IF SCIENTISTS were to gather in a laboratory somewhere to build
the prototype for the 21st-century basketball player, they would make
him big enough to battle forwards and centers, yet quick enough to
run with point guards. They would make him unselfish enough to find
his teammates with dazzling passes, yet daring enough to slash to the
basket for breathtaking dunks. They would make him bright-eyed and
childlike enough to inspire a catchy nickname, yet dashing enough to
appear on movie screens. They would make him, in short, Orlando Magic
guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway.
''Watching Penny Hardaway play is like gazing into a crystal ball,
like watching the game evolve before your very eyes,'' says Indiana
Pacer coach Larry Brown. ''Maybe someday it won't be so rare to see
players with as wide a range of skills as he has. I just hope I'm
around to see it.''
The 6 ft. 7 in. Hardaway, who averaged 16.0 points and 6.6 assists
as a rookie in 1993-94 and finished second to Chris Webber in the
Rookie of the Year balloting, has gained a long list of admirers. ''I
wish I had his height, I wish I had his speed, I wish I had his
vision,'' says Detroit Piston guard Joe Dumars. ''But most of all, I
wish I had his future.''
It may be a future filled with NBA championships. With Hardaway
and 7 ft. 1 in. center Shaquille O'Neal, the Magic is most observers'
choice to become the league's next dominant team. ''Some people have
compared the two of us to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson,''
says Hardaway, referring to the former teammates who won five
championships with the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1980s. ''That's
a lot to live up to, but I think we have a chance to someday be
worthy of that comparison. To be the best, you have to think like the
The 23-year-old Hardaway has always had good reason to think that
way. He was a playground legend in his hometown of Memphis, and he
solidified his status as a local hero by spurning offers from
colleges all over the country to stay at home and attend Memphis
State, which has since renamed itself the University of Memphis.
''The two local products that people in Memphis worship are Elvis and
Penny,'' says Memphis coach Larry Finch. ''Not necessarily in that
Hardaway became an All-America in college, a thrilling, versatile
player who defied conventional basketball theory by running the team
as a point guard on offense and often guarding forwards and even
centers on defense. His star has been on the rise ever since. When
movie director William Friedkin saw a photo of Hardaway, he cast him
in one of the leading roles of his 1994 movie about college
basketball, Blue Chips. During filming, Hardaway was selected with
the third pick of the NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors, who
immediately traded his rights to Orlando for the rights to Webber,
the No. 1 pick.
''Being an All-America, a first-round draft pick in the NBA,
acting in a movie and now playing with a player as great as Shaq,
those are things I never could have dreamed of growing up in a little
house in Memphis with my grandmother,'' Hardaway says. ''Everything
I've accomplished started with her.''
Hardaway's grandmother Louise gave him his nickname when he was a
toddler, declaring that he was as pretty as a penny. She also gave
him discipline and love, making sure he woke up early enough to walk
the two miles to Treadwell High every weekday morning and to Early
Grove Baptist Church with her on Sundays. ''She taught me simple
things,'' he says. ''Things like always keeping your word, treating
people the way you want to be treated. Traditional things that have
stayed with me.''
It's somehow comforting to know that the player of the future is
really just an old-fashioned guy.
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1995 issue