I am the struggle
I am the hustle
I am the city ...
I used to save pennies, now I stay next door to Penny Hardaway
—Yo Gotti in "I Am"
Penny Hardaway sits at a conference table that overlooks the glistening practice courts inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center. In March, people lined elbow to elbow at a news conference in which Hardaway was introduced as the head coach of the Memphis Tigers. The hiring immediately generated excitement around the program and a renewed interest in Tigers basketball from the city. "It was almost like introducing your new son-in-law and everybody loves him," says Harold Collins, a former Memphis city councilor. "All of the brothers of the bride love him. All her cousins love him. The whole family just loves the guy right away."
Hardaway is no stranger to the love. In fact, it's what has fueled him to help his alma mater and his city, the place that raised him and he never fully left.
"I came back because I wanted to make a difference in this city," Hardaway says. "I knew that my city was in a transition period and the period, it wasn't good, and I felt that with my presence and my time and my money coming back to the city, that I could help do my part to help try and make a positive change for the city."
At 47, Hardaway keeps his hair shaved close to the scalp. There are some hints of gray. Yet, he looks like he could still command an NBA offense, albeit with a slight twist: Today, he is rocking Jordans, not the Foamposites he popularized in his playing prime. Back then, he had enough talent to knock Michael Jordan and the mighty Bulls from the playoffs, and enough charisma to become a cultural icon off the court in the form of Lil' Penny, his smack-talking puppet alter ego voiced by Chris Rock (nearly 20 years before LeBron James had a puppet of his own) for Nike. He also starred in the movie Blue Chips. His character, Butch McRae, a fictional top-tier recruit, is exactly the type of talent that Hardaway wants at Memphis.
In the coming months, he will canvass and crisscross Memphis and the country for Butch McRaes wherever he can find them. "It's been a roller coaster," he says, "but it's been fun."
His eyes drift down to the court where a few players are working out. A coach would not be blamed for spending the bulk of his time here. The ribbon cutting was last November. There's a sheen to the floors of the $20 million center. There's an open-air lobby, surrounded by circular pillars and exhibits that highlight the program's most memorable moments: the '73 team that reached the championship game against UCLA, the '85 trip to the Final Four, Hardaway's Elite Eight appearance in '92.
The displays are a physical reminder of the school's rich past and aspiring future—one Hardaway already helped shape, the other he is preparing to fashion.
As a teenager, Hardaway briefly toyed with playing at Arkansas under Nolan Richardson, being a Razorback, pushing his lungs and the tempo within the famed coach's "40 Minutes of Hell" scheme. Back then, Richardson regularly lured talented Memphis high school players across state lines from Tennessee to Arkansas.
Still, Hardaway could not dismiss the nagging feeling of denying his hometown. His mind never turned to the pressures of playing at home—only how incredible it would be to perform for his city.
He trusted Louise Hardaway, the grandmother who cared for him and eternally rebranded Anfernee as Penny when her Southern drawl's pronunciation of pretty sounded more like the coin than the adjective. She trusted then-Memphis State coach Larry Finch as a mentor for Hardaway. The program had reached the Final Four a few years earlier.
Finch was a Memphis legend and knew what it meant to plant himself in the city and fight for it.
He had played his high school ball at Memphis' Melrose High School and stayed for college at Memphis State, at a time when many African Americans had disavowed the university following its passing over of other local black high school stars. While there, Finch led the Tigers to the 1973 championship game, where they battled UCLA to a halftime draw before succumbing to Bill Walton and the perfect Bruins, 87-66.
The team's success galvanized Memphis, just a few years after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated there.
"This team has unified the city like it's never been unified before," then-Mayor Wyeth Chandler said in 1972, according to the Memphis Flyer. "Black and white, rich and poor, old and young are caught up in its success. Memphis is a better city now, thanks to the Memphis State team."
Finch became head coach at his alma mater in 1986, succeeding Dana Kirk, who was fired amid a federal scandal, where witnesses alleged that he scalped tickets, took money from boosters to give to players and sought kickbacks from tournament organizers.
Finch restored respectability to the program but had yet to make it past the NCAA tournament's second round. He needed Hardaway, so he had to persuade Hardaway to not leave. "Boy, you're not going anywhere," Finch said. "You're going to Memphis and we're going to do this thing together."
Hardaway laughs at the memory.
"It really didn't take much," Hardaway says. "I had already loved the basketball teams from the previous four, five, six years there. It wasn't a hard sell. But he was that type of guy."
Hardaway sat out the 1990-91 season after being declared academically ineligible. He squared his grades and returned to the court with the reputation as the next Magic Johnson. In his sophomore season, he averaged 17.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists as the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight. He was even better as a junior (22.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 6.4 APG), although the Tigers didn't make it out of the first round.
Then came a tough decision: Hardaway decided to forgo his remaining college eligibility for the 1993 NBA draft.
He called Finch.
"Coach, I think I'm going to declare for the NBA draft," he said.
"Who told you that?" Finch asked.
