Blue Magic: The Legacy of Penny Hardaway

1995 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Game 4: Orlando Magic vs. Chicago Bulls

Disturbing is a word that only scratches the surface of how morally wrong things are in the sports world right now. I’ve just come to terms with the fact that the Clippers (yeah, the Clippers) are the hottest team in L.A. right now. Back when things were right with the world, I used to proudly flaunt my purple and gold gear, laughing wickedly in the face of poor Clippers fans. Often times I’d spot the luckless bastards on street corners, and proceed to drive furiously into puddles on the street to make their misfortunes more pronounced and scenically appropriate. Never in my wildest imagination did I think things could turn around the way they have, oh, and not to mention… despite gaining an early 17-0 lead on the 49ers last Sunday, the Falcons floundered in predictable fashion. The 49ers, the most miserable group of human beings on Earth, are now headed to the Superbowl. The only bright spot on yesterday’s funereal proceedings was that Tom Brady will not be participating in his 400th Superbowl in 12 years (how he has managed 400 Superbowl appearances in this duration in spite of the statistical impossibilities is beyond me). But then again, those degenerate souls in red and gold are still favored to win the big game, and I couldn’t be more depressed. There aren’t enough insulting words in either Webster’s or Oxford’s dictionary to properly describe that franchise, so I’ll move on. But to top it off, we know how a top Heisman candidate stating that he was duped for three years by his virtual girlfriend. Then there’s the other guy, who won seven tour de France titles, only to have them stripped away for illegal doping. Professional and collegiate sports is taking a nasty turn, and if I didn’t mention it already, the Clippers are the best team in L.A. and the fucking 49ers might win the Superbowl this year.

During Sunday’s Ravens v. Pats game, I was flicking the channel between that and the Mavs v. Magic game. Usually playoff football takes precedence, but in my fantasy basketball league, I statistically needed Magic guard Aaron Affalo to have about 50 points, 20 rebounds, and 30 assists to pull an upset in the week’s matchup. He didn’t, of course, and I lost. But I still enjoyed the game. In fact, I’ve been watching a lot of Mavs games this season. Now that I’m living in the South, my beloved FoxSports West, where I could always count on Laker game showings, is no longer a possibility, so I’ve been forced to watch FoxSports Southwest, which is the home of Mavericks basketball. I’ve been keeping tabs on the Mavs all season, and it’s great entertainment. Although the team contains young players with bright futures like point guard Darren Collison, and the resurrected OJ Mayo, the team is primarily assembled of veterans players who at one point in time, were considered some of the best talent in the league. Elton Brand is one, who is having an impressive year coming off the bench. Vince Carter, who is just days shy of his 36th birthday, is another, and more interesting case. In his prime, the man was simply unstoppable. A lot of people remember him mainly for his vicious dunks, but the man was a force to be reckoned with during his time with the Raptors and Nets. Who could forget in the 2000 Olympics when he dunked over a 7’2 Center from France? Or what about the time he put up the greatest dunk contest performance we had ever witnessed, aside from Michael Jordan’s iconic free-throw line take-off? Who could forget, that back in 2002, Kellan Miller created his screename as DoctaFunk, as tribute to the classic Vince Carter Nike commercials?

But Vinsanity is no more. Vince is still a threat, and his impressive rally against the Magic last night is testament to this. In one of the crucial plays of the game, Vince found an open Darren Collison, allowing for the shot that basically sealed the game in the Mav’s favor. It was symbolic in some ways, a passing of the torch. For people like me, who in our formative years Vince, Mcgrady, and Iverson were the baddest motherfuckers in the league, it’s sometimes difficult to come to terms with the way things are now. That’s sports for you though. Guys get old. 82-game seasons are not for the weak, and when you take into consideration preseason and postseason play, it’s no wonder that guys at 36 can’t do the same things they could when they were in their 20s. The main culprit is usually injuries, often-times knee-related, and one of the biggest examples of that is the career of Penny Hardaway.

Anfernee Hardaway first caught the eyes elite basketball circles during his high-school playing days in Memphis for Treadwell High School. Anyone who has ever visited Memphis will notice the Southern drawl that many of the natives have. Grandma Hardaway called her son “Pretty,” which sounded like Penny in her dialect. Not enough attention is paid to Grandma Hardaway. With her knack for creating nicknames, she should have been instated as the official nickname creator of the Minnesota Timberwolves. With her skills, a person could name at least five players on the T-Wolves without sounding like an ignorant American. But I digress. At Treadwell High, Penny treaded more than well over his competition, averaging 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists during his senior year. Unanimous sports pundits and media publications named him as the most talented high-school nationwide prospect in 1990, leading to a scholarship with the University of Memphis. From then on, Hardaway’s bad-luck and basketball skills rose exponentially, such as how he was shot in the foot his freshman year during a robbery.

After a brilliant college career, Penny took his talents to took his talents to a city a few miles from South Beach. Although Penny was a top-prospect in the draft, he wanted to play with the Orlando Magic alongside rising star Shaquielle O’Neal. Following his initial workout with the team, the GM was inclined to take Chris Webber, the future hall-of-fame powerforward. However, Penny managed to secure an impromptu second workout session, and well…I’ll let Pat Williams, former Magic General Manager tell how it went down: “Penny was breathtaking. I mean, he was spectacular. I never will forget the last game where he hits a 3-pointer from deep, deep. Then he looks up over to us in the stands like, ‘Seen enough?’ And John Gabe (Director of Player Personnel) at that point says, ‘We gotta rethink this. Big time!’”

