Friday, September 7, 2007
A Penny With A Hole In It
Damn. *wipes tears from eyes*
He was legendary before he got a chance to be a legend. He captivated but never dominated, not because he couldn't, but because he didn't want to give you everything so fast. He had the world at his $130 feet.
In the basketball sense, he was a gift from God. Temporary, but a gift nonetheless.
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway was THAT dude, circa '93-'98. He was untouchable. He had a chance to Michael, Magic, and Bird, all rolled in one. He made miracles look like simple tricks. He was a symbol of the emerging hip-hop scene that was starting to dominate pop culture in the mid 90s, in-your-face, aggressive, colorful. Yet he exemplified the smooth elegance of the jazz/R&B era he was born in.
He was special. From high school, where he put up 36 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. To Memphis State (now just Memphis), where he was a conference and national All-American. To the NBA, where he was a first-team All-NBAer several times.
He was a quiet star, but a star nonetheless. He was two seconds away from superstardom. His signature shoes came thisclose to rivaling the dominant Air Jordans in the 90s; and he had some of the best commercials EVER.
He was the reason (after Magic) GMs salivated over tall pgs; the reason why incoming Chicago freshman pg Derrick Rose won't be wearing his trademard #25 at Memphis this fall; the reason Chris Webber never paired with Shaq; the reason the Orlando Magic should've been running shit until the 21st century; one of the reasons every hoops star wanted to act; the reason kids (temporarily) forgot about Magic; the reason we all tolerated MJ's brief stint in the minor leagues; the reason T-Mac wears #1; the reason Shaun Livingston went #2 in '04; the reason Livingston was the most coveted player in '04; the reason I will be watching almost every Miami Heat game this season. Memories man, memories.
He was my Iverson before Iverson. When I was 11 years old, my sixth grade class took a trip to Washington D.C. in 1997. I came back to Houston with a white Penny Magic jersey and matching shorts with a NIKE arm band just how he wore it.
One day, my mother unexpectedly came home with the Nike Air Penny IIs, and to this day that remains one of the three best gifts I've ever received in my life.
In 1995, my favorite player went up against my team, the Houston Rockets, in the Finals. We swept the shit out of the Magic, but it was fun to see Penny take advantage of the smaller Rocket guards. He made a lot of mistakes in that series, but he solidified himself as the future of the league.
That future, however, only lasted a few more years. In '96, Shaq departed for the greener pastures in Hollywood. The next year, a knee injury kept him out of a bunch of regular season games, though he got healthy in time for the playoffs. The Magic lost in the first round to the Heat, but Penny put up one of the best playoff performances I've ever seen, becoming the first player to score 40 points in consecutive games against a Pat Riley-coached team.
Knee surgery kept him out of most of the '98 season, and the '99 lockout season was his last in Orlando. (Unfortunately, it ended in a first-round loss to Iverson and Philly. Bittersweet I tell you.) His star and game was fading in front of our eyes.
His five-year stint in Phoenix felt more like a breeze. The much-hyped backcourt pairing with Jason Kidd ended in 2001 when Kidd was traded to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury, who could relate to falling off.
They were both traded to New York in 2004, and though Marbury's numbers were still good, Penny's stats (and his career) were clearly on the downside. He became the national symbol for the injured list as a Knick and was shipped back to Orlando for Steve Francis in '06 and was subsequently waived by the Magic soon after. With mounting injuries and age, and no team willing to take a chance on him, he was out of the league that he was born to set on fire.
What was worse was that, nobody seemed to notice.
The rise and fall of Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway brings to mind what could have been. If Shaq and Kobe could win three straight titles in the crowded Western Conference, I'm convinced that Shaq and Penny would have taken at least four 'chips in the Leastern Conference. Had he not have been so injury-riddled, people would probably be talking about how LeBron reminds them so much of Penny, instead of Magic, who retired when Bron was six years old.
If, in 1995, I told you that 12 years later he would be out of the league and would have to sign for the veteran's minimum in Miami, you would have laughed. In the same token, if I were to tell a kid under 17 that at a time, most kids wanted to be like Penny instead of Mike, he would look at me as if I were a lyrical hip-hop artist (re: he would look at me crazy).
The most important thing to remember is that, from '93-'97, he had the world by the balls and we loved every minute of it. Instead of wondering what may have been, let's remember what happened and how hoops fans will never forget Penny Hardaway.