kid, but we could see right
off the bat that he had talent,” Perry says. “He was raw
in 8th grade, but by the time he hit 9th,
he was ready to start.”
But even in that
first game, Lapides noticed something peculiar about
Hardaway’s demeanor. “He almost seemed to be trying to
hide his ability, like he was bashful and didn’t want to
take the spotlight from the others,” Lapides says. “He was
clearly better than anybody on the court except Elliott, but
he just went on about his business.”
With about two minutes left in
the first quarter, Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens motions for
Hardaway to get in the game. As Penny sheds his warm-ups, the
Hawks announcer intones his name—“Now entering the game
for the Knicks, No. 1, Penny Hardaway.” There’s an
instinctive cheer—there always is when you’re talking
about someone as famous as Penny—but it fades quickly.
Cut to the Pyramid, 1992. The Memphis State Tigers are
in the midst of a run that will culminate in the Elite Eight
of the NCAA tournament, and every time the Tigers—led by an
ever-more-confident Penny Hardaway—step onto the court, the
cheers in the Pyramid send Mississippi River waves crashing
onto Arkansas shores.
“Going to the
Elite Eight was so magical,” Penny says. “I had so much
fun that year. It was like a magic carpet ride that I never
wanted to end.”
“Penny was the
go-to guy from the moment he walked on campus,” recalls Tony
Madlock, a senior on the ‘91-‘92 Tigers and now an
assistant coach at Arkansas State. “We knew from the start
that he was something special—a 6’ 7” guard who could
pass, score, defend. And boy, could he light up the
Lapides recalls a particular game against Tennessee
Tech, when Penny made one of the most exceptional plays
Lapides has ever seen. On a fast break with a defender between
him and the basket, Penny had two options—slow down and wait
for the rest of the team to catch up to him, or drive straight
into the defender and try to draw a foul. He did neither,
throwing himself a pass around the defender and off the
backboard for a roof-raising slam-dunk.
“You only see a Penny once in a long while, even at
the biggest schools,” Lapides says. “The fans knew exactly
how many things he could do, and they came to the Pyramid
every game expecting to see something they’d never seen
before. Usually, they did.”
Penny accomplished enough in his two brief years at
Memphis State to win inclusion on ESPN’s All-Time Conference
USA Team, an honor announced just a few hours before
tonight’s tipoff. Against the Hawks, though, Penny gets off
only three shots—all misses—in the first three
quarters…and the Pyramid seems a long way away.
years of basketball, three years academically, I felt like it
was time to go pro,” Penny says. “The coaches were saying
I was going to be a one, two, or three pick, so why take a
chance on getting hurt? I could always go back and get my
degree, and I could make a difference in my family’s life
was a decision that Memphis State fans met with both regret
and resigned acceptance. “Much as I hate to see players
leave college early, he was as ready as he was going to
get,” Lapides says. “He overmatched everybody he
player in the 1993 NBA draft was Michigan forward Chris
Webber. But Magic brass recognized that the skinny playmaker
from Memphis would be a better fit for their young team, and
picked Webber only to immediately trade him for Penny. Magic
fans howled, and it took them months to applaud Penny for who
he was rather than boo him for who he wasn’t.
Penny put his
head down and tried to keep his focus on the hardwood. “I
knew I could win [the fans] over with my play,” he says.
“Memphis State wasn’t really a team that was shown on TV a
lot, like Michigan and Kentucky. Even though I was First Team
All-American, they didn’t know who I was, and they didn’t
trust the judgment of the Magic.”
the line, though, something meshed. With Hardaway at point,
the Magic began a tremendous three-year run that included a
trip to the 1995 NBA Finals, the second-youngest team ever to
do so. But even falling in a four-game sweep to the Houston
Rockets didn’t dim the enthusiasm for the Magic.
“We had Shaq
and Penny,” recalls John Gabriel, former Magic general
manager. “We thought we were going to be sizing Finals rings
for the next decade.”
