Money Man

by September 26, 2010

Derrick Rose and Team USA’s victory at the FIBA World Championship had us thinking about another point guard out of Memphis that was profiled in SLAM 4.–Ed.

Penny Hardaway, SLAM 4

by Vincent M. Mallozzi

It’s a few hours before the game in Beantown in late November, and two members of the Orlando Magic are already loosening-up their gifted limbs. In the quiet emptiness of Boston Garden, Anfernee Hardaway and Anthony Avent are locked in a pinstriped duel, strutting their stuff in front of a couple of awestruck kids at courtside who’ve somehow managed to sneak into the arena. Already ahead 10-6, Hardaway takes a dribble along the left baseline, but the bigger stronger Avent blocks his path to the tin. “Penny,” as Hardaway is affectionately known throughout his home state of Tennessee and the rest of the basketball-speaking universe, stops on the proverbial dime. He ducks underneath Avent’s out-stretched hands, and leans in toward the hoop, dragging his pivot foot ever-so-slightly.

“Travel,” shouts one of the youngsters. “Give up the ball.”

Amused, yet playin’ hurt, the 6-7 Hardaway whips his long lean body around like an alley cat who just had his tail yanked by a couple of neighborhood punks.

“What? Who said that?” a smiling Hardaway demands, putting an index finger to his lips. “Shhhhh.”

Almost two years after being traded from Golden State to Orlando for Chris Webber on one of the most memorable draft days in history, Hardaway still feels compelled to silence his critics – anywhere, anytime, any size.

“In this league, you just have to keep getting better and better, and not pay any attention to what people are saying about you,” says the 23-year old Hardaway, minutes after defeating Avent and satisfying two more customers, albeit young and non-paying ones.

“That’s my goal,” he says, his head draped in a towel, “to keep getting better and better.”

As a promising rookie out of Memphis State last season, Hardaway, who twice named Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year, said he paid little attention to the initial criticism of Orlando boobirds, who pounced on his every little mistake – even as incredibly insignificant as bouncing the rock off his leg or missing an open jay – as a way of sending a nasty message to Orlando’s front office.

The arrival of Hardaway meant the departure of Webber, and Magic fans thought their team had made a huge blunder by sending Webber’s wicked power-forward skills on a stagecoach headed west, especially with the Magic solely in need of a quality big man to watch Shaq’s back in the wild, wild East.

Before long, however, Hardaway began to win over all of those doubters, displaying powers and abilities far beyond those of any mortal point guard. Hardaway not only passed off, he pissed off opponents with his talent for slithering through defenders for easy layups, or soaring above them for a few nasty rim rockers. He leaped over tall Robinsons and Ewings in a single bound, and ran the Magic’s offense like Scott Skiles (now a Washington Bullet) never could. And as if all that firepower was not enough, Hardaway even got back and played tough defense.

“I knew that if I just went out there and did my job as a point guard, everything would fall into place,” says Hardaway. “I didn’t want to force my talents right away. Things needed to come naturally.”

And naturally, Hardaway forever mended hearts broken by Webber’s departure. The clincher came last November 23rd, when Orlando defeated Golden State, 120-107. Hardaway finished with 23 points and 8 rebounds. Webber, playing out of position at center, finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. But it didn’t matter; the fans had officially changed their allegiance. As Hardaway was being thanked with a standing ovation, a group of fans unfurled a banner that read: WE PICKED THE RIGHT ONE BABY, UH HUH.

Just minutes before he takes to the floor against the Celtics, Hardaway is having his right foot taped – heavily. It’s the same foot that took a bullet last April when Hardaway happened upon a robbery outside a cousin’s home in Memphis. The shooter forced Hardaway to lie face down on the wet pavement, sticking a gun to his neck before deciding not to squeeze the trigger. “I thank God everyday,” said Hardaway. “I thank him for keeping me alive and giving me all the luck and success I’ve had in my career.”

As from the foot, which suffered three broken bones from the gunshot, Hardaway says it never felt better. “It’s as good as new,” he said, hopping on it to prove his point. “The bullet has been taken out. There’s nothing in there anymore. No bullet fragments, nothing. It doesn’t affect my running or jumping. I’m one lucky guy.”

One lucky guy? That’s quite an understatement from a dude nicknamed Penny, who’s in the first year of an estimated $65 million, 9-year contract. That’s 6,500,000,000 pennies to be exact. (Talk about pocket change). “The guy is worth every one of those pennies,” says Horace Grant, who came to the Magic from the Chicago Bulls in hopes of solving Orlando’s power forward dilemma. “I didn’t realize how great Anfernee was until I got here and saw him play on a daily basis. I can’t think of many point guards in the NBA better than Anfrenee Hardaway.”

Despite his all-around court brilliance, Hardaway will always play in the long shadow of Shaq, and maybe even Horace himself. “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with playing in someone else’s shadow just as long as you get your job done,” says Grant. “I played for years in the shadow of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, but I don’t think the knowledgeable fans in Chicago ever took me for granted because they knew I was a key contributor to the team’s success. That’s the way it is over here with Anfernee Hardaway.”

The success of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, given the nickname from his grandmother, Louise, a former sharecropper who thought her grandson was as pretty as one, has not surprised those who watched him and helped him grow.

“Penny started out with me in the ninth grade, and I could see all the talent he possessed way back then,” says Garmer Currie, who coached Hardaway at Treadwell High School in Memphis. “By the time he reached his junior year, he was being recognized as one of the best players in the country.

“At a young age, he really liked to pass the ball, which is rare,” Currie continues. “Oh, he’s still get his 30 points, but he always involved his teammates. I knew back then that he had talent to play pro ball.”

That talent was nurtured along by Memphis State coach Larry Finch, who knows he may never see the likes of Hardaway ever again.

“First of all, you never replace a player as talented as Anfernee,” said Finch. “He was special. He did special things on and off the court.”

Standing outside the visiting trainer’s room at Boston Garden is Shaq Fu himself, waiting for Hardaway’s feet to be completely taped, and his legs to be rubbed. The smell of Ben-Gay is as repugnant and overpowering as a bad Red Auerbach cigar. As he waits his turn with the trainer, O’Neal is reminded of a line that he said: “Once we get a few years under our belt, Penny and I will be the Magic and Kareem of the ’90’s.”

Shaq doesn’t even bat an eyelash when asked about the brash statement. “I said it and I meant it,” he says firmly. Almost on cue, Hardaway walks out of the trainer’s room. His feet finally taped, he chimes in to Shaq’s tune while he searches for a pair of sneakers.

“Oh, definitely me and Shaq could be the Magic and Kareem of the ’90’s,” said Hardaway, nodding in approval toward the basketball galaxy. “But man, when you look back at the career that those two guys had, well, I don’t know if we could win as much as they did.

“But who knows, we’re getting better all the time,” Hardaway continues. “One day soon, we might win a championship.”

That said, Penny Hardaway smiles that pretty boy smile, puts the finishing touches on the knots of his sneakers and makes his way onto the parquet floor, where a generous ovation awaits him. An ovation which, as a certifiable NBA superstar, he must already be accustomed to. At 23.

“I’m just thankful that I’m still around to enjoy all of this,” he says.

Who wouldn’t be?