Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click the links below and at right for more information on his novels, articles, and comics.

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- December 2004




Penny Hardaway Needs Your Love


Memphis Magazine, December 2004

(Nominated for Best American Sports Writing, 2004)


If Penny Hardaway had a lick of sense, he’d have retired seven years ago.

The greatest 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 bed.

Penny didn’t 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 gone anywhere.



It’s 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.

Penny’s got 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.



Flash back 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.

Memphis 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.

“Physically, 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 Pyramid!”

            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.


“After two 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 immediately.”

It 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 played.”

The marquee 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.”

Somewhere along 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.

He’d even 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 player.

“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.”

“One never 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.”

But 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 on you.”

The 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 team.”

            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 dominated.

            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.




All contents copyright © 2005 James Busbee. All Rights Reserved.


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-Dream Another Dream (Hoop Dreams DVD review), Chicago Sports Review July 2005

-Rollin' On The River (Feature on the late, lamented Chattahoochee Raft Race in Atlanta), Atlanta, June 2005

-Fuzzy Yellow Bloodlust (column on my tennis temper), Atlanta, June 2005

For earlier works, click here.



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