<h3>When The Leg Injuries Prematurely Abbreviated A Certain Hall Of Fame Career, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway May Have Stopped Playing, But He Never Stopped Ballin’</h3>
I remember hearing the whispers in the late 1980’s, when he was a teenager in high school. It was during a conversation with a random guy at a summer basketball tournament. I was watching the vaunted Riverside Church Hawks team from New York City, featuring prep phenoms Kenny Anderson and Malik Sealy, playing against a strong New Jersey Roadrunners team quarterbacked by Bobby Hurley.
The synergy between Anderson and Sealy was incredible. As I shook my head after another brilliant pass or turbo burst of speed, after yet another devastating attack at the rim or smooth, mid-range jumper, the guy standing next to me playfully hit me with an elbow to my bicep.
We exchanged a quick high-five before he hit me with, “Can you imagine a 6-foot-7 player that is a combo of Chibbs (Kenny Anderson’s nickname) and Malik, a point guard with lightning quickness who also had the size, skills and understanding to play shooting guard and small forward, and just devastate from anywhere on the court?”
I don’t remember my exact response, but it was probably along the lines of, “That would be crazy, and I’d love to see it.”
“Have you seen the kid they call Penny, from Memphis?” he asked me.
When I mentioned that I’d heard about him in recruiting talk and player rankings, but hadn’t seen him play yet, he smiled as wide as the Grand Canyon. Walking away, he left me with these parting words, nodding up and down.
“Wait until you see that kid from Memphis. I’m telling you. Just wait! They call him Penny. But he’s a Thousand Dollar Bill!”
In early December of 1991, I got my first glimpse. And everything I’d been told was undeniably confirmed on the night of his NCAA debut, as he collected 18 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks, 4 steals and 6 assists against DePaul.
Anfernee Deon Hardaway, a.k.a. “Penny” was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He grew up in his grandmother’s home at 2977 Forrest Avenue, a dead end street. The homes on Forrest were a squalid row of shanties.
Louise Hardaway, Penny’s grandma, bought the shotgun home, which was in a state of major disrepair, near the corner of Broad and Tilman in 1950 with a down payment of $365.00. That money had been earned and saved from the back-bending, hand-bleeding work of picking cotton.
She’d come up the hard way, sharecropping in Arkansas. In Tennessee, she worked as a domestic in people’s homes, cooking and cleaning. She later worked in the cafeterias of the city’s public schools.
When Penny was born in 1971, he came to Louise’s home with the biggest set of hands anyone can remember seeing.
“When he was born, his hands were so big, it looked like he was wearing gloves,” his mother Fae once told the late, great Sports Illustrated writer Ralph Wiley. “When I was in school at Lester High, there had been a boy named Anfernee. I always thought it was such a beautiful name. People think I don’t know how to spell Anthony.”
His grandmother always called him “Pretty.” But with her pronounced southern drawl, it sounded like “Pweddy, which eventually morphed into “Penny.”
In 1972, Fae got married and moved to California. But Lil’ Penny stayed in Memphis.
“I told Fae to leave my baby here with me,” Louise told Wiley. “We slept in the bedroom, him in a rollaway bed, from the time they brought him home till his feet hung off the mattress. Penny was six years old ‘fo he saw his daddy. It was that long before I saw him myself. He said, ‘Let me have him.’ I said, ‘Naw, hell naw.’ Hadn’t bought him a diaper, and now you want to be a daddy?”
The neighborhood was far removed from Elvis’ Graceland mansion or the night time magic of the Jazz and Blues floating down Beale Street, the common images of Memphis that circulate on postcards. Drugs, violence, crime and incarceration were the norm.
“Every boy he was raised up with on this street, seem like they been in jail, or the workhouse, for robbing and stealing,” said Louise. “One of them little boys ended up getting life. For a long time I didn’t let him out of my sight.”
