Penny: "I Remember Nothing But Great Things"

By John Denton
Feb. 20, 2014

ORLANDO – The irony of how Penny Hardaway’s basketball life has come full circle isn’t lost on him one bit. The talented, but mercurial point guard who often clashed with coaches Brian Hill and Chuck Daly during his stellar career is now a coach himself.

Hardaway didn’t, by any means, set out to be a coach, and he only did so to come to the aid of a childhood friend who was battling through colon cancer. But Hardaway quickly fell in love with the task of trying to get a young team to mesh as one and cajoling players to be their best on the court. Hardaway is merely coaching at the middle school level back in his native Memphis, but what is most important to him is that he is making a difference in the lives of young teens in need of direction and strong male role models that they can look up to.

So even though Hardaway, 42, will forever be remembered as a transcendent point guard and one of the greatest players in the history of the Orlando Magic – the team that he guided to the 1995 NBA Finals and the ’96 Eastern Conference Finals – he feels his true purpose in basketball might be now in his current role as the head boys basketball coach at Lester Middle School in Memphis.

``I think all things happen for a reason and I think this is what God wanted me to do,’’ Hardaway said this week. ``He gave me enough years in the league to make an impression on people in basketball. But there are some other people out there that need me. They need me, like, right now. These kids, at this moment now, they needed me.

``I didn’t think things were going to go this way for me, and (coaching middle school) isn’t something that was on my bucket list,’’ Hardaway continued. ``But after doing what we’ve done (winning three straight state titles), it’s changed the culture of my neighborhood and changed the entire culture of that school from the elementary kids to the middle school. I walk into the school to check on the guys and kids from kindergarten are giving me hugs on the knees. They’re all coming up to me and saying, `Heyyyyyyy, Coach Penny!’’ It’s an amazing feeling.’’

Imagine that, Coach Penny. During his playing days, Hardaway was so amazingly gifted and wise beyond his years when it came to his basketball IQ that he didn’t always bond well with those trying to coach him. But that never stopped him from being a groundbreaking player, especially in Orlando. As such, the Magic will honor Hardaway on Friday night during the break between the first and second quarters as part of its ``Legends Nights’’ events throughout this 25th Anniversary season.

Hardaway was a two-time first-team All-NBA player and a four-time All-Star during his six seasons in Orlando from 1993-99. But he left the organization on bad terms following a first-round playoff exit in 1999 because he felt he needed a fresh start in another city. He was booed each time he returned to Orlando – first, with Phoenix and later with New York and Miami when his career was prematurely cut short by an injured left knee.

Hardaway was initially unsure about returning to Orlando because of the negative reaction he feared he might get. But he eventually decided he wanted to be back at a Magic game and again see his basketball life come full circle.

``I’m not sure what I’ll feel. I’ve been so far removed from the Magic that I don’t know what kind of emotions that I will have,’’ said Hardawsy, who was in the Amway Center in 2012 for the NBA All-Star Game. ``It’s good coming back and being honored by the Magic. I’m appreciative of the gesture and them inviting me back, but I don’t know what my emotions will be. I was a little apprehensive about it, but I said to myself, `What’s it going to hurt?’’’

`I REMEMBER NOTHING BUT GOOD THINGS’

Hardaway said there is no hurt for him when he thinks back to his ultra-successful playing days in Orlando. His Magic teams made the playoffs five of six years, missing the postseason only during the 1998 year when he was out following surgery on his knee. He starred alongside of Shaquille O’Neal, when the two were considered the best point guard/center duo to hit the NBA since Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers in the 1980s. And at the height of his career with the Magic, Hardaway was nearly as big as Shaq what with his ``Lil’ Penny’’ national advertising campaign with Nike.

``For a small guy like me, I looked up to Magic Johnson because I couldn’t be him. But Penny could (be like Magic Johnson) because of his size, ability to handle the basketball and make plays,’’ said current Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, who played against Hardaway during the late 1990s. ``Penny was transcendent because of his skill set and his size.’’

A case certainly can be made that Hardaway might have been the best player in franchise history considering that during Orlando’s two best years (1995 and ‘96) he was a first-team All-NBA pick in back-to-back years – something that O’Neal never did during those heady times for the Magic. Hardaway said when he sees the Magic highlights on TV or has flashbacks to his Orlando playing days he is flooded with great memories.

``I remember nothing but great things. None of the bad ever comes up when I think back,’’ Hardaway said. ``The injury that I had going into my last year was bad, but I just remember all great times. Being swept in the first round my first year was tough, but we had a great year. Then, we sign Horace Grant that summer (of 1994) and I knew instantly, `Man, we’re going to The Finals.’ And we did because I knew we were just one player away. So my memories of Orlando are nothing but good. I was young and we had one of the better teams in the NBA and we were treated like rock stars around the league.’’

Hardaway sits back and thinks what might have come of his career had he not requested a second workout in Orlando three days before the 1993 NBA Draft. It was during that workout that Hardaway proved to the Magic that he would be the perfect complement to O’Neal and he convinced them to trade Chris Webber for the rising point guard.

