Original Old School: The Education of Tim Hardaway

by April 03, 2010

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.