By ANDRE JOHNSON
Bleacher Report Contributor
Anfernee Hardaway sat straight up in his chair above the court at University of Memphis’ Elma Roane Fieldhouse during his recent basketball event, gazed into the rafters, and flashed the same signature grin that earned him the nickname, “Penny,” by his grandmother when he was a child.
The former Memphis consensus All-American guard appeared blissful that his event deemed the Penny Hardaway Basketball Classic had turned out to be a success, given the large crowds that attended the three-day affair to help support the local Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
He was, in fact, ecstatic that his alma mater was courteous in allowing him to put on display an honorable event comprised of over 30 of the best high schools teams throughout the Mid-South.
But while the 38-year-old Hardaway expressed how much he wants his charitable event to continue “long after I’m gone,” it seemed that wasn’t the obvious reason for his constant smirk.
Hardaway was brought to smiles when asked to reflect on his mostly-prosperous NBA career that included stops in Orlando, Phoenix, New York, and Miami. It was, in fact, a promising stint that seemed on path to landing the native Memphian in the Hall of Fame before recurring knee injuries disrupted his effectiveness and forced him out of the league.
He reminisced about his playing days in Orlando alongside Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, and future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, among others. He also recalled when he was in the prime of a career that was highlighted with All-Rookie First Team honors, three All-NBA selections, four All-Star appearances, and an Olympic gold medal in 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
"I look at it like this," Hardaway said. "In six years, maybe seven, I accomplished more than what most NBA players did in their entire career. I'm All-NBA two or three times, All-Star four times. I did all of this in maybe four years. If it wasn't for all the injuries, I'm pushing for the Hall of Fame."
Though he was among the most popular and admired players in the NBA, particularly during his six seasons in Orlando, Hardaway felt he would have been remiss is he hadn’t discussed the scintillating and classic battles against recent Hall of Fame inductee Michael Jordan.
Hardaway paused momentarily, then smiled and stared into the rafters again, as if to say he knew he was as good as advertised each time he faced whom many say is the best basketball player to set foot on the court. Suddenly, he offered a rather courageous response by which many shouldn’t find surprising, considering his skills were often likened to Jordan and Magic Johnson during his early years in the NBA.
“I was like, ‘I’m ready to kill him,’ a laughing Hardaway said of Jordan. “I had that Memphis mentality. I wanted to show him I could play. It was amazing because I knew he was going to make me play a game at a high level. He gave me a lot of credit, telling other players and his teammates he respected my game. When he say that, that means you’re getting a blessing from the man.”
That Jordan publicly commended Hardaway’s tenacity, particularly during the 1995 playoffs when he averaged 25.7 points and helped the Magic eliminate Jordan and the Bulls in Eastern Conference semifinals, only reinforced what Memphians have known all along. That is, Hardaway was destined for greatness since his teenage days of playing pickup games on the perilous streets of Binghamton.
Arguably the best player in Treadwell High history, the 6'7" Hardaway was Parade Magazine’s National High School Player of the Year after a memorable senior campaign in which he was a McDonald’s All-American after averaging 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 3.9 steals.
"I have known Penny since he was in the eighth grade," WMC-TV sports director Jarvis Greer said. "He was a happy-go-lucky kid, and was well liked by eveybody in the community. He was always an intellegent kid. Like so many others his age, he was just channeled in the wrong direction. I am so proud of Penny today."
Even before finishing his prep career with 3,039 points, he had stacks of scholarship offers from virtually every major Division 1 school in the country. He chose Memphis over Arkansas because of the Tigers’ rise to national prominence in the 1980s.
“I fell in love with that (1984-85) team that went to the Final Four against Villanova and from that point on, I was already sold,” Hardaway said.
Poor grades ultimately forced Hardaway to sit out his freshman season (1990-91) at the U of M. Later that year, he was marred by more hardship when he was robbed at gunpoint and struck in the foot by a stray bullet. While such an incident essentially jeopardized his career, Hardaway quickly recouped on and off the court.
He capped off his freshman year by making the Dean’s List. A year later, the two-time Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year guided the Tigers to an Elite Eight appearance, where they were trounced by Cincinnati for the fourth time that season. Hardaway played one more season at Memphis but passed up his senior campaign for early entry into the NBA Draft.
Selected with the third overall pick in 1993 by the Golden State Warriors, Hardaway was traded with three future first-round draft selections to the Orlando Magic for the draft rights to No. 1 overall pick Chris Webber. Ironically, Webber topped Hardaway for Rookie of the Year honors, but that didn’t prevent his popularity from reaching its peak years later.
Coming off of his second consecutive All-NBA first team selection, he was selected to the Olympic Team in 1996. Consequently, his Air Penny athletic shoe was dubbed the most popular hoops footwear on the market, prompting Nike to pay tribute to Hardaway with the “Lil Penny” commercial ad featuring a small puppet voiced as longtime comedian and actor Chris Rock.
“That was fun because that was comedy,” said Hardaway, who also starred in the basketball drama film Blue Chips in 1994.
Following the departure of O’Neal to the Los Angeles Lakers during the offseason, Hardaway was the only marquee player on the Magic’s roster heading into the 1996-97 campaign. He spent three more seasons in Orlando before being dealt to Phoenix and joining Jason Kidd to assemble what was labeled BackCourt 2000. His stint with the Suns lasted five seasons after he was shuffled in and out of the team’s starting lineup.
He was eventually traded to the New York Knicks, where he appeared in 83 games in two mostly injury-ridden seasons. Traded back to Orlando in 2006, Hardaway was waived five days later, but attempted a comeback a year-and-a-half later when the Miami Heat signed him for the veteran’s minimum. However, his tenure in South Beach lasted only four months as he was waived in favor of former NBA player Luke Jackson.
While Hardaway repeatedly said he believed he could still perform at a high level, no team has shown interest in signing him in over two years. Still, his presence is seemingly being felt throughout the league today.
LeBron James, Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, and Trevor Ariza, among others, have admitted that they idolized Hardaway when they were growing up. While Hardaway said he is grateful to have impacted a number of players in some aspect, he seemed more enthralled with regards to earning Jordan’s respect.
“He respected my game,” a chuckling Hardaway said, once again.
As if there was really any doubt.