These days, Penny takes the court
looking like he’s going into battle, with every joint taped
and padded. The high-flying days of his youth are long behind
him; age and injuries have robbed him of the explosive
quickness that used to humble All-Stars. But he melds into
this game as smoothly as a NASCAR driver leaving pit row,
grabbing rebounds and dishing assists as the Knicks take a
double-digit lead. Scoring points, however, is another matter.
In the NBA, there’s greatness achieved, and there’s
greatness seized. Penny Hardaway was indisputably one of the
greatest NBA players of the mid-90s, capable of going
toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan. But the superstar mantle never
seemed to fit Penny as comfortably as it did other players. He
always seemed a larger version of that slim ninth grader,
happy to lurk on the perimeter but just too damn good to
escape the limelight.
For a time, Hardaway redefined the game of basketball.
Too tall for most guards to handle, too quick for most big men
to stop, Penny owned the NBA, racking up playoff wins,
All-Star appearances, and Olympic gold. Off the court, Penny
continued to pour support into charities including, in
Memphis, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, Le Bonheur
Children’s Hospital, and the National Civil Rights Museum.
His summer charity basketball games, which brought NBA
superstars to Memphis long before the Grizzlies arrived, were
among the Pyramid’s most popular events.
conquered the endorsement market. “You can’t guard me! The
Secret Service couldn’t guard me!” Penny’s puppet alter
ego “Lil’ Penny” crowed in wildly popular Nike
commercials. (Even in the commercials, though, Penny was the
calming influence, always trying to quiet the outlandish
boasts of the Chris Rock-voiced puppet.)
But in 1996, Penny suddenly found himself without a
running mate when Shaq jumped the Magic ship to sign with the
Lakers. Penny was now up to his neck in expectations—and
that number 1 on his back quickly became a bullseye.
Maybe it was the weight of those expectations, and
maybe it was just plain bad luck. But after Shaq left Orlando,
Penny collapsed, literally and figuratively. He blew out his
knee in November 1997, beginning a five-year string of
injuries that kept him in street clothes often—but, as he
tells it, not often enough.
“When I was
injured, I should have sat out as long as it took [to
heal],” he says. “I never would have thought in a million
years that trying to come back early, trying to help the team
make the playoffs, would have gotten me bashed.”
Penny assumed he’d built up enough goodwill in
Orlando to give him leeway as he worked his way back up to
full strength. But declining win totals, combined with some
dubious decisions—including an extended stint rehabbing in
Houston away from the team—caused many fans and
sportswriters to label Penny a whiner, a malcontent, a selfish
“I thought the criticism from
the injuries was unfair,” Penny says. “Injuries happen in
every sport. I don’t understand—what did I do to the
basketball world to make them start hating me because I got
hurt? I should have ignored what fans and the media said—I
kept going back too soon, and I had nothing. That’s the main
reason I kept getting injured.”
knows the timetable on recovery from certain kinds of
injuries,” Gabriel says diplomatically. “Some people
thought he took too much time; he thought he didn’t take
enough. Penny probably was a little overconscious of being
liked or disliked, and in this league, you’ve got to be a
little tougher-skinned than that.”
Of course, as
Penny notes, once a perception takes hold in the sports world,
it’s tough to shake. “A lot of people think I’ve had
just one knee surgery and just given up,” he says. “Even
guys coming into training camps, guys who were my fans growing
up, say to me, ‘you’ve had five surgeries?’ Like Isiah
[Thomas, the best point guard of the ‘80s and now the Knicks’
general manager] told me, a lot of guys would have quit a long
time ago, taken the money and ran.”
Penny left the Magic in 1999, signing an $86 million
contract to play for the Phoenix Suns. Gabriel, who still
considers Penny a friend, says Orlando offered to match the
deal, but Penny decided a change of scenery was necessary.
In Phoenix, he
would once again be teamed with a superstar, this time the
superlative point guard Jason Kidd. Kidd and Hardaway, dubbed
“Backcourt 2000,” were supposed to revolutionize the game.
But Hardaway once again got injured and played all of four
games in 2000-01, Kidd got dealt to New Jersey, and Backcourt
2000 fizzled before it ever got started.
