Point guards don’t come built like Penny Hardaway anymore
He’s only 42 and little more than six years removed from a brief reunion with Shaquille O’Neal when both were members of the Miami Heat.
But of all the people connected with the Orlando Magic who come to mind during the franchise’s 25th anniversary, none seems as much of a product of a bygone era as Penny Hardaway, who will be honored Friday night during the team’s game against the New York Knicks.
Hardaway practiced at the Orlando Recreation Complex and played at the now-demolished Orlando Arena before it became known by a couple of different names, although the same can be said for O’Neal and a number of their former teammates. More than that, he was from a time when it wasn’t routine for players experiencing knee pain to undergo an MRI. He was from a time when the No. 1 jersey was associated by Magic fans with him, not Tracy McGrady.
Perhaps most archaic of all, he was from a time when NBA teams would do most anything — as in the case of the Magic, acquiring Hardaway’s draft rights and three future first-round picks for the rights to Chris Webber — to get a 6-foot-7 point guard who would regularly post up small defenders but rarely score off pick-and-roll plays.
"The age of the 6-7 point guard is kind of a thing of the past," Hardaway told FOX Sports Florida earlier this week. "Looking at how I posted up, no one really posted up as much as I did. And the ball-handling and the passing ability of someone my height, I don’t see anybody doing that (today)."
Players of his height or even taller still handle the ball like a point guard and can score at will. The difference is that they tend to be shooting guards like Philadelphia 76ers rookie Michael Carter-Williams, small forwards like the Heat’s LeBron James, or power forwards like reigning MVP Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"Kevin Durant handles the ball like I did and shoots the ball phenomenally," said Hardaway, who averaged at least 20.5 points in three of his first four seasons with the Magic and ranks fourth on their all-time list in assists. "He shot it better than I did from 3. But inside it, from college 3-point range, 18 and 20 feet, I could shoot it better than anybody. And no one posts up anymore."
Hardaway spent six years in Orlando before being traded to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 1999. Although he played all 50 games of the lockout-shortened season that year, injuries were already taking a toll on him, as the Suns and later both the Knicks and the Heat would find out.
For two years, it was as if Hardaway was Grant Hill before Grant Hill, missing 86 of a possible 164 games due to pain in his knee cartilage which could not be properly diagnosed because MRIs were not in standard use.
"Back in those days, I had never been injured before," said Hardaway, who missed a total of five games during the three years when he and O’Neal were teammates. "And, man, I was getting cut on so much. I couldn’t say it was frustrating, but I thought that over time, it would just heal up and I would get back to normal. And it never did. My knees are fine now because I haven’t been pounding on them or doing anything vigorous. When I was playing, I was always in pain."
That didn’t stop him from a performance in the first round of the playoffs in 1997 which was more remarkable than anything he did two years earlier when the Magic reached the NBA Finals. After being trounced in the opening two games of a best-of-five series with the Heat, interim coach Richie Adubato — now part of the Magic’s radio broadcast team — gave Hardaway the green light to do whatever was necessary to avoid being swept.
The result: 42 points in Game 3 and 41 points in Game 4, marking the first time anyone had scored at least 40 in back-to-back playoff games against a team coached by Pat Riley.
Oddly enough, those were the only two times in five games that the Magic were victorious in postseason action when Hardaway scored 30 or more points. Their regular-season record in such games was 33-5, with close to half of those coming when O’Neal was either injured or suspended.
"Even though I had the opportunity to do that a bunch when Shaq left, I was still a team player," he said. "So I still distributed the ball. And for those two games, it was almost like I became selfish. I felt like I could have scored like that my entire career with that same mentality. But I was such a team player, a pass-first guy, that I never really built my mindset on that until we got into desperation in that playoff series."
Had he been more of a shooter and less of a passer, Hardaway could have resembled McGrady, who led the league in scoring in each of his last two seasons in Orlando.
"His mentality was totally different from mine," he said. "T-Mac was an assassin. He scored. If I would have had T-Mac’s mindset, I probably could have led the league in scoring two or three years in a row after Shaq left."
Hardaway retired after the 2005-06 season but came back in 2007 at the urging of Riley and O’Neal and spent 16 games with the Heat before leaving the game for good.
"It was different because it felt like I was a rookie all over again, having to prove myself to a team," he said. "And then playing for the Miami Heat, who has always been the archrival with us in Orlando — it’s like me and Shaq both in Miami Heat uniforms just felt really weird. But you have to do what you have to do to survive and keep it going in trying to live out a dream. It was just fun just being back in the league under a really good organization. The organization was first class."
Hardaway has moved back home to Memphis and coaches a middle-school basketball team near the neighborhood where he was raised. The story of that team of at-risk kids was chronicled in the book On These Courts, with much of it centered on coach Desmond Merriweather and his fight with stage IV colon cancer.
"Desmond is still dealing with the colon cancer," Hardaway said. "It’s not as bad as it was. But it’s still there. And he’s still fighting."
Hardaway’s last visit to Orlando came in 2012 when the NBA All-Star Game was played at the Amway Center. He took part with O’Neal and Dennis Scott in a segment filmed at a local barber shop, with the three of them swapping stories about their years together.
He’s open to the possibility of TNT bringing them back for a Thursday night in-studio assignment similar to the one-shot gig which happened last March.
"We’ve still had this love for one another, the mutual respect," Hardaway said. "And every time we see each other, it’s nothing but love. And we all kind of wish that it would have never broken up. It’s always that ‘what if?’ that we’ll never know."