On Losing a Legend
Remembering John Hardnett.
by Aggrey Sam / @CSNBullsInsider
I should be in Philly right now. Specifically, in a church. At 21st and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. Dressed in all black. To celebrate the life of a great man. Instead, I’m here in Chicago. Letting my words pay tribute to his 56 years on this earth. Something I should have done a long time ago.
Last Tuesday evening, the heart and soul of my beloved Philadelphia basketball community was lost forever. John Hardnett, a legend in the City of Brotherly Love, passed away, leaving a void that can’t and won’t be filled any time soon, if ever.
“John’s been doing it for 30 years,” said Mike Ringgold, a Philly native and forward at Rider University that played for Hardnett as a high schooler. “I definitely don’t see too many people doing it in the city the way he did.”
“He was most like a father figure. He was dependable, he was loyal, he would give you his last.”
Hardnett was renowned for his basketball workouts, but he did a lot more than that. If a ballplayer from Philly was fortunate enough, he would be guided by Hardnett’s wisdom from before he entered high school until after his professional career ended, as hometown heroes like Aaron McKie (now a Sixers assistant), Doug Overton (a Nets assistant) and Alvin Williams (Raptors assistant) experienced.
“It’s a really big void. He touched a lot of people and even did a lot of things indirectly. The opportunities he gave…,” said Williams, a longtime NBA point guard for Toronto and former Villanova star. “Ninety-five percent of my life is because of basketball and 100 percent of that is because of John.”
“Johnny H” was a one-stop shop–he could teach youngsters the game, comb through his extensive network to find a college for the high school players he coached, develop collegians to where they had a shot at playing for money and provide a structured environment for pros to hone their craft in the offseason. For coaches (his players populated the rosters of the Big 5, Big East and all levels of colleges up and down the East Coast, as he preferred to keep his kids local, so he could spend his winter evenings at Philly high school games, college games within driving distance and the occasional Sixers game to see one of his pro guys who was making a homecoming trip) agents and media alike, he was a valued resource that held the keys to the city, as far as accurate information was concerned. More importantly, he taught his charges about life, being a man and how to conduct themselves professionally while taking them to and from gyms in the city, Philly’s suburbs and up and down the East Coast, often while feeding them and never asking for a dime for his services.
Regardless of his talent level, a “Hardnett kid” would be tough, fundamentally sound, solid on defense and have a high understanding of the game. Maybe he’d be rough around the edges, but he’d carry himself the right way, at least attempt to adapt to different environments and have a strong work ethic. These were the qualities John instilled in his players, through his old-school brand of tough love and discipline, with equal amounts of cursing and instruction. Still, no matter how harsh he was, players would always come back, as they understood how much he cared about them and knew they wouldn’t improve as much anywhere else.
“Every workout would start out with dribbling and shooting drills. He would look at us and see who needed what. Like if somebody needed to put more arc on their shot, he’d go find a broomstick or a ladder. Everything was manual,” said Williams. “Every workout would end with some kind of competition–full-court three-on-three, five-on-five, even one-on-one–but if we worked out for an hour, two hours, we would talk afterwards for just as long. He would teach us life lessons and basketball at the same time. If he wanted to teach us about not dribbling into traps, he would say, ‘If you’re walking down the street and you see traffic coming, what do you do? Turn back around and go the other way.’ To teach the guards to play through their big men, he would say, ‘Make sure you eat your steak and potatoes.’”
Walking into a gym–back in the day, it was swampy Gustine Lake Rec Center, but more recently, it could be Mallery Rec Center in Germantown or any of the Big 5 schools (Temple, Penn, St. Joe’s, La Salle, Villanova), as well as Drexel–when John conducted a workout was always an experience. From the soft pretzels and fruit for the players to start their days to the unique methods he utilized (such as full-court three-on-three–he branded his company 3-on-3 Enterprises–with all of the players on the court similar in size and position) to teach the game, watching him work could be a teaching tool for both corporate CEOs and future and current coaches.