But eventually, Lil’ Penny had to step off the block and out of his grandmother’s view to navigate his own path.
Luckily, the basketball courts at the Lester Park were where he chose to spend his time.
“I played on those goals eight and nine hours a day, since I was eight years old,” Penny told Ralph Wiley. “It got to where boys came, played, went home, ate, came back, and I’d still be there playing. Mostly, I played by myself.”
Today, sports psychologists work with players on visualization techniques, helping athletes to train their brains in the subtle art of mental preparation that can foster future success. But Penny never needed a sports psychologist to teach him that.
“I had a huge imagination,” Penny told me a couple of years ago as I interviewed him for a magazine feature story. “I loved staying on the court because I was always putting myself in situations – down by one, down by two, at the free throw line, making my signature move on somebody, etc. I was out there training, imagining and visualizing and that made me be creative. So whenever I was in the game in those situations, I knew what to do.
Those solitary skill sessions would later coalesce to form the nation’s best high school prospect. He stood 6-foot-7, could handle the ball in the open court, deliver sweet passes and run an offense like Magic Johnson, play a hellacious brand of defense, attack the rim like Jordan and he could rebound, force steals and play an overall floor game that left even the cognoscenti speechless.
At Treadwell High School, he averaged 37 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks as a senior, garnering Parade Magazine’s National High School player of the year honor.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to see Penny playing college ball at Memphis, or early in his pro career, before the leg injuries reduced him to a mere mortal, you truly don’t understand how gifted he was. If you isolate his play to that specific point in time, he’s undeniably one of the greatest talents to ever play point guard. EVER!!!
The college recruiters, from every major program in the country, circled his grandmother’s house like a pack of buzzards. But Penny stayed home to play ball Memphis State, which has since changed its name to the University of Memphis.
A casualty of the controversial ‘Proposition 48’ rule, which mandated that he couldn’t play as a freshman because of low standardized test scores, Hardaway managed a 3.4 G.P.A. while sitting out his first year, making the Dean’s List. He wasn’t a dumb black athlete. In fact, he was very intelligent. He just couldn’t score well on the A.C.T. and realized that he simply needed to apply more of himself in the classroom.
“I knew that I wasn’t dumb,” Penny told me in a previous conversation. “It was just a matter of not applying myself. When I got to college, it made me proud to buckle down and achieve academically.”
But while shaking off the dumb athlete label his first year in college, he almost wound up a statistical side-note within Memphis’ stupefying homicide rate. Four gun-wielding thugs burst out of a passing car one night while he was leaving his cousins house, en route back to his dorm for a night of studying, and proceeded to rob him.
As he laid face-down on the wet pavement, he could feel the cold steel of one of the robbers’ guns pressed firmly against his skull and the back of his neck.
“I kept thinking, He’s going to shoot me in my back, he’s going to shoot me in my head,” Hardaway told Wiley.
As the thugs sped away and Penny stood up on his feet, they pointed their weapons out of the car’s windows and shot in Penny’s direction, trying to dissuade anyone from following them.
One of those bullets ripped through three of Hardaway’s metatarsal bones.
En route to the hospital, he never panicked. But fear crept in once he had a chance to talk to the attending doctors.
“When the doctors said it might affect the way I walked or played, that’s when I got scared,” Penny told me. “And they couldn’t take the bullet out right away. Once I started trying to run, I could feel it in there. It stayed in my foot for the entire recovery.”
Luckily, he experienced a full recovery and was able to resume his very promising future.
In two college seasons, he averaged 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists while becoming an All-American. In 1992, he was also a part of the USA Basketball Development team coached by my main man George Raveling. Incredibly, they were the only squad to defeat the greatest basketball team of all-time, the ‘92 Olympic Dream Team.
“That was exciting because I was playing against the guys I admired, my idols, from Michael Jordan to Magic Johnson to Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, all those guys,” Penny told me. “And my whole mindset was to kill them. Because if I didn’t, I knew they wouldn’t respect my game. I went into those games in ‘Kill Mode’, no lie.”
