When younger basketball fans hear the name Penny Hardaway, they think of the Memphis Tigers’ head coach. But before successfully transitioning to coaching, Hardaway was an outstanding player. As a 6-foot-7 point guard, he was a match-up nightmare who could dominate games with his jaw-dropping athleticism and terrific court vision. The four-time All-Star averaged 15.2 points, 5.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds over the course of his 14-year career.
HoopsHype recently caught up with Hardaway to talk about his playing days, his coaching success, his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal, the Lil Penny commercials, the injuries that held him back and more.
When RJ Barrett was going through the pre-draft process, some people were comparing him to you. When you look around the NBA, do you see any players who remind you of yourself?
Penny Hardaway: I don’t know… I haven’t seen someone that made me feel like, “We have similarities,” since Brandon Roy, and that was a while ago. It was his hesitation dribble, [having] enough athleticism and things of that nature. But the thing that made me different… And I’m not saying I was this prototype, but I was quick, I was fast, I was athletic, I could shoot it and I passed it. A lot of guys have a couple of those things, maybe two or three of those things, but [not all of them]. My IQ of the game was very high as well. There are a lot of great tall guards, but I haven’t looked back and said, “Hey man, this one guy reminds me of me,” since Brandon Roy.
I think you’re the kind of player who could have done well in any era. Do you ever wonder how different things would be if you played in today’s NBA?
PH: Man, it would’ve been so different for me in this era because the floor is open. Back in the day, fours and fives plugged the paint because they wanted to post, but nowadays, everything is about three-point shooting. The fours and fives are on the perimeter now, so everything is more spread out and the lanes are wide open. For my game, that would’ve been great.
It feels like the NBA evolved so quickly. In the span of a few years, teams changed their game-plan and how they evaluated talent. Do you remember when you realized just how much the game was changing?
PH: Yeah, I do remember that moment. When I was coaching, I realized, “Wow, this game is going from big men that wanted to post (which are non-existent now) to all threes and lay-ups.” I started noticing when warm-up lines went from lay-ups to all threes. I was like, “Wow…” I never thought the game would evolve to this level, where the big man doesn’t want to post up anymore and the mid-range shot is almost obsolete because it’s either threes or layups. I remember it happening.
I think the people who watched you and played against you during your prime know how great you were, but how do you feel about the way you’re perceived? Do you feel like you’re underrated at all?
PH: Absolutely. I think some guys give credit, but not the majority. My first seven or eight years in the NBA can rival anyone who went into the Hall of Fame – the numbers, the style of play and the way I impacted the game, and I don’t know if I get enough credit for that. I was watching a show and they were talking about the Top 50 and they were all fantastic players, but I saw a couple of guys were saying that I wasn’t in the next 50 and I beg to differ with that. I’m sorry but when I was healthy, I’m definitely part of the next 50 – without a doubt.
What was it like to deal with those various injuries? I’m sure it was tough, knowing that you would’ve been one of the best players in the league if it weren’t for the injuries. How frustrating was that?
PH: It was very frustrating because things started getting chipped away from my game. First went my athleticism, then my speed, then the energy (that I would take for granted). When you start getting injured, you just become a totally different person. And playing with pain versus playing pain-free is an amazing [difference]. Obviously, when you’re healthy, you may have a little nick or tendinitis in your kneecap or a little ankle sprain or twist and other little things that happen here and there. But when you’re getting cut on and you’ve gone through surgery to repair a meniscus or an ACL or have microfracture surgery or things of that nature and then you have to go run and jump again, it’s very difficult. Those were very tough times.
What would you tell a player who is having a tough time battling injuries and trying to get back to full strength?
PH: Things happen and you just have to bounce back from it. It’s not about falling down, it’s about getting back up… It’s part of the game. It’s a physical game. Take your time getting back and make sure that you’re fully healthy. And when you do get back out on the court, continue to be who you are.
You’ve said that when you and Shaquille O’Neal split up, your initial thought was, “There goes my shot of winning a championship.” If you had played most or all of your career with Shaq, do you think you’d get more credit? And what do you think would’ve happened if you two had stayed together?