“One thing about John, he always treated everybody the same. I used to have to beg him to let ‘Cat’ [Cuttino Mobley] work out with us, but he wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough; he just didn’t like his attitude back then,” recalled Williams. “He treated everybody the same, no matter who it was. He was quick to put somebody out of the gym, too. Even AI–he would tell him to pass the ball and he would get there on time, too. It didn’t matter if you were a pro or just trying to make your JV team.”
“But he would cuss you out the same, hit you in the back of the head the same–it didn’t matter who you were.”
Equal parts profane and articulate, John was an effective communicator that never played the fence. He judged people by their actions and deeds, so you always knew where you stood with him. At the same time, he was one of the most approachable people I knew, thus, I never fully comprehended why there were so many rumors, mysteries and misconceptions about him. If he was in it for money, he was going about it the wrong way, since his kids rarely had a dime (and if they did come from a better background, he treated them mithe same as his poorest players) and he never asked his pros for anything, except if it was something to help his current crop of youngsters. If he was in it for the fame, then he surely neglected to make any requests to the legion of local media he knew. If he was in it for personal advancement, then it would be odd that he didn’t seek out coaching positions–which he’d be overqualified for–given the ridiculous number of people he knew in the industry. And if he was in it for success at the grassroots level, it made no sense that he didn’t chase down the area’s high-profile players or even suspend his no-flying policy to play in the best and biggest summer AAU tournaments. Basically, he was more than smart, savvy and capable enough to do any of those things, but chose not to.
“John used to open the gym at 12 at night, just to keep us out of trouble. He would bring us to his house to lift weights, watch tape, eat food,” remembered Williams. “And he didn’t charge anybody.”
Now, even with all of the great work he did, it wasn’t as if John got along with everybody in Philly or anywhere else. If he felt you were wrong, he’d let you know about it. And let everybody else know in the process. Anybody who’s ever seen him work Temple’s McGonigle Hall sidelines in the Sonny Hill League (as the chief organizer, a longtime coach and commissioner of the league’s college division, he was the backbone of the operation) knows that. From referees (“I’ve seen John punch refs in the face,” quipped Williams) to players who didn’t follow directions, John wasn’t shy about letting an (often-hilarious; Ringgold remembers as a seventh-grader, “the first thing he said to me was, ‘Where’s your jock strap?’”) obscenity-laced tirade or two slip out of his mouth. There were rival figures in the city’s basketball community who were at odds with him–usually because of jealousy, insecurity or some perceived slight, but mainly because of his stranglehold on Philly’s hoops scene–but none could say they didn’t respect him or his influence.
If a kid had some potential, some coach/uncle/rec center employee would call John. If an agent had a player to be worked out before the draft (such as Mike Beasley a few years back), they called John. If a college coach wanted information about up-and-coming prospects or to recruit a player in Philly, they called John. If a pro came back from overseas over the summer or an NBA player wanted to play strong competition in the offseason (whether they were from Philly or just stopping through the city), they called John.
“He would tell you stories–always using examples from Philly, guys that played for him, like [former NBA players] Doug [Overton], Pooh [Richardson], Aaron [McKie]–and it just motivated you, not only because those guys made it, but they always came back to John,” observed Williams. “John afforded you a place to play where the competition was like no other. It wasn’t even about the drills after a while; you just knew you would get a good workout, which was big for that amount of talent. AI, Kobe–you never knew who would come through.”
“It wasn’t necessarily just about giving back–it was about getting better, getting instruction–John knew what I needed,” Williams continued. “With the young guys, you knew that was you at one point, but there was no added pressure of giving back.”
And certainly if a writer needed a good quote for a story, they called John.
I’m not a devoutly religious man, but I truly feel blessed to have known John in my lifetime. He wasn’t the high-profile type, but despite his dislike of flying on planes, he had a national reputation as a disciplinarian, a straight shooter and one of the most diligent people you’d ever meet. Personally, he was fiercely loyal and while some may have thought he played favorites, the simple fact was that he was already overextending himself as his legacy grew, and the addition of more players to his sessions would have only watered down the strong competition. Plus, even with all of the pros he’s worked with, he always had room for his guys–whether it was a still-developing high school kid, a no-name Philly product playing overseas, a Big 5 star or an NBA vet.
