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A Penny Spent? With his health and leadership in question, the Magic's Penny Hardaway was trying to pump up his deflated stock while playing hurt and coping with a raft of trade rumors

Feb. 23, 1998
Feb. 23, 1998

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Feb. 23, 1998

College Basketball
Golf [bonus Piece]

A Penny Spent? With his health and leadership in question, the Magic's Penny Hardaway was trying to pump up his deflated stock while playing hurt and coping with a raft of trade rumors

This truth is not easily accepted in Disney country, but even
the good people of Orlando now realize that magic has a dark
side, that it is not all fairy godmothers and pixie dust and, in
the case of their basketball team, lottery luck. There is also
the kind of magic that--poof!--makes a 300-pound superstar
disappear and--presto!--transforms a
championship-team-in-waiting into a middle-of-the-pack club
and--voila!--takes a four-time All-Star starter who may not even
have reached his prime and turns him into trade bait.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

That last trick had the NBA buzzing at week's end and kept
Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel holed up in his
office until well into the night, fielding offers for his
suddenly very available star guard, Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway.
Once considered untouchable, Hardaway must have felt like a roll
of Charmin, picked off the shelf and squeezed by just about
everyone. Although a three-way deal that would have sent him to
the New Jersey Nets fell through last week, the Magic did not
take Hardaway off the market, and it was possible that he would
find himself in another team's uniform before the Feb. 19
trading deadline. Sources said that among the trades Orlando was
discussing was one with the Phoenix Suns for forwards Antonio
McDyess and Cedric Ceballos and guard Steve Nash.

Hardaway, 25, has been the subject of almost nonstop trade
rumors lately, and the only thing certain is that wherever he
ends up, his first order of business will be to jump-start a
career that has been sputtering because of injury and image
problems. Just two seasons ago the thought of trading Hardaway
would have been laughable. He was a first-team All-NBA
selection, a Dream Team member and, with center Shaquille
O'Neal, the foundation of a squad that had gone to the Finals in
1995 and seemed destined for many more trips. But since then
O'Neal became a Los Angeles Laker and Hardaway had one setback
after another.

An injured left knee, on which he has had two surgeries, forced
him to miss 55 games over the past two seasons. Last year he was
accused of orchestrating the midseason firing of Magic coach
Brian Hill and this season he was labeled a prima donna who
deserted his team while he was rehabbing the knee. Even his
selection as an All-Star starter this season was tarnished when
Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway suggested that Penny, who
came off the injured list only 10 days before the Feb. 8
All-Star Game, had conveniently decided he was healthy just in
time to play in the All-Star limelight. "Other than that," Penny
deadpans, "everything's been cool." It's enough to make you
think that he's been cursed--that somewhere, someone is sticking
needles into a Li'l Penny doll.

It's no surprise that the Magic's fortunes have mirrored
Hardaway's. Last year Orlando was 38-21 when he was in the
lineup, 7-16 when he was not. This season, with only sporadic
contributions from Hardaway, the Magic was 24-27 through Sunday
and trailed three teams in the race for the final playoff spot
in the Eastern Conference. When Hardaway is at his best, Orlando
is still dangerous, as the Heat discovered in the playoffs last
season. Hardaway nearly stole a first-round series from Miami by
scoring 42 and 41 points in consecutive games to wipe out a 2-0
series deficit and force a decisive fifth game, which Orlando
lost despite 33 points from Penny. Far more often, however, the
Magic has looked nothing like the team it was when O'Neal and
Hardaway, the rewards of Orlando's consecutive lottery wins in
1992 and '93, led Orlando to the Finals and were tabbed the
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson of the '90s.

Perhaps the moment most symbolic of how things have changed
occurred when Hardaway and O'Neal got on the same elevator
during All-Star weekend in New York City. The two men barely
spoke. "I said something to him, but he didn't say much back,"
Hardaway says. "You think you have a small relationship with
someone after playing together, but I guess that's not the case.
We don't have much to say to each other anymore."

But Hardaway's present is more intriguing than his past. How
does one of the league's brightest young stars go from having
his name included in those "next Jordan" conversations, absurd
as they may be, to having it thrown around almost daily in trade
scenarios? For the Magic, one reason to deal Hardaway is sheer
pragmatism. A clause in his seven-year, $70 million contract
allows him to become a free agent at the end of next season.
Orlando, still suffering from post-Shaq syndrome--"This team was
burned worse than any team in the history of the league when
Shaq left," says the Magic's first-year coach, Chuck Daly--is
understandably afraid of losing Hardaway and, as happened with
O'Neal, getting nothing in return. But Hardaway thinks the main
reason for his lowered stock is something else. He sat in the
quiet of the Orlando training room after a dismal 99-83 loss to
the New York Knicks last Friday and pointed to his troublesome
knee.

"This is it, right here," he said. "None of this trade talk
would be going on if my knee had been healthy these last couple
of years. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of
league. If you're playing well, you're considered a superstar,
and if you're not, you don't get the same publicity. Right now,
Kobe [Bryant of the Lakers] is hot. It used to be [the Detroit
Pistons'] Grant Hill, but things have even simmered down for
Grant. Me, I've kind of been off the map. It's kind of like
'Whatever happened to Penny?' But I'm not worried about it. I'm
one of the five best players in the league, easily. Once I'm
completely healthy again, I'll be back in the mix."