PH: Yeah, definitely. Obviously, if I wouldn’t have gotten injured, I would have a different ending to my story. And I know hindsight is always 20/20, but I really feel like if Shaq would’ve stayed, I definitely would’ve been way more successful and gotten more credit because we would’ve won championships.
Did you and Shaq ever have a conversation later on where you talked through everything and worked it all out?
PH: Yeah, we had a conversation. We did that E:60 documentary together and we kind of talked it out a little bit and talked about “what if.” I’ve always appreciated Shaq; I always appreciated him and I’ve always let him know that if it weren’t for him, my career wouldn’t have gone the way that it did. He knows that about me, and he’s said the same thing to me as well.
You did the Lil Penny ads for Nike and it seemed like that took your fame and popularity to another level. Did that change your life as much as it seemed to people on the outside?
PH: Absolutely. Obviously, I was an All-NBA 1st Team guy before Lil Penny came around – that’s what brought on Lil Penny. But it got even larger when I got Lil Penny because even the people who weren’t basketball fans liked the comedy side of those commercials. So that brought a different fan to the game and to me, where even people who didn’t like basketball loved those Lil Penny commercials. It took me to a different stratosphere.
When you are recruiting young players, I’m sure they’ve seen some highlights, but are they typically aware of your game and your career?
PH: Yeah, I think YouTube has done me a huge service. A lot of these kids go on YouTube and watch my videos and they go, “Wow! I didn’t know you had game like that!” and things of that nature. So, yeah, YouTube keeps me relevant!
When did you realize that you wanted to become a coach and what was it like making that transition?
PH: I think it hit me maybe three or four years ago. I realized that it could be a possibility that I’d want to coach if the Memphis Tigers’ job became available. I knew that Coach Tubby Smith had a five-year deal, so I was thinking that it was going to be five years away. Obviously, that didn’t happen for him but for a couple years, so I made the move. What made me make the move was that I felt like the timing was perfect. I felt like I had built enough relationships and that I was ready for the job and what it brought. My mind was set on helping my school and my city and bringing the first national championship to the city of Memphis. All of that was motivation for me to get this job.
You’ve done a lot for Memphis over the years such as revitalizing the Bluff City Classic, providing funding to build the University of Memphis’ Sports Hall of Fame and other facilities and much more. It seems like that’s something that has always been a top priority for you.
PH: Yeah, for sure. I think that Memphis has been there for me throughout my entire basketball career. It started when I was in ninth grade, when I started doing interviews with local media. Then by 10th and 11th grade, I was nationally known. But I’ve always tried to put my city in a position to be successful. The city of Memphis has always supported me, from the ninth grade and on. I try to be a voice. I try to give money. I try to be seen and do things that are going to positively affect our city. I want to do my part as a citizen living here.
I’ve known your assistant coach, Cody Toppert, for many years and we’ve talked about how your program puts a big emphasis on preparing players for the NBA. What are some of the things that you guys do at Memphis to prepare players for a professional career?
PH: Well, first of all, we take pride in what we do. The first thing is if a kid wants to play in the NBA and he comes to our school, he has to get the mentality first. The physical part of the game comes after that, but you have to get your mind right first. What are you going to dedicate yourself to do every day of the week to make yourself better? You have to dedicate yourself to give up the energy. We feel like we have the teaching and the development part, so if a kid gives us his energy and gives us his concentration and he’s dedicated to what we’re doing, then we can make him better. Obviously, we’re working on all aspects of the game. We’re putting him in position to improve his jump-shot, his ball-handling, his moves and counter-moves and things of that nature. We’re helping him understand the mental side of the game, thinking through everything and not just reacting. There’s so much that we try to teach these guys as we try to help them get to the next level. I think we can be very successful with that.
Are there any specific pieces of advice or lessons that you received during your playing days that you want to pass down to players now that you’re coaching?
PH: Yeah. Never get complacent. Never feel like you know it all, and never feel like you have it all. Never get complacent and you have to come in every day with a chip on your shoulder. You have something to prove every single day that you step out onto the floor and if you keep that mentality, then you’re going to be successful.
I know you’re a big fan of Zion Williamson. What do you think of his ceiling?
PH: His ceiling is very high. I just think he’s going to be a superstar in the league for a very long time, and I’m happy to be able to witness everything that he’s doing right now.