by Khalid Salaam
One of the reasons we connect so intimately with talented athletes whose careers are cut short by injuries is that they remind us of ourselves. We think: That player would have been great…Just like me if my job hadn’t been downsized, my spouse hadn’t left, I hadn’t quit school to take care of my parents, etc. We allow ourselves to romanticize the best-case scenario even though, for all we know, that player may have already peaked. The dream is better this way and we stay there, freezing those moments in time.
For a generation of basketball fans who came of age during the mid-’90s, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway is probably the face of this sentiment. The Memphis native and University of Memphis product was an unquestioned phenom whose impact on and off the court made him an immediate superstar. By his second season, he was a First-Team All-NBA selection, and along with Shaquille O’Neal and a group of young and talented players, helped lead the six-year-old Orlando Magic franchise to a 59-23 record and Finals appearance. At 6-7, with track star athleticism, he dominated opposing point guards and looked to be on the verge of a Hall of Fame-type career. By just his fourth season, however, injuries began making it all tumble down. In the end, Penny played in 704 regular-season games over 14 seasons for four different teams, with career per-game averages of 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5 assists, numbers that don’t come close to doing justice to what he was like at his peak.
We caught up with Penny recently while he was in Las Vegas for a Nike/Sole Collector event to talk about his memorable legacy.
SLAM: On the list of all-time great signature shoe lines, your collection is often cited behind Jordan’s as No. 2. How does that feel?
Penny Hardaway: It feels great. It’s an honor that people still care so much about those sneakers. When the retro phase started a few years back, they blew up and they just stayed that way. Everybody hopes to get their own shoe, and when it came out years ago, I was shocked that the design looked so good. I think it’s great that the shoe still matters.
SLAM: Can you explain the Nike/Sole Collector collabo that’s happening now?
PH: They are putting together a five-pack and they’re combining my first couple of shoes before I wore the Penny 1 and making an entire new shoe. Everything has been beyond my expectations.
SLAM: The shoes are classic, but so are the commercials. What do you remember about them?
PH: They were incredible. I’m quiet, and Lil Penny was the complete opposite. When I first heard about it, I thought it was the perfect match. I thought it would be funny, but I didn’t know it would be that much of a hit. I didn’t know it would be that big of a deal. When we started making them, it was a thing where I wanted to make them all the time.
SLAM: How many were there?
PH: We had the one with Spike Lee, with Tyra Banks, the one with the Range Rover… I would say about six to eight. My favorite was the one where I played a detective and I saved Lil Penny from the explosion.
SLAM: The story is almost a legend now, but can you reiterate how you got to Orlando in the first place? You weren’t the team’s first choice, right?
PH: Right. I was in the movie Blue Chips with Shaq, and the Magic wanted to bring me in for a workout. Before even shooting the movie, they brought me in. Once we started filming, Shaq and I kinda clicked and it was Shaq who said to the Magic execs, “Hey you need to bring this guy in for another look.” We had real good chemistry. So I came in for another workout, and they decided on me instead of Chris Webber.
SLAM: That Magic team blew up pretty quick.
PH: It was cool because when I first got there, we were a .500 team but we could see the promise. We could see where we could go, and then that next year (’94-95), we exploded and ran through the League all the way to the Finals. Those few years we were superstars and it was really cool. Shaq was the comedian; Dennis [Scott] was just plain crazy and would try anything; Nick [Anderson] was the serious one; I was laid back; and Horace Grant was like the older brother.
SLAM: Years later, what stands out?
PH: What do I remember most? Playing for the first time in my life with so much incredible talent. I had never played with a team with talent. Every team that I played on, I was the best player hands down, and nobody I played with in high school even went on to play DI except for my cousin. In college it was the same way. But in Orlando we just made things work, and to be able to play with such talented guys was amazing. As a team, I remember how easy it was. Nick, Dennis and Horace could shoot the ball so well and all I had to do was get it to Shaq around the basket and he was dunking on you.
SLAM: Was the Playoff ouster of the Bulls in ’95 the highlight?
