It will be the perfect home, at last. Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway is sure of it. He can see it in his mind, as clearly as if the blueprint were laid out before him. It will be a spacious house in suburban Orlando, so vast it will seem as if the entire Memphis neighborhood of his childhood could fit inside. There will be a 12-seat movie theater with a video library stocked with comedies, because the perfect home should be filled with laughter. There will be indoor and outdoor pools, a Jacuzzi and the latest in video-game technology. And guest rooms. There will be lots of guest rooms because sometimes it seems as though all of Memphis comes to visit, and those are the times Hardaway loves.
"A man's home should be his castle," Hardaway says, and coming from him the statement sounds less like a clichè than a guiding principle. When he was in first grade, Hardaway, an only child, went to live with his grandmother, Louise Hardaway, in a narrow, battered house in Memphis that was filled with love but little else. A shotgun house, some would call it, because there were three rooms inside, lined up one after another. "It was a palace compared to the other houses I had lived in," he says. Hardaway lives alone now, in a house that is more like an actual palace. The cavernous, five-bedroom rented house seems to befit his status as the backcourt star of the Orlando Magic, but it is far from the perfect home. "It's just a big house," he says. "I live mostly in one end of it. If I screamed at that end of the house, nobody would hear me in the other end. If anybody was in the other end."
At 23 Hardaway will be the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference in the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 12, a position he seems entirely capable of holding on to for the next decade or so. Now in his second year in the league, he signed a nine-year, $70 million contract in October with a team that is rushing toward greatness. There is not a player in the league whose future appears brighter than Hardaway's. The contract disputes before his first two seasons, which earned him boos from some Orlando fans, have passed, and most of the doubters who thought the Magic should not have traded the rights to Chris Webber for Hardaway at the '93 draft have been silenced. "It took awhile, but I'm finally happy here," Hardaway says.
Then why, when he talks about the perfect home, is there the feeling that he is talking about more than just a house?
"The kind of home I'm thinking of, you can't really find," he says. "You have to build it." Hardaway already has one decorating idea. He will take a photographer back to Memphis to take pictures of the ramshackle houses he lived in as a child and enlarge them to nearly actual size. Then he will hang the photos on the walls of his Orlando pavilion, and there it will be: the luxury of Orlando with a little bit of Memphis at its heart. The perfect home.
Larry Finch, who was Hardaway's coach at Memphis State (now the University of Memphis), is flipping through his mental files, trying to settle on the play that was the most breathtaking example of Hardaway's remarkable talent. Finally he surrenders. "Shoot, picking a favorite Penny Hardaway play is like picking out which one of the stars up in the sky shines the brightest," he says. "There's so many of 'em, you just can't pick one."
Tree Rollins, the Magic's backup center and assistant coach, can. He remembers Hardaway's dunk over New York Knick center Patrick Ewing on Dec. 2. "Patrick is seven feet and about 250 pounds, and Penny is six-seven and skinny as a rail," Rollins says. "When Penny took off for the hoop, I thought Patrick would either get the block or flatten him. But Penny just exploded to the basket, and, wham! It was over."
"There was a play I saw when Penny was in college," says John Gabriel, the Magic's vice president of basketball operations and player personnel. "The other team had the ball, but Penny knocked it away, tipped it to a teammate and then took off on the fast break. The pass came back to him, but he couldn't quite handle it cleanly, and he ended up trying to get control of the ball around the top of the key with his back to the basket. Instead of picking it up off the floor, Penny scooped it with one hand and, without even looking, whipped a wraparound pass to a teammate for a layup. Where most players would go for the safe play, Penny goes for something daring."
As a 6'7" point guard, Hardaway has been compared to Magic Johnson for most of his young life, and his court vision and spectacular passing make those comparisons valid. But there is also some of George Gervin's long-limbed scoring ability, Julius Erving's graceful glide, Scottie Pippen's defensive intensity and Pete Maravich's flash to his game. "I like to entertain," says Hardaway. "Most of all, I want to win, but when I do something special, I can feel the vibe from the crowd. I live for the ooh, the aah."
Hardaway spent the first half of last season as a sort of point guard apprentice, getting most of his time at off-guard while occasionally replacing Scott Skiles at the point. He was MVP of the rookie All-Star game and took over as the Magic's full-time floor leader for the second half of the season. His blossoming has continued this year, and through Sunday he was averaging 20.7 points and 6.6 assists for Orlando, which was tied with Phoenix for the league's best record, 36-10. "Our success is as much a result of Penny's play as anything else or anyone else," says Orlando coach Brian Hill.
That's saying a lot considering that Hardaway plays in the shadow of center Shaquille O'Neal, who is on his way to winning this season's MVP award. O'Neal is the Magic's main attraction, but Hardaway might be the more entertaining player. The term quietly spectacular seems oxymoronic, but it fits Hardaway. How many players are equally comfortable giving or receiving an alley-oop pass? How many have the ball handling and passing skills of a point guard and the low-post moves of a center? O'Neal's power is awesome, Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon's balletic moves are thrilling, Indiana guard Reggie Miller's marksmanship is stunning, and Detroit forward Grant Hill's all-around game is remarkable, but no player is more exciting than Hardaway.
"I think they appreciate my skills in Orlando," Hardaway says. "But do they love me here?" He falls silent, leaving you to answer that question for yourself.
