The Chosen #1

What comes to mind when you hear the word Penny? For many they think of money, and rightfully so, as the term penny is most commonly used in reference to 1 cent of American currency. For another group, they think of footwear. Many kids and young adults alike think of former NBA player Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway’s array of basketball sneakers. Sneakers that are still retro’d today by Nike, because of their mass appeal. What do I think of when I hear the word Penny? I think of the the silky smooth 6’7″ point guard, I think of the McDonald’s All-American that put a small university on the map, I think of the NBA Rookie Challenge MVP, I think of Butch McRae, I think of the man who didn’t back down from Michael Jordan on the biggest stage, I think of what could’ve been, what should’ve been.

Anfernee “Pretty” Hardaway, yes I said pretty. As a young child, Hardaway’s grandmother and primary caregiver nicknamed him “pretty”, but because she possessed such a thick southern accent it sounded like “penny” and well, the rest is history. Hardaway grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in what’s described as a “shotgun house”, which translates into a very small rectangular structure with three to four rooms all in a row, with no hallways or open space. These houses have been identified as a sign of poverty, dating back centuries. Even in these far from ideals conditions, Penny flourished and became a Memphis folk hero by the time he reached high school. As a senior at Treadwell High School, Hardaway averaged 36 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks a game and was named Parade Magazine’s National Player of the Year.

Hardaway chose to stay close to home and enrolled at Memphis State University (now referred to as the University of Memphis) in 1990. Hardaway then endured one of the craziest freshman years imaginable. He was ruled academically ineligible and was forced to sit out the 90-91 season. This prompted Penny to focus solely on his course load, and he finished the year with a 3.4 GPA,  en route to securing a spot on the highly coveted Dean’s List. The most eventful thing that happen to Hardaway was both away from the court, and the classroom. He was robbed at gunpoint and shot in the foot. Luckily for Hardaway and the basketball world, the injuries were not life, nor career threatening and Hardaway bounced right back.

The summer of 92′ rolled around and Hardaway was invited to scrimmage against the “Dream Team” as part of the USA Basketball Developmental Team. Hardaway teamed with Grant Hill, Chris Webber, Bobby Hurley, Jamal Mashburn, and a host of other college stars. The developmental team came to play, and really worked the future NBA Hall of  Famers, that went undefeated en route to winning a gold medal in Barcelona. To this day, this developmental team is the only team that can say they beat the “Dream Team”.

The summer workouts with Team USA really helped the college stars, particularly Hardaway. He turned heads and made a name for himself during his sophomore season, but he made his mark during his breakout junior season. Hardaway averaged 23 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals as a junior and was a consensus first team All-American. Hardaway decided to capitalize on his performance during the 92-93′ season and declared early for the NBA Draft. Only one year later, during what would’ve been his senior season, Hardaway’s #25 jersey was retired by Memphis State.

The Orlando Magic owned the first pick in the 93′ draft and had there hearts set on drafting Michigan’s Chris Webber, with hopes of pairing him with their young center Shaquille O’Neal, creating what they thought could be the NBA’s most dominating front court. Penny saw things differently and expressed interest in teaming with Shaq and even requested a second workout with the Magic to prove why he should be selected #1 overall. Hardaway’s plan seemed to fail as the Magic took Webber with the first pick, and Hardaway went 3rd to Golden State. The Orlando organization really did like Hardaway but felt they couldn’t pass on Webber. Moments later the Golden State brass made a call to Orlando in hopes of acquiring Webber from the Magic. Golden State was offering Hardaway and THREE future first round picks. Orlando felt that with Hardaway and multiple future first round picks the deal would benefit them greatly and went through with it, making Hardaway an extremely happy young man, as he had got his wish of team with Shaq in Orlando.

Orlando started Penny at shooting guard as a rookie, with veteran Scott Skiles running the point. Hardaway, at 6’7″ 195lbs was the size of many NBA shooting guards, or small forwards, but his game was one that required him to have the ball in his hands in order to create plays. The NBA, with the exception of Magic Johnson hadn’t seen a player at this size posses such skill and ability at the point guard position. Hardaway’s play prompted his promotion to starting point guard by mid season. He went on to win the MVP award of the inaugural Rookie Game during All-Star Weekend and helped the Magic clinch their first playoff berth, on the way to the organizations first fifty plus win season. Hardaway finished second in the ROY balloting to none other than Golden State’s Chris Webber. You can bet the Orlando organization didn’t bat an eyelash and looked back at their draft day trade with wide smiles as they felt they had one of the most dangerous inside-out tandems for years to come with Shaq and Penny.