"Well, they told me I'm going to be a top pick."
Finch took a moment before responding. "No, you don't need to be going anywhere," he said before hanging up the phone. Hardaway was left with a dial tone ringing in his ears.
He waited half an hour before calling back, and when he did, Finch summoned him to his office.
"He just kept trying to figure out who was trying to push me to go," Hardaway says. "He just did not want to give in. He did not. He did not want me to leave."
Hardaway was more than a pathway deep into the NCAA tournament; he had provided inspiration to black kids in Memphis—kids like rapper Yo Gotti, who would one day bring Hardaway out on stage at his birthday celebration. It was also true that he offered a superficial distraction from the city's far-reaching struggles. In the end, the lure of the NBA proved impossible to ignore; the Golden State Warriors took Hardaway with the third overall pick, trading him with three future first-round picks to the Orlando Magic for the rights to No. 1 pick Chris Webber.
When Hardaway arrived in Orlando, he and his teammate Shaquille O'Neal immediately became one of the NBA's premier combinations—a tall forward masquerading as a point guard and a dominating inside presence. Meanwhile, a Penny-less Memphis State underwent a face-lift. It was renamed the University of Memphis.
Memphis advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1995 but struggled afterward. Finch found out he had lost his job in 1997, while at a concession stand after a game. It seemed a needlessly cruel way to fire a head coach who had meant so much to the program as a coach and a player.
"He was so hurt from everything that had happened with the university, and I could just tell that he was dying from a broken heart," says Hardaway, who is well-aware that his being new to the job has bought him the affection of the city and school—for now. "You could just tell he had just lost all love and respect for the city that he thought was his city, because of how he was treated when he got fired."
The Tigers lost prominence as an NCAA powerhouse, watching the tournament season after season from home. Meanwhile, Hardaway's once limitless NBA potential hit a ceiling and collapsed as injuries derailed his bright future.
"It was tough, going from being a mega superstar to having injuries, and that microfracture just took me way down," Hardaway says of the series of surgeries that gradually sapped his game of its pop. "You just go through a lull in your life, especially when I was at the highest level of basketball and then the injury took me to the lowest level of basketball. Internally, I was just kind of dealing with so much, and it got to the point where I was able to just kind of exhale and say: 'You know what? This is what it is. My life must be meant to be doing something else.'"
As Hardaway's NBA career became increasingly interrupted by injuries and he began debating post-career options, John Calipari arrived at Memphis, prepared to end the drought and deliver the program a championship.
He steered the program to the tantalizing brink of a national title before a Mario Chalmers three-pointer stunned Memphis and secured the championship for Kansas. Soon, Kentucky came calling for Calipari, but not before he offered some parting words of guidance for Memphis' future coach.
"The thing I'd say to any coach is that when you sit in that seat, you have an obligation to bring people together, not be holed up in that office in that practice facility," Calipari told Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
"The position is you can go to Orange Mound and have lunch, then have dinner at the Memphis County Club, then go to Germantown and sit down with friends. It's very important to this city. It is the position, not the person sitting in it. The city will embrace whoever is the next coach, and that coach needs to hug back."
Others tried. Josh Pastner took over as a tireless recruiter in Calipari's mold and continued that trend in his seven years in charge of the program. But he only advanced as far as the round of 32 before leaving to coach Georgia Tech.
Tubby Smith then arrived with national title credentials on his resume but managed to go just 40-26 in two seasons before he was let go with $10 million still owed to him.
By the spring of this year, apathy surrounded the program. Homegrown standouts Dedric and K.J. Lawson transferred. The NCAA tournament hasn't been a reality since 2014. Attendance dipped to a nearly five-decade low. And M. David Rudd, the University of Memphis president, told reporters that he projected the basketball program to lose nearly $5 million this year. Tiger Bookstore, the Commerical Appeal reported, contemplated halting the sales of basketball jerseys.
Hardaway has been active on the Memphis basketball scene for some time. His coaching journey started at Lester Middle School in 2011, three years after he retired from basketball. Desmond Merriweather, a friend who had cancer, asked him for some help teaching his kids offense.
"The teaching aspect of getting the guys better," Hardaway says is what he enjoys about coaching. "Seeing where they are and then taking pride in getting them to the next level."
He embedded himself in the city's AAU basketball scene through Team Penny, hoping to show the city as a basketball hotspot, and captured three consecutive state titles as the head coach at East High School.
"I probably found out coaching was a fit for me when I started coaching on the [AAU] circuit," Hardaway says. "When you're coaching all these All-Americans, you're coaching against All-Americans, and I really got into, you have to run offensive sets, you have to run defensive schemes. You have to take the first and second options out of play, and I really started getting into that on a weekly basis, and I was like: 'You know what? I can really start doing this.' Because that really is college basketball that you're coaching when you're on that circuit."
Recruiting, however, may take a little time to get used to. It is a different animal than the one Hardaway witnessed nearly 30 years ago, when Finch walked into his living room.