My personal relationship–my friendship–with John developed in a slightly different fashion than most journalists. In fact, while he knew I wrote for SLAM and had done a stint at the Philadelphia Tribune (my good friend Donald Hunt is who initially vouched for me to him; check out his terrific piece after John’s death) after I graduated from Temple, we first really interacted because of my involvement with some of his high school players. At 22, I was nobody in Philly and was just beginning to work out a few kids to occupy both my time and theirs. He caught wind of it, but instead of discouraging me (ironically, others would either joke or disparage me by stating that I “was trying to be the next John Hardnett”), he nurtured my own development, teaching me a lot of the ins and outs of mentoring young men, placing them in good college situations and occasionally taking a peek at my sessions to ensure I wasn’t teaching any bad habits. Eventually, he’d be my go-to source for information and on-the-record quotes for stories about the likes of Mardy Collins, Philly’s basketball tradition (for the magazine’s “City Game” section), the late Eddie Griffin (like my fellow Temple alum Collins, Griffin played for John) and even in my current role covering the Bulls, when Chicago acquired D-Leaguer and Philly product Rob Kurz.
The fact that not only would he take the time to share insight and stories with a naive youngster like myself was incredible, but even more inspiring was he would come to use me as a resource–whether it was to help place one of his kids in college (the last conversation we had), take my advice about sending players who hadn’t yet academically qualified to prep school (something he was loath to do) or even ask my opinion on various matters. I truly valued the friendship of a man who had forgotten more basketball than I’ve still ever seen. Truth be told, I did want to be John Hardnett one day.
At under 6-foot, with a potbelly, John didn’t look the part of an elite trainer that both Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson would occasionally utilize during their time in Philly. He didn’t have any fancy facility or even new-age methods to help players with their games. As the years went on, I observed that he likely had too much on his shoulders as he was getting older, but his tireless spirit and the respect bestowed upon him enabled him to withstand the burden. This was a guy who could go from talking to a high-level agent or NBA executive to politicking with folks on the streets without changing his demeanor, if not his language. His language–therein lies his legacy.
Everybody that knew John probably has at least one story about him cussing somebody out–whether it was themselves, a ref, an opposing coach or a player. But the life lessons he taught are the words that stick in their heads. Even now, a couple years removed from living in Philly, I can apply some things he told me so offhandedly to situations that come up during the course of my day. If that goes for me, imagine what his words mean to those who he impacted as players.
Aaron McKie. Eddie Jones. Alvin Williams. Cuttino Mobley. Doug Overton. Pooh Richardson. Marc Jackson. Pooh Richardson. Larry Stewart. Rick Brunson. Eddie Griffin.
All former NBA players. Most came from humble beginnings. Most weren’t expected to make it.
Hakim Warrick. John Salmons. Malik Rose. Mardy Collins. Rasual Butler. Rob Kurz. Malik Allen. Wayne Ellington. Gerald Henderson. Matt Carroll.
All current NBA players. All received knowledge from John’s teachings.
Lynn Greer. Jason Lawson. Matt Walsh. Terquin Mott. Steven Smith. Donnie Carr. Robert Battle. Jerome Allen. Dionte Christmas. Lou Roe. Mark Tyndale. Sean Singletary. Jamal Nichols. Pat Carroll. Maureece Rice.
All former college stars. All overseas players, either now or in the past.
That’s by no means a complete list of everybody–including professionals, as in doctors and lawyers, let alone coaches–John touched during his lifetime. Neither are the names of Mike Ringgold, DJ Newbill, Tamir Smith, Ameer Ali, Tyree Smith and Samme Givens. All still playing in either high school or college. All John’s proteges. All have the disciplined instilled to continue John’s legacy in their own respective ways.
Maybe all isn’t lost. Rest in peace, Johnny H.