Hardaway looks back at Magic years

Jul 27 2010 - 9:22pm

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway was in Memphis, working out in a gym and calling into The Bottom Line Sports Show, an Internet radio program he co-hosts, announcing he wanted a chance to try out for the Miami Heat after their acquisition of all-stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

"I can understand where Michael Jordan was coming from coming out of retirement a couple times, I can understand where Brett Favre is right now," Hardaway said on the show. "When you still have something in the tank, it's really hard to let it go."

Miami was the last team Hardaway played for, in 2007, but Orlando will always be home to his best days of professional basketball.

Despite their own marred exits, Grant Hill, Doc Rivers and Shaquille O'Neal still keep close ties to the Orlando community.

But Hardaway seemed to have dropped completely out of view.

His time with the Magic holds fond and unsettling memories for Hardaway, a major reason why he says he has been back to Orlando -- aside to compete -- just twice since he was traded to the Phoenix Suns in 1999.

"I don't have a relationship with anyone there," Hardaway told the Sentinel. "I still look at our history as being a big part of Orlando."

Those born after 1990 don't remember the glory days of "Lil Penny," a successful marketing strategy using puppet dolls that is still used for today's top athletes like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Hardaway, 39, was the Bryant and Dwyane Wade of the mid-1990s. At a versatile 6-foot-8, he was a four-time NBA all-star guard and gold-medal Olympian. He and a young Shaq carried the promise of a golden era for the upstart Orlando Magic.

But the weight of expectations was always a little too heavy for Hardaway -- even heavier after O'Neal departed to join the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996.

"Shaq's departure impacted everybody, but I think it may have impacted Penny more than anybody," said Pat Williams, who was the general manager at the time. "Because now he was the man and I think he was far better in that support role. We asked far too much of him."

Originally, it was Hardaway who was asking the Magic for a chance.

Two days before the 1993 draft, he called John Gabriel, then director of player personnel, and asked for another workout. Orlando secured the second consecutive No. 1 pick and the organization was set on Chris Webber of "Fab Five" Michigan Wolverines fame.

"You're making a mistake," Williams recalled Hardaway saying. "You're not taking me seriously. I want to go back down for a second workout."

Gabriel said OK, leading to a turning point in franchise history.

The Magic held an hour-long, shirts-skins 20-point pickup game with some select local players and roster players, including Shaq, Dennis Scott and Anthony Bowie one day before the draft. It was Hardaway's last chance to make an impression on the Magic's front office.

"Penny was breathtaking. Breathtaking," Williams said. "I mean, he was spectacular. I never will forget the last game where he hits a 3-pointer from deep, deep. Then he looks up over to us in the stands like, 'Seen enough?' And John Gabe at that point says, 'We gotta rethink this. Big time.'?"

Fans weren't initially sold on Hardaway. They wanted the Webber-Shaq tandem.

For three successful seasons, Hardaway won the approval of fans and even helped guide the Magic to their first NBA Finals, an accomplishment that would take over a decade to repeat.

A trio of circumstances soon soured Hardaway's career in Orlando: O'Neal's departure, Brian Hill's firing as head coach and devastating knee injuries.

In Hardaway's eyes, his reputation in Orlando never fully recovered from the dark cloud of Hill's firing. He was accused of leading the team's mutiny against Hill.

"He was the captain at the time. But there was 16 guys in the room that voted, it wasn't just Penny Hardaway," said Nick Anderson, a friend and former teammate of Hardaway. "But everything came down on him because he was the captain. That was totally unfair."

Anderson said Hardaway was always someone who cared deeply about others' opinions of him. So he struggled to accept the public's negative reaction.

"Everytime I went back to Orlando they booed me pretty much off the Brian Hill situation," Hardaway said. "I tried to reach out to Brian Hill and he would never return my calls and I thought that was pretty odd because all I wanted to do was explain to him. I never got a chance to talk to him personally about it. And I had to deal with it."

But in some ways, Hardaway never came back.

He once planned to be active in the Orlando community after he retired, much like in his hometown of Memphis. Hardaway supports several local charities and has plans to build an $11 million basketball and educational facility. Four years ago, he donated $1 million to his alma mater, the University of Memphis.

Instead, he splits his time between Memphis and Miami.

"I've moved on from it, but there isn't any closure because I haven't spoken to Mr. (Rich) DeVos or Bob VanderWeide and they knew what kind of guy I was," Hardaway said. "I just would really love to speak to those guys. I've told (current GM) Otis Smith this before. It's not going to be right with the fans until the organization makes it right with the fans."

Attempts to reach Smith for a response were unsuccessful as he was on a scheduled vacation. Williams said no one in the Magic organization holds a grudge.

"Our memory of Penny is one of a great young player whose knees gave out on him, which is really sad. He was 25 years old. He never really was effective again. You can see that in the decline of his numbers. But as far as the Magic itself, the front office, wishes Penny well and honors what he did here. That's what put us on the map."

But Miami is the organization where Hardaway feels most at home these days, even if the Heat apparently have no interest in seeing if he's still got game.

The initial headlines created by his Internet declaration of a comeback quickly gave way to reality: Closure to his career on his own terms is unlikely.

"That was something that I felt in my heart, that I felt my talent would match well with those guys (in Miami). I wasn't trying to come back to the league, just that I could help in that role," Hardaway said. "If it doesn't work out, I'm going to stay retired."

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