“We had a crew – me, Bobby Hurley, Chris Webber, Grant Hill, Rodney Rogers, Jamal Mashburn and Allen Houston,” said Penny. “We were a force to be reckoned with, bro.”
During his junior season at Memphis, he notched two triple-doubles, averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists and was a finalist for the Naismith and John Wooden Awards.
As a rookie with the Orlando Magic during the 1993-1994 season, Penny steered the young franchise to their first ever playoff berth, and first 55-win season while averaging 16 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game.
The next year, Orlando won a franchise record 57 games, while Penny was the only player in the league to average at least 20 points and five assists while shooting better than 50% from the field. He was named a starter in his first NBA All-Star game and was named All-NBA First Team.
With Penny running the point and Shaq holding down the lane, along with Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson, Horace Grant and Brian Shaw, the Magic advanced to the NBA Finals. Despite being swept by the otherworldly Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, Hardaway ran through the Finals like Wilt Chamberlain on a rampage at the Playboy Mansion, averaging 25 points, five rebounds and eight assists per game in the finals.
In 1996, he won a gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics and continued to terrorize the league, as evidenced by his averages of 31 points and six rebounds in the ‘96-’97 playoffs.
But the next year, he suffered a devastating knee injury. And though he would be a very good player again, he would never again be the transcendent talent that took the hoops world by storm in the early 1990’s. But even with the physical limitations, he was still a versatile, smart role player who could impact the game in many facets.
Before he got hurt, he was a more athletic version of Magic Johnson. Penny was a big, fast, pass-first point guard who could also be a prolific scorer. He was also a highly underrated defender. And he played with an undeniable dazzle, flash and boogie that would make an atheist randomly scream, “Good God A’mighty!”
His charisma and flair made major noise in the sneaker game as well, as Penny’s signature Nike shoes became one of the most popular to ever crash the market. The hilarious ad campaign with Lil’ Penny, voiced over by the brilliant Chris Rock, were some of the most successful and entertaining commercials ever.
Penny completed his coursework during the NBA off-seasons and was conferred his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Memphis in May 2003, 10 years after leaving school early to turn pro. In 2008, he donated a cool $1 Million to the school.
“Getting my degree made me proud because I finished something I started and I did something that I promised my grandmother I would do,” Penny told me. “And the donation was a gesture to show my appreciation to the city of Memphis, the university and everybody that supported me.”
In terms of point guards in the modern-era, we’re talking post Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas here, only Gary Payton, in my humble opinion, occupies the same rarified stratosphere as Penny Hardaway.
When I asked him about where he thought he stood, before his injuries, in terms of the greatest point guards to ever play, Penny did not hesitate with his response.
“I feel like I would’ve dominated anybody, whether it was Gary Payton, Magic or whoever,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have tons of respect for Gary, Magic and all the all-time great point guards. But when I was 100% healthy, there was nobody that could touch me.”
Last week, we learned that Penny is part of the new ownership group that will be purchasing the Memphis Grizzlies NBA franchise. I remember him talking about his passion for business a few years ago, how his grandmother’s lessons about valuing a hard-earned dollar while wisely saving towards a better future still resonated. His voice jumped an octave when talking about some of his various projects.
“I’ve got big plans, bro,” he said excitedly.
And that’s yet another reason for young players to study his moves, both on and off the court. Because while we see the documentaries of all the former athletes who are broke, who made it rain in the champagne room, had ten cars parked in their garage, while buying their play cousins BMW’s and houses and idiotically subscribing to the school of fathering double-digit offspring with double-digit groupies, Penny used the game as a platform to bigger and better things.
And I can’t help but hearken back to the words of some stranger in a hot Harlem gym back in the late 1980’s, for his words are still ringing true.
“They call him Penny. But he’s a Thousand Dollar Bill!”