The cover of Magic Magazine, the team's fan publication, reads PENNY'S WORST DAY. You flip to the story inside, expecting to find an account of the night in 1991 when Hardaway was shot on a Memphis street. He and a friend were robbed at gunpoint, and as the gunmen drove away they fired some shots from the car. One of them ricocheted off the pavement and into Hardaway's right foot, breaking three metatarsal bones.
But the day Hardaway chose as his worst wasn't that one. It was draft day in 1993, when the Magic selected Webber with the first pick of the draft, then traded his rights to the Golden State Warriors for the rights to Hardaway, who had been taken with the third pick. Some of the fans watching on a big screen in Orlando Arena booed the trade, and when Hardaway learned of this, the pain of that rejection was greater than the pain of the bullet. A long, contentious contract negotiation followed, and Hardaway signed a 13-year, $65 million deal just before training camp, in time to be booed again during his first preseason appearance in Orlando. He didn't see much chance of Orlando becoming his perfect home.
He exercised his right to renegotiate after last season, and the reports were that his demands reached as high as 12 years and $134 million before he signed the $70 million deal midway through training camp. There were boos again when he rejoined the team for a preseason game.
"How can you feel at home when your hometown fans boo you?" Hardaway says. "Fans in other cities like Phoenix or Seattle love their players no matter what. Here, it's yea if you hit the shot and boo if you miss. "When we lost the first game of the season to Washington, all I heard on the radio was how the Magic needed a traditional point guard, how I wasn't the right guy to run the offense. Sometimes the fans here make me feel wanted, and sometimes they don't."
Maybe that's because they don't really know Hardaway. He has kept most of Orlando at arm's length. Hardaway dutifully signs autographs and gives interviews, but he guards his privacy the way he shields the ball from defenders as he dribbles upcourt: Try to get your hand in, try to make the steal, and he quickly switches directions—he's gone.
"All I want people around here to know about me is that I'm a good person," Hardaway says. "I don't really want them to get to know too much about me. I'm just very private."
That big rented house sometimes seems more like a fortress. Hardaway usually goes straight there after home games while most of his teammates head into the Orlando night to soak up fans' adulation. He has even hired a cook so he won't have to go out to restaurants very often.
"I see a lot of myself in Penny," says Orlando off-guard Nick Anderson, who grew up in inner-city Chicago. "I see a guy who's sensitive about a lot of things, especially criticism. He keeps his guard up so he's ready to come back fighting if somebody gets on him."
But who is criticizing him? He won the Magic's Fan's Choice award last year. Could it be that in the cheers of the fans, Hardaway still hears the boos of draft night? "I think the community has a greater affection for him than he thinks they do," says Magic coach Hill. "When the player introductions start, nobody gets a louder ovation than Penny Hardaway."
Hardaway says he considers his teammates his family, but the Magic organization would like to see that circle expanded. "It's true he was raised by his grandmother, but he didn't really live with her all of the time," says Gabriel. "He spent a lot of time kind of running the streets in the early years, and maybe he struggles to identify with the concept of a home. We're trying to impress on him that as an organization we want to be his family now. We want him to understand that the way we feel about him is—what's the word I'm looking for?—unconditional."
One fall day in Memphis when Hardaway was a teenager, he was playing with his cousins at an uncle's house when the phone rang. Penny answered it and recognized the voice as that of his father, Eddie Golden, whom he had met a few times but who did not play a role in raising him. Golden didn't recognize his son's voice, and Penny didn't identify himself. He simply handed the phone to his uncle. He wasn't angry at his father, he says. He just didn't feel anything.
By now that kind of numbness is familiar to Hardaway. Two days after he was named an All-Star starter, Hardaway sat in the locker room after practice, staring into space. "It's a great honor to be on the team, but you know how many people have congratulated me?" he says. "Three players and two coaches. Maybe I'll feel more excited when I get to the game, but right now I don't feel much of anything."
It has been said that to the people of Memphis, Hardaway is like Elvis, only with a better first step. "The people here just about worship him," says Finch. "He could have gone to college anywhere, but he stayed right here. He knew nobody was going to love him the way they loved him right in his own backyard."
Strange, being a favorite son of an entire city and a somewhat neglected son in a family. When Hardaway moved in with his grandmother after his mother, Fae Patterson, left Memphis to pursue work in California, "it was hard at first, because I felt like no one really wanted me," he says. "But my grandmother proved that she loved me and cared about what happened to me. All the love in the world from the fans in Memphis wouldn't have meant anything if I didn't have the love of my grandmother."
Louise Hardaway now lives in a comfortable redbrick home with white pillars on four acres in east Memphis, courtesy of her grandson. "There's so much land, we could build two more houses on it," he says. "But what I want to do is have a park built out behind the house for all the little cousins and nieces and nephews in the family. I want that to be the favorite place for the kids." It will be a place where children can go for a little luxury and a lot of love—the kind of place Hardaway has been trying to build all along.
It is a Saturday morning in January, and the Magic has just finished a team autograph session at Orlando Arena. Hardaway has signed dozens of balls, shirts, cards and programs, and now he is making his way to the locker room. Two young girls wearing Magic jerseys with Hardaway's number 1 on them scurry up and ask if he will sign just twice more before he leaves. Hardaway writes as he walks, never changing expression. "Thank you," one of the girls says softly. Hardaway pats her on the shoulder and keeps walking. The girls look at each other, giggling, and then they shout in unison, "We love you, Penny!" But by that time Hardaway has turned the corner and is headed down the hallway. He is too far away to hear.