Original Old School: The Education of Tim Hardaway

by April 03, 2010

Rus Bradburd was an NCAA coach when he helped recruit Tim Hardaway to UTEP. By the time Timmy’s career finished, Bradburd was a full-time professor and scribe. That’s what made him uniquely qualified to pen this Tim Hardaway Old School that ran in SLAM 121.–Ed.

SLAM 121: Tim Hardaway.

by Rus Bradburd

The theory is, if you’re looking for top engineering, you buy German. The hottest green chile is from New Mexico. The best baseball prospects live in the Dominican Republic. But if you’re searching for a floor leader for your basketball team, Chicago is the Mecca. You could field a decade of NBA All-Star teams with Chicago point guards. Rickey Green. Maurice Cheeks. Kevin Porter. Isiah Thomas. Doc Rivers.

Here’s my theory: Credit for the preponderance of prototypical Chicago point guards since 1971 goes to Bulls’ former floor leader Norm Van Lier. Years before the Jordan Era, Van Lier clawed out a name for himself—part streetfighter, part Chicago union worker. He had large lumps on his elbows and knobby knees from diving on the floor. The diminutive Van Lier would dish dimes, get technicals and once threatened an NBA center with a chair.

Here’s another theory: Don’t believe the hype. Maurice Cheeks and Kevin Porter were hardly on anyone’s recruiting list. Cheeks went to West Texas State, Porter to St. Francis of PA.

Tim Hardaway’s name was not listed by the scouting services, either.

Yet another theory: If we had signed Tim Hardaway early at UTEP, where I was an assistant coach at the time, we’d get a steal. This was 1984, the first year of Early Signing. Okay, that’s not unusual. What made this a gamble was that we had not yet seen him play. But in-the-know Chicago people kept mentioning him with reverence. These men were also a mystery and used only nicknames. Tree, Mac, Red and Pie.

My only option was to see Hardaway in a pick-up game. “Watch for how hard he plays,” head coach Don Haskins had told me when I left El Paso. My job as an assistant coach: sneak into town, make our pitch and check out his game.

Timmy wouldn’t be the first great point guard to play for UTEP. The first was Bobby Joe Hill, who stole the ball—hell, he had stolen the whole show—from Kentucky in the landmark 1966 championship game of Glory Road fame. But before his senior year, Hill had gotten married, had a baby, got hurt, lost focus and never played in the NBA. Hill settled in El Paso, working for the gas company. He’d still come to practice occasionally, gliding in with a soulful, slow-but-rhythmic walk and a gleam in his eye that seemed to say he knew the secret.

Right after Hill, Nate “Tiny” Archibald came to El Paso, en route to a thrilling NBA career that included his once leading the League in points and assists during the same season (’72-73).

Neither Hill nor Archibald were known for their relentless hustle. Instead, they were thinkers, poker players, cool assassins in high-tops. They pissed off Coach Haskins.

Sitting in his South Side home, Hardaway seemed to have the right blend of humility and confidence. Even his nickname then—“Tim Bug”—seemed pretty modest. Not like, say, “Half-Man, Half-Amazing.”

His mother was a mail carrier, a fearless breed forged in Windy City winters. His parents were divorced but friendly; Hardaway’s father, Donald, lived down the block. I was just 25 then, not old enough to know how large Donald’s shadow loomed over Tim.

Near the end of the evening, a slight break in the modesty: “Some people say I play like Isiah Thomas,” Hardaway said matter-of-factly. It got quiet. Sure, Hardaway was great for South Shore Park, but Isiah was the best small player in the world.

SLAM 121: Tim Hardaway. Hardaway was going to be playing the next day at the South Shore YMCA, where Tim was known simply as “Donald Hardaway’s son.” Donald had been a Chicago playground star, but college never appealed to him. Instead he joined the Army but continued to hone his game for years at the South Shore Y. He was bigger than Tim, nearly 6-3, and his way of bonding with his son was by tossing him out to the crafty men at the Y who would teach him how the game was still supposed to be played. It would be an education in The Classics, where dunking and selfishness were out. Passing and ballhandling skills were in.

Everyone—even Tree, Mac, Red and Pie—said that Hardaway couldn’t shoot. “Corkscrew” and “knuckleball,” they admitted. But Hardaway made every shot he put up, arching up heaves with no backspin. He was assaulting the fundamentals of shooting, but who cared? Most surprising was that he did not play hard, and this with a college coach staring him down. He played smart, and relaxed, like it was the first level of PacMan—it was all a breezy warm-up and he seemed to have a pocket full of quarters. He was omniscient—he could intuit how plays would develop, as though everyone was in slow motion except him.

I knew we’d found the right point guard.

A good thing happened to Hardaway early in his first season at UTEP—he landed on somebody’s foot, almost broke his ankle and had to miss five games.

He was just starting to blossom and looked ready to assume his rightful place in the starting lineup, a rarity for a Haskins freshman. It was all coming too easy for him, and the time off helped him further understand when to use the gas pedal, but more importantly, when to put on the brakes. He soon learned how far he could cheat off his man, when to penetrate, when to gamble on defense. He also knew when to listen to Haskins and when to ignore him, a rare sort of wisdom. He also had an uncommon feel about what not to do. He didn’t over-dribble or hold the ball too long on the break. Bad shots were out of the question. He didn’t get frazzled when Haskins chewed on him, and there was a lot of that. He never said anything dumb.

Coach Haskins would confide privately how Hardaway had a chance to be his best point guard ever. That would have surprised Hardaway—Haskins talked to him as though he never did anything right. Or, more precisely, Hardaway was treated like everyone else. Nothing was good enough, especially in the half-court offense.

Already a master of leading a fast break, Hardaway, ironically, was fortunate to play for one of the most patient offensive coaches around. The emphasis on a slower style forced Hardaway to ignore his strengths (like racing through the middle on a three-on-two fast break) and learn to play in a half-court setting. Coming off screens, reading the post, passing angles, measuring the defense, all became points of emphasis for the sponge-like Hardaway.

And perhaps most important, he had to develop a consistent perimeter jumpshot, something a run-and-gun point guard is less concerned about. Hardaway would stay late, launching shots from behind the new three-point line. Haskins, a noted shooter in his day, gradually gave up after weeks of trying to help Hardaway get backspin. Still, Hardaway kept a secret like Bobby Joe Hill: He wouldn’t really unveil his three-point shot until it was ready. His entire sophomore year, as a full-time starter, he only attempted 12.

Then tragedy hammered Hardaway. His high school coach, Bob Walters, died of cancer at age 43. Walters was an unassuming Arkansas man, a good coach and a better person. He’d never mentioned the cancer that was already eating him alive, always presenting himself with dignity and poise. Although he’d overcome homesickness his first year, now Hardaway seemed to cling to home again, keeping in constant contact with his parents, grandmother and his fearless high school sweetheart, “Lady.”

Then his backcourt running mate, a charismatic L.A. kid with a huge smile named Jeep Jackson, collapsed at a spring benefit game and never regained consciousness. Jackson seemed like the kind of guy who would live forever, and in a way he did in El Paso. Tim went home that summer undoubtedly introspective. Would he stay in El Paso?