PH: When we took out Chicago, it was unbelievable. They were the team to beat. It was great to beat them with Jordan on the team. That next year we didn’t come back with the same focus. We were kind of young and the Bulls came in way focused. They went 72-10 that year, and you could just tell they weren’t playing with anybody.
SLAM: Even though Magic Johnson set the precedent at the time, your size at the point guard position was still considered revolutionary. What were you doing playing the point in the first place? Had any coaches growing up tried to change you position?
PH: I had a huge growth spurt from 9th to 10th grade. In 6th, 7th and 8th grade, I was 5-5, 5-6. Then I went to 5-10 the next year and then 6-4 over one summer So the ballhandling…I already had those skills. I went to 6-7 by 10th grade. I really loved watching Magic, but my game was based on dunking. I could get assists, but I was more into attacking. Coaches didn’t change me. I just had to jump the ball every time, but other than that I had point guard duties.
SLAM: So what really happened in ’96?
PH: It was pretty sad. We had something special. I thought Shaq and I were gonna play together for the rest of our careers. I never had any thought that he was thinking about leaving or even wanted to leave. It was really shocking when he left, and after that it went downhill.
SLAM: The team went from 60 wins to 45 the next season. Shaq leaving really set the team back, and you guys never seemed to recover.
PH: It was what it was. We were losing after Shaq left, we were down. And somebody had to take the fall and Coach (Brian) Hill took the fall. It happens to a lot of teams. We were still young, and I was trying to keep it together…but we didn’t have that inside presence anymore and we turned into, like, a run-and-gun team, and it just got weird.
SLAM: And then the injuries started, right?
PH: First off, to this day, I don’t think people know how many I had altogether. I had six knee surgeries, two in Orlando and four in Phoenix. Two got done at the same time. I was one of the first guys to get microfracture surgery. And I didn’t handle the recovery well. It wasn’t even heard of in the NBA yet. It took away my legs, my athleticism. They were left knee injuries, and it would be like, OK, I’d have the surgery and wait like five or six weeks and come back and then a week or two later, it wouldn’t feel right. I tried to just force it. We’d go back in to get a MRI and it was torn again, and I was like, C’mon man, this isn’t right. It was crazy.
SLAM: Did you feel you were misdiagnosed? How did the Magic respond?
PH: To me, there was a lot of confusion. Back then you played hurt, so they were like, “Oh, it’s just in your mind.” It was hard to believe. They kept asking me, “Did you hear anything? Did you hear your knee pop?” I would tell them, No, but it really does hurt. All of a sudden there was pain and I was very frustrated. I went from being very athletic, one of the best guards in the NBA, to barely making it. No speed, no agility. I had to change how I played because I couldn’t exercise or train because my knee constantly hurt.
SLAM: Did any other players reach out to offer support?
PH: Nobody bonded with me at that time. No support. It was weird. Nobody would say, “Hey man, are you OK?” Nothing. It was more that people thought I was faking, and I have no idea why they would think that. When Grant Hill came back to Orlando after having all of his surgeries, I was the first person to call him and congratulate him for making it back. It seemed like nobody cared about what I was dealing with. That’s just how it works, man.
SLAM: Now that the lockout is over, how do you see the NBA season turning out?
PH: Dallas is up there. Mark Cuban is willing to go and get what the players need so they’ll be good. He’s just not afraid to spend money. They got nothing from Peja [Stojakovic] in the Finals and they still won, so yeah, they might be the favorite overall, especially in the West. I think the Grizzlies will be there, too. They did an unbelievable job last year without Rudy Gay, and Zach [Randolph] did a great job as a leader. They went deep in the Playoffs, did a lot of things that people didn’t think they could do, and I’m interested in seeing how they are gonna come together with Rudy back. So the city is ready for them to play. In the East, it’s still Miami. They need to get some more pieces, but they still have a strong team.
SLAM: How’s retired life?
PH: I’m working with kids mostly. Training, working with them on basketball. I’m back and forth between Miami and Memphis, and I’m working on a facility for the kids in Memphis. We haven’t broke ground yet, we’re still in the raising money stage. I donated $1 million dollars to the school. People ask me about coaching, but I’m not into coaching; I just want to train. That’s for right now anyway; maybe in the future it will be different.