During his sophomore campaign, Hardaway averaged 21 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, making the All-NBA First Team, and to his day he is the only NBA player to average 20 ppg, 5 apg, and shoot 50% from the field for an entire regular season (he also did it the following season). Penny even led his team past the Jordan-less Bulls and into the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. The Magic were swept by the Rockets, but not because of Hardaway’s play. He averaged 25ppg, 8apg, and 5rpg and shot %50 for the entire series. Hardaway’s play over his first two seasons was remarkable and he was arguably the NBA’s most exciting player to suit up since the departure of Michael Jordan in 93′.

Hardaway began the 95-96 season without his sidekick O’Neal who was out due to injury. Penny had no problem shouldering the load and made the Magic title contenders without the dominating presence of Shaq. He averaged 22ppg, 7apg, and 4rpg. Once again Penny was named to the All-NBA First Team, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting. The Magic faced the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this time Chicago had the GOAT back. The Magic fell to Chicago, but the NBA had gotten the match-up they longed for, Jordan vs Hardaway. The two went at it all series and did not disappoint. Hardaway had proved he could play with the big boys and seemed destined to one day receive the torch from Jordan, or so we thought.

In the summer of 96′, Hardaway was a member of the USA Basketball Team that won Gold in Atlanta. Hardaway was a solid contributor on a team filled with veteran NBA stars. Then the downward spiral began for Hardaway. That same summer, Penny’s sidekick Shaquille O’Neal left for Los Angeles and the Lakers, and he was now the lone star left in Orlando. He battled through some injuries to start the 96-97′ season but willed his team into the playoffs. The Magic fell to the Heat in a five game series, but again not because Hardaway didn’t show up. He scored 42, 41, and 33 points respectively in games three through five against Miami and finished with 31ppg in the playoffs, second only to Jordan.

Early in the 97-98′ season Hardaway suffered a tragic left knee injury. The injury required surgery and his missed he majority of the season. This was unfortunately the beginning of the end for Penny. Three teams, nine years, and four knee surgeries later, Hardaway found himself out of the league. Hardaway showed flashes of the once dominant guard he was during the 2000 season, averaging 20ppg, 6apg, and 5rpg, but micro-fracture surgery prior to the 2001 season again derailed any chance of a comeback. Hardaway mulled over a comeback after retiring in 2007, but the multiple knee surgeries had sadly robbed him of all the explosiveness he once possessed and he simply could not compete at a high level anymore.

Since retiring, Hardaway has worked closely with Nike to revive his “Penny” brand. Nike has gone wild in recent years, releasing different colorways of the shoe he made famous in the mid 90’s the “Foamposite”. Clothing, and other Nike models that Penny once graced the court with, have also hit shells and turned a tremendous profit for Nike. Proving that the “Penny” persona was, and continues to be a great marketing tool for the brand. I myself would choose the Penny line over any other athletes signature line, including Jordan. Unfortunately, many of the kids that camp out in line for these kicks today, only know the off court persona of Penny and value the street “credibility” owning a pair of his kicks will bring them, and don’t know the unbelievable on court talent that was Anfernee Hardaway.

I had a hard time not becoming angry while researching and writing this piece. why you ask? Because as fans, we were robbed! The only thing worse then unused talent, is seeing a glimpse of that talent and then having it’s all taken away. That’s exactly what we got with Penny Hardaway. He took the NBA by storm, even faster then Michael or Magic did. Ironically, he seemed to be a mixture of those two all time greats. He had the size, vision, and intangibles of Magic, while possessing the scoring prowess, athletic ability, and flare for the dramatic that only Jordan had. The way LeBron is transcending the game now, is the way Hardaway was supposed to a decade prior! We got the see Jordan, Magic, Kobe, Iverson at their absolute bests, and we are currently seeing LeBron at his best, we never got to see Penny at his best, and we never will, and that will forever bug me. All we can do is look back and appreciate what he did give us, while dreaming of what could’ve been, what should’ve been.