"You've got the AAU coach," Hardaway says. "You've got an uncle. You've got a cousin. You've got a guardian and then you might have the mom. The mom might be last. So, you've got to go through all these different people, and every one of those people who I just named might be easily persuaded by someone else, [they] might be on five different pages. One might want them to go to Louisville. One might want them to go to Georgia Tech. Two might want them to come to Memphis, and another coach might really like Arkansas. Now, it's confusing the kid, and you've got to figure out which one of you guys I need to talk to to try and get to this kid to try to let him know."
His image as the lanky point guard who threw alley-oops to Shaquille O'Neal still resonates among the teenagers who can just go to YouTube for the evidence.
"I guess it was just the flair of the game," Hardaway says. "Being a 6'7" point guard. That's different. That's unique. So, I think people appreciate my skill set that I had for my height and the way that I played the game. You fall in love with players and their styles. ... As weird as it may seem, you've still got people that respect what I did in the game, and they still like me now."
Hardaway hopes to build a perceived fence around the city and keep the recruits he wants home. These are neighborhoods Hardaway navigated as a child, walking miles to school and to the courts from the shotgun home he shared with Louise, long before receiving the keys to the city from Mayor Jim Strickland. And this is a local legend who has served as a grand marshal at the Southern Heritage Classic Parade in Orange Mound, where billboards proudly claimed Hardaway as a product of the city's public schools.
The plan already seems to be working. Alex Lomax, a point guard who Hardaway has known and coached for years, received his release from Wichita State to sign with Memphis. Tyler Harris, another local star, chose Memphis after Hardaway's announcement. Malcolm Dandridge, a forward who starred for Team Penny (now the Bluff City Legends), became Hardaway's first 2019 commit.
But Hardaway is expanding the net. He has visited Dallas, Atlanta and Indianapolis since being hired. He traveled to Alabama to meet with Trendon Watford, a 5-star power forward prospect from Alabama. He hosted 2020 top recruits Jalen Green and R.J. Hampton.
The tug between Memphis' past and the future is personified in the recruiting battle around James Wiseman, a big man with a wingspan five inches beyond his height of 7 feet, projected by some as the next Anthony Davis.
Wiseman, who played for Hardaway at Memphis East, is rated as 2019's top recruit by ESPN.com and 247Sports. His sister, Jaquarius Artis, attends Memphis, and the family relocated to the city from Nashville following Wiseman's sophomore season at the Ensworth School. Most recruiting forecasts, however, predicted Calipari would land Wiseman for Kentucky. But Hardaway's hiring immediately brought Memphis into the fold as a legitimate contender.
Hardaway did not waste much time in planting a flag in Calipari's area of expertise when he told the College Hoops Today podcast: "If you're trying to get to the NBA, there's no one better to get you there than me and [assistant coach] Mike [Miller]. That isn't a slight to any coach, but we've been there. We know what it takes."
The competition and comparisons between the coaches became inevitable when D.J. Jeffries, a top-20 prospect in the class of 2019, reopened his recruitment after committing to Kentucky. Jeffries played on Hardaway's AAU team. The Commercial Appeal reported on a September visit from Hardaway to the Jeffries home, writing, "It was as if they were welcoming in an old friend." Jeffries committed to Memphis in late October.
The recruiting rivalry was in plain sight over the summer, when Hardaway and Calipari, with members of their staffs, sat near one another at the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League's Peach Jam. They were there, in part, to watch Wiseman, who admitted his connection to Hardaway was not something he took lightly.
"He's more my high school coach, so we've got a great relationship," Wiseman said of Hardaway. "Our relationship is still there. Since he's the coach at Memphis, we've still got the same relationship as we did."
Dujuan Taylor, the director of the Bluff City Legends—Wiseman's AAU team over the summer—understands the lure of playing for Hardaway.
"He didn't have any desire [to coach at Memphis], but once they convinced him, then the same passion he had for East and Team Penny, he put all that energy into Memphis," Taylor says. "He don't know how to go half speed."
Hardaway agrees, but he knows that comes with a risk. More than a few times, he's been asked by those close to him if he's prepared to put his reputation at stake. Is he willing to put all the chips on the table? His name? What he's done for the city? Right now, he's the native son. Is he ready for people to look at him differently if he fails?
"I'm willing to put everything on the table, because I know this is what I want to do and I don't look at it in that fashion," Hardaway says. "A lot of people asked that. Some influential people asked that. The answer is yeah. Yeah."
To those from the city or have at least played there, Memphis basketball is worth the fight.
"There's an obligation [in restoring the program]," says Elliot Perry, another former Memphis star, who returned to the city at the end of his NBA career. "You think about all the people that pour into your life over the course of time when you're in elementary, middle school. The mentors that poured through your life. The teachers that poured into your life. All the people that coached you when you didn't have that help. Getting by when you didn't have that, and lastly, all the people that believed in you."
That's Penny. Penny is Memphis. Memphis is Penny. The city's struggles are also his. The success he is aiming for will be shared. He can again be an inspiration.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.
David Gardner contributed to this report.