Former Magic player Jeff Turner, now an analyst for Fox Sports Florida, was on Hardaway’s team during the pick-up games of that workout and remembers the point guard as being ``unbelievable.’’ Hardaway said he went into that sessions with the Magic determined to show then-GM John Gabriel he would be the right fit for the team.

``I think about that all of the time,’’ said Hardaway, wondering what would have come of his career had he not been traded for on draft night by the Magic. ``When (the Magic) brought me back in I knew that I had to show everything that I had because I really wanted to be in Orlando. At the time, I was doing the movie ``Blue Chips’’ with Shaq and I wanted to play with (the Magic). Even in the movie I was trying to show Shaq that I could play with him and that he needed me with him.

``That was a brilliant decision by Gabe, but I had given him every indication that it was going to work,’’ Hardaway continued. ``He still had to take a chance and he did it. Chris Webber was a part of the Fab Five and he was a great player in his own right. But it’s amazing how it unfolded with me getting to Orlando and I’m happy that it did.’’

`YOU’RE NOT GETTING OVER THAT’

Like most, Hardaway figured the Magic were set up for not just one, but several NBA titles. With O’Neal, Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott making up a core that Grant joined, Orlando had a young nucleus that seemed destined to rip off a string of NBA titles.

Hardaway said he still hasn’t gotten over getting swept in the ’95 NBA Finals by Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets and the ’96 East Finals by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. He acquitted himself quite well in those series, averaging 24 points and 8 assists against the Rockets and great numbers again against the Bulls.

What Hardaway was also never able to escape the devastation caused by O’Neal’s defection to the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 1996. The two were together in Atlanta playing for Team USA during the 1996 Summer Olympics when O’Neal rocked the sports world with the news of him breaking up the Magic’s potential dynasty and signing with the Lakers. It created uneasy feelings between the two, and sent Hardaway and the Magic for a tumble.

``You lose a guy of Shaq’s magnitude and you’re not getting over that,’’ Hardaway recalled. ``When I heard that Shaq had signed with the Lakers I was devastated. We were together in the Olympics and we had to finish those games out. I was a young stud and I was thinking, `I’ll be OK, but as far as our team, there’s no way to recover from that.’’’

O’Neal’s defection left a gaping hole in the roster, and much of the burden for carrying the team was placed on Hardaway’s shoulders. He lashed out at Hill, who he thought was too critical and negative, and the superstar guard ultimately took part in a team-wide movement to have the coach fired late in the winter of 1997.

Hardaway was able to repair his image somewhat when he poured in 42 and 41 points in consecutive playoff games in jaw-dropping fashion against Miami to nearly lift the underdog Magic past the Heat in five games. Knee surgeries and another first-round exit in 1999 led to Hardaway demanding his way out of Orlando and Gabriel ultimately detonated the Magic’s roster.

Hardaway’s time in Phoenix never truly worked out because of alternating injuries to Jason Kidd and himself. And once he was out of basketball for good, Hardaway had no idea where life would take him next.

COACH PENNY BECOMES A REALITY

Coaching a middle school team was nowhere near on the radar for Hardaway, but that changed one day when a childhood buddy, Desmond Merriweather, asked Hardaway to come by practice and give his team some tips on how to effectively score against a zone defense. Hardaway, of course, was the perfect man for the job considering the way he carved up defenses through the years while becoming an All-American at Treadwell High School and Memphis State and the second-coming of Magic Johnson in the NBA.

When Lester Middle School won the first game after Hardaway’s advice, he was hooked on the rush he got from helping young players succeed. And when Merriweather got too sick to coach because of the chemotherapy treatments for his colon cancer, Hardaway was the natural choice. And the success that ensued with Hardaway as coach showed just how talented of a basketball mind that he possessed.

``Des told me that he was going through chemo and it was taking a huge toll on his body. … He asked me, `Can you step in and be the head coach on the days I don’t feel well?’ I told him I would and that’s how I ended up being the head coach,’’ said Hardaway, whose story has since become a best-selling book. ``We won the city and state that first year, and we won last year, too. We just won the state again (last) Thursday, so we’re three-for-three.’’

What struck Hardaway most about coaching was trying to help out children from the same tough Binghampton area of Memphis that he grew up in. Hardaway was once robbed at gunpoint during his freshman year of college and he ended up with a bullet lodged in his foot. He is struck by wanting to help teenage boys – many of whom have had difficult upbringings and have family members in jail – realize the same dreams that he had some 20 years ago.

So, yes, Coach Penny is a reality even though the mere notion of that idea sounds strange to some of his former teammates with the Magic. But as it turns out, Hardaway said, maybe this was his true calling in basketball instead of being a savant of a point guard for the Magic all of those years.

``I think about it all of the time that I got out (of the Binghampton projects) and I thank God,’’ Hardaway said. ``The guys that I grew up with are still in the neighborhood and now I’ve got them coming to support our games. Every time I go to Lester, I’m driving down the same streets that I used to walk as a kid and I thank God, saying, `Thanks for giving me the opportunity to get out.’ And I’m also thankful that I can come back and give back now. That means everything to me.’’