So on draft day, The Magic used their first pick to draft Chris Webber…then traded him along with three future first-round picks to Golden State for Penny Hardaway, allowing for one of the greatest NBA rosters in the mid 90s. Penny and Shaq instantly found chemistry in their first season together, as Penny blazed opponents in his new role as shooting guard. The Magic achieved their first 50 win season, and Penny racked up a few personal honors to boot: All NBA Rookie First Team and runner-up to the rookie of the year award, which was granted to Chris Webber.

But shit really hit the fan in the ’94-’95 season. With a year under their belt, Penny and Shaq became arguably the most lethal one-two punch in the league. Around this time, Penny became a superstar, and Nike capitalized. The Penny shoe-line was right behind j’s in terms of obsessive demand, and a slew of commercials followed suit. Lil Penny, played by Chris Rock, starred in the commercials, most often hilariously giving Penny basketball tips.

Penny and Shaq led their squad to one of the most highly-anticipated showdowns in NBA history when they faced the Chicago Bulls in the ’95 playoffs. Michael Jordan had made a late season return to the league after things didn’t work out exactly as planned with his baseball career. Wearing the 4-5, Jordan was anxious to help his team recapture the glory they were unable to achieve in his two-year hiatus. But Penny wasn’t intimidated by the legend in the slighest, and Chicago’s red uniforms only reminded him of blood. Preying on his competition, Penny fearlessly attacked Jordan and the rest of the Bulls squad with the tenacity of a veteran superstar in his prime. Revisionist historians sometimes say that Jordan actually won the one-on-one battle, but their bogus theories do not fair well against the testaments of reality. The win over the Bulls culminated in a giant victory for not only The Magic, but Penny’s short-lived reputation as the heir apparent to His Airness. Unfortunately, The Magic run was short-lived, as they were swept by Hakeem and the Houston Rockets in the finals. Despite maintaing great regular season records, The Magic were never able to make it to the big game again in the Penny-Shaq era. Once Shaq left Orlando and provided Laker fans like myself with a few truly great years, Penny still held it down, but it wasn’t enough to lead his squad to the finals.

Still, Penny’s legacy grew tremendously following his outstanding play in those years, increasing the demand for his sneakers. And here is where the history of the Foamposites begins. KicksonFire.com states that “the main purpose of the Foamposite material was to maintain its shape through rigorous activity, whether it be occassionally, or on an daily basis… the shape was very close to the anatomy of the human foot and also lightweight for a basketball sneaker.” If you think that the new Kobe 8 Systems or the horrendous Jordan 28s are receiving a plethora of both love and hate, the original Foamposities were much more polarizing. Not to mention, the hefty $200 price tag made things much more complicated.

The bigwigs at Nike were on the verge of scrapping the original concept altogether and go back to the drawing board until Penny stepped in…literally. The superstar lobbied on behalf of the shoe, and convinced Nike’s Eric Avar to let the shoes be Penny’s signature line. 16 years later and there are many people more than happy to purchase a pair of Foams on eBay for an upwards of $1,000. You may choose not to believe me, but the hype is real.

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The hype was also very real in 1999. “Phoenix” is a word that conjures up images of vice and unforgivable crimes for many. The city is a hotbed of terribly hot weather, muddy immigration laws, and dissapointing sports teams. But in 1999 a lot of Suns fans and sports pundits believed that the team was going to be serious contenders for the title with Penny as their newest addition. With Jason Kidd at the one, and Penny at the two, the tag-team was labeled by the media as Backcourt 2000. However, struggling through various injuries, Penny and Kidd were only able to play 45 games together. Penny’s chance for a ring pratically ended once Kidd was traded to the Nets. Although later he was able to aid The Knicks along to the playoffs, they never reached the big-game. Penny’s stature steadily declined, and so did the demand for his shoes temporarily. When Nike made the brilliant decision to re-releasing retroed shoes, fans wanted not only the Foamposites back, but the entire line of Penny sneakers. Today, Air Pennys and Foamposites are among the most popular kicks in the entire Nike catalogue. Peep the unbelivable demand and hype for the pink Foams when they were released in honor of breast cancer month.

And while the Foamposites remind many ignorant souls of colored foal, the kicks are a shining relic to 20-somethings of simple days long ago past. The days when we didn’t have a care in the world, and the only worries on had was figuring out what time Rugrats aired that day. Bills and gas prices were of no concern, and the only real tough decisions involved how to properly fool mom into believing that you ate all of your vegetables. Most importantly, back then you could turn on the T.V. without seeing a single Blake Griffin commercial. Wow. It was not my intention for this ode to Penny to turn into a depressing treatise on nostalgic memories, but I currently have two ingrown toenails, the Clippers are the best team in L.A., and the 49ers are favored to win the Superbowl.

At some point however, a man must accept defeat. Per witness to my bitching about current sports happenings, it’s better not to be a sore loser even though losses are a tough pill to swallow. With intense, daily 5-hour therapy sessions, there is a mustard-seed of a chance that I will recover from the trauma the professional sports world has dealt me as of late, but there was little hope for Penny’s career after he was cut from The Miami Heat in 2007.

Playing the what-if game seldom brings contentedness for anyone. This is especially so in sports. Fans can spend a lifetime debating the possibilities of players like Penny Hardaway if he was not in fact born with knees made out of plastic pudding cups. How many rings? How many MVP trophies? How many more Foamposites? How many more commercials with Chris Rock? Luckily, Penny is content with his career and the way things turned out. According to him, “I look at it like this. In six