In the Kidd trade, the Suns got Marbury, one of the
quicksilver post-Penny generation of NBA’ers who didn’t
much feel the need to hone his astonishing talent with
fundamentals like team play. Once again, Penny would be
playing alongside an All-Star. But this time, there was no
talk of a superstar tandem.
In the NBA, the cliché goes, it’s not how you
start, it’s how you finish. Tonight, the Hawks have
scrambled their way from 11 points back. With 49 seconds left
and the game tied at 89, the ball ends up in Penny’s hands.
It’s one of those moments kids dream of on the playground.
Penny dribbles once, stops, and fires an effortless fadeaway
jumper into the air.
So what are we to make of Penny Hardaway? Is he a
Hall-of-Fame player? At this point, barring some significant
late-career contributions to a championship team, probably
not. But once his gargantuan contract expires, it’s easy to
imagine a team on the cusp—Dallas, say, or Miami with Shaq—picking
up Hardaway for some reliable veteran minutes.
And make no
mistake—Penny’s still got the competitive fire. “I’ve
done everything that I can do as an individual, so now I want
to win a championship,” he says. “And I’d love to win as
a role-player. A lot of people can’t believe that, and
that’s why a lot of people don’t win.”
if he’s going to enjoy his NBA twilight years, he’s got to
get his mind off the injury/ bad reputation merry-go-round.
Although he doesn’t duck any subject in interviews, his
conversation always returns to the way his injuries have
shaped his public image. “My career has gone significantly
worse compared to a guy like Grant Hill,” he says, speaking
of the former All-Star who’s had, if possible, a worse run
of injuries than Hardaway but has escaped the “slacker”
label. “There’s not the negative criticism with Grant that
there is with me. Grant and I are friends, but I look at it
and say, how’s his situation different from mine?”
The problem for
Penny is that he’s forever facing an opponent he’ll never
defeat—Penny Hardaway circa ’96. “People look at what he
used to be 8, 9 years ago, and they want that Penny back,”
says Elliott Perry, a teammate at both Treadwell and Phoenix.
“But he can still be a vital asset to any team. He’s a
solid role player, and on any given night drop can 20 points
question is whether he’ll get enough shots to drop those 20
points; as a third or fourth scoring option on the Knicks,
he’s lucky to see seven shots a game. To hear Knicks brass
tell it, though, that’s not why he’s in New York: “His
basketball IQ is a huge bonus for this team,” Thomas says.
“More than his athleticism, we need his basketball savvy.
When he’s out on the floor, we appear to be a much smarter
NBA elder statesman, wealth beyond measure, the respect
of his peers—Thomas calls him “one of the classiest
individuals I’ve ever met in this game”—there are worse
lives to have, and Penny knows it. “Everything I’ve had,
it’s all been a dream come true,” he says. “The only
thing I hate about my career is that people say, ‘Penny
Hardaway’s washed up. After he got that big contract, he
laid down on the league.’ The real fans know—this is a
testament to self, a guy who was at the top of the league goes
through five knee surgeries, and instead of quitting, stays in
the game. Every arena I go to, somebody’s got something
[negative] to say to me, but they should be telling their
kids—‘Look at what Penny Hardaway’s gone through.
Don’t ever give up in whatever you do.’”
Penny’s dramatic rainbow shot arcs through the
air…and clangs off the back rim. But thirty seconds later,
with the Knicks now up by one, Penny drives the hoop and gets
fouled. Thirteen seconds left in the game, two free throws to
shoot. Miss one, and the Hawks can easily tie. Miss both, and
the Knicks have a chance to fumble away a game they’ve
Penny drains ‘em both.
A few ticks
later, Penny and the Knicks have their win—a win without
flair or drama or ESPN highlights, but a win nonetheless. And
as Penny leaves the arena, you realize he can keep on playing
at this level for years, forgoing the glory if it means
avoiding the criticism, leaving the limelight to others and
focusing only on the game.
And in the end, maybe that’s all the skinny kid from
Treadwell High ever really wanted.