Original Old School: The Education of Tim Hardaway

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.

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?

He did, and his scoring average continued to climb, from a mere 4 ppg as a frosh, to 10, 13 and finally 22. WAC Championships and NCAA bids became annual occurrences. Yet there was not the notoriety that you might expect. El Paso is a long way from anywhere, and Haskins’ system was not an ideal showcase for Hardaway. The lack of national publicity, the still-simmering resentment about the way he was ignored in high school, the badgering from Haskins—it all kept Hardaway focused. Anyway, who could get a big head when Haskins was stomping and waving in disgust? Haskins abhorred showboating, and Hardaway’s flawless and breathtaking ballhandling was barely allowed in public.

One night while watching TV, Tim had seen a Syracuse guard do something on TV that had petrified the defender. Dwayne “Pearl” Washington had crossed the ball, changing hands and threatening to change directions. Then, as his defender leaned, Washington quickly dragged the ball back to his original hand in a simpler-but-devastating crossover. “But I modified it,” Hardaway says today. “I put it between my legs first, then crossed back.” It was, in a word, killer.

After sticking with his high school girlfriend, keeping Donald Hardaway’s dream alive and holding Coach Bob Walters memory close, it was no surprise when Tim had to pick an agent after his senior season.

He signed with Henry Thomas, who was more of a family friend at that time than an agent. Thomas, a brilliant and forthright ex-college point guard himself, would emerge from obscurity along with Hardaway, and he now represents guys like Dwyane Wade, Michael Finley and Chris Bosh.

Hardaway was picked at No. 14 by Golden State, and the contrast between Haskins’ and Don Nelson’s coaching styles could not have been greater. Nelson’s Atari-game-paced system showcased Hardaway perfectly, and he was named captain as a rookie, an All-Star in his second season.

Much of Hardaway’s rapid rise in reputation had to do with the unveiling of what must have seemed like his secret weapon: astonishing dribbling skills. That killer crossover got dubbed “The UTEP Two-Step,” which had a cute ring to it, but not exactly the ring of truth. Then came the “I Got Skills” commercial, and his status was complete. Later, when Hardaway joined Pat Riley in Miami, he was able to recall the gritty slow-down traits of Haskins and was just as effective.

Here’s one more theory: Fans like little players better. It’s a fact that little guys get better shoe contracts. Who cares what Shaq is wearing? Or Yao Ming? But all of us keep our favorite small guards close to our hearts. I still have a notebook with my old dribbling drills written in it. I’d clipped photos of Archibald and Van Lier, and pasted them to the cardboard cover. I even wore suede Pro-Keds like them.

Little guys represent courage, fearlessness. But they also exemplify generosity and kindness. That’s why shorter guys are also great guys, and everybody knows it, right? They’ve struggled; fought their way up after being picked on.

And that’s why people were stunned when Tim Hardaway came out with his comments last year about John Amaechi, who had just taken the brave step of admitting he was gay.

“I hate gay people,” Hardaway said on the radio. He even suggested that gays shouldn’t be allowed to live in America. The League acted quickly, yanking Hardaway from the lineup of former NBA greats at All-Star Weekend festivities in Las Vegas.

I’d never heard Hardaway say a mean thing or show any cruelty. Unless you’d call breaking ankles with killer crossovers “cruelty.” He was nice to our nerdy managers. And assistant coaches. Some people came out and defended—well, not so much Hardaway’s statements, but the idea that his was a “true” emotion, and it was indicative of what many others in the NBA thought. And that it was good to get judgment like Tim’s out in the open and deal with it.

Sports have been a place of profound social change. Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers at a time when our Armed Forces were as segregated as a Mississippi Klan meeting. David Meggyesy quit the NFL to work for peace in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali spoke his mind politically all the time. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists for justice in Mexico City in 1968, effectively committing professional suicide. That image of Carlos and Smith with raised fists at the Olympics is the picture I pasted outside my office. My Archibald & Van Lier dribbling notebook is buried somewhere.

“I don’t hate anybody,” Tim Hardaway told me recently. “Look at my background, my past. I misspoke, and I apologized.”

Hardaway has since learned that some of his closest friends have gay sons and daughters. So Hardaway quietly decided to walk the walk. He has sat in on several all-day seminars at Miami’s YES Institute, which provides support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens. “It’s for kids who have trouble dealing with their sexuality,” Hardaway says, insisting he never wanted his comments to be used to bash gay kids. “But I’ve learned that dealing with parents and relatives can be the most traumatic,” he says, before quoting the high suicide stats among gay youth.

And he still thinks Amaechi could have “come out” to his Jazz or Magic teammates, instead of waiting until he was retired. “Trust us as teammates, let us deal with it,” he adds. “I know for a fact that an NBA player came out to his team this season, and it wasn’t a big deal. Be up front.”

That’s what a lesbian couple did with Tim at a Miami restaurant. They approached him, demanded an explanation and wouldn’t allow him to leave. Where did he get off saying that stuff? An hour-long talk ensued in a quiet corner. “OK, you’re still our favorite player,” one of the women told him after they’d spoken. There hasn’t been that kind of resolution with Amaechi, who used the word “stupid” when describing Hardaway on Oprah’s show. Although Hardaway acknowledges his own role—“It was a really poor choice of words”—he’d like to put this in his past, and be remembered more for his skills and team-first play.

After years of Haskins, and the hassles and hand-checks that had tightened his game, Hardaway simply committed an unforced verbal turnover. I think he’d briefly forgotten how it felt to have the enormous odds stacked against a short African-American kid from the South Side. And I think that because of his time at the YES Institute, soon he’ll come to grips with what kind of courage it would have taken to make an announcement like John Amaechi’s.

But that’s just another one of my theories.