But after two operations on his knee in 13 months, people around
the league are wondering exactly when he will be healthy. "They
cut on him twice, and he still doesn't seem right," says the
general manager of a team not involved in the Hardaway trade
talks. "For the kind of money he's going to be looking for in a
couple of years, I'd make him pass about a dozen physicals
before I traded for him."

The questions about Hardaway's knee will linger at least until
he gets over his latest injury, a strained left calf, which
occurred on Feb. 10 during an 85-66 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
But no one has any doubts about his basketball skills. "He's
still a special talent," says New Jersey general manager John
Nash. "That hasn't changed. Penny is a franchise player. We may
not have seen him at his best for a while, but skills like his
don't disappear overnight."

Hardaway insists that his knee is fine and that the pain in his
left calf is a minor, unrelated ailment. Still, he can
understand the skepticism. "I know how it looks, with two
operations so close together, but it's not like I got it fixed
and then hurt it again," he says. "It just took two tries to get
it right."

He underwent arthroscopic surgery for a torn lateral meniscus in
Orlando in November 1996, but that didn't fully repair the
injury. The following month he went back on the injured list
before returning in January and playing the rest of the season
in pain. Dissatisfied with the medical treatment he had received
in Orlando, he had a second operation in December in Houston,
where his agents, Carl and Kevin Poston, are based. Hardaway had
the blessing of the Magic medical staff to have the second
surgery, but his decision to stay in Houston to rehabilitate the
knee for two months after the operation didn't please team
officials.

"It's not what I had experienced in the league before," Daly
says diplomatically of Hardaway's choice. "I watch Patrick Ewing
[the Knicks' center, who is out for the season with a wrist
injury] traveling in a cast, doing whatever he can for the team.
This club's policy of letting players do their rehab away from
the team has to be addressed. Anybody on your club rehabbing
after an injury should do it in your town, with your team and be
on your bench."

Daly's displeasure with Hardaway's extended absence contributed
to rumors that the two do not get along. "Chuck hates Penny, and
Penny hates Chuck," says a Western Conference coach. While
neither party sounds as if he's bursting with affection for the
other, neither sounds like he's concealing major animosity. "We
didn't talk a lot early in the season, before I went to Houston,
but Chuck never said to me that he had problems with my being
there," Hardaway says. "We've had one altercation, in a game
against Detroit when I threw a pass away and he didn't like it,
but that's it. Right now I've got a great relationship with him.
I've got nothing against Chuck, and he's got nothing against me,
that I know of."

Says Daly, "I think the nastiest thing I've said to him was
'Why'd you throw that pass?' early in the year. Then he was
injured and went to Houston, so I haven't seen him much. I don't
have a problem with him, and I don't think he has a problem with
me."

At the moment Hardaway's biggest problem is with that left leg.
Through Sunday, the knee and calf had limited him to 16.4 points
per game, his lowest average since his rookie year, and
career-low 37.7% shooting from the floor. Two nights after
sitting out a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves (the Magic
won 96-89), Hardaway hobbled around for 24 minutes against the
Knicks, missing all five of his shots and scoring two points. It
was a game he should not have played, but he was eager to remind
everyone that he was willing to make a sacrifice for the team.
Hardaway is aware that there are questions about his ability as
a leader. His comment, made during his Houston rehabilitation,
that he was "keeping up with the team on SportsCenter and
everything" didn't make him seem like the kind of player a club
would rally around.

As the trade deadline neared, Hardaway insisted that the place
where he wanted to prove his leadership was Orlando. The trade
rumors had a curious effect on him. Instead of avoiding the
media, the sometimes aloof Hardaway was more open and accessible
than ever, telling anyone who would listen how much he wanted to
stay with the Magic. "I'm basically paying the price for what
Shaq did to them," he said last Friday. "But I wouldn't do what
he did. I'm not going to embarrass myself by saying every day
that I'm going to stay, then turn around and leave. I know I'm
carrying the franchise on my back. I know I can be the deciding
factor that makes or breaks the organization. If I don't come
back, then it's going down. I couldn't live with that."

In the end, that may have been the biggest reason for the Magic
not to trade Hardaway: No one the team might acquire would have
as strong an incentive as Hardaway to lead Orlando back to the
league's elite. "We know what Penny can do, and we know what we
can do with this franchise," Gabriel said last Friday. He
sounded like a man who would have to be overwhelmed by a great
offer before he traded his star player, which is the way it
should be.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DOWNSHIFT For two seasons, a balky left knee has robbed the normally lightning-quick Hardaway of some of his trademark speed. [Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO THEY'RE COOL Except for a disagreement in Detroit over a bad pass, Hardaway and Daly insist that their relationship is solid. [Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway and Chuck Daly courtside]

MISSING THE BIG GUY

There may be no love lost between Penny Hardaway and his former
Magic teammate Shaquille O'Neal (32, above), who is now with the
Los Angeles Lakers. But there's no question that Penny thrived
when Shaq was around to catch his passes and set picks for him.
Here are Hardaway's averages with Shaq (his first three seasons)
and without. (This season's numbers are through Feb. 15.)

SEASON G PTS ASTS FG PCT
1993-94 82 16.0 6.6 .466
1994-95 77 20.9 7.2 .512
1995-96 82 21.7 7.1 .513
1996-97 59 20.5 5.6 .447
1997-98 19 16.4 3.6 .377

"I'm not worried; I'm one of the five best players in the
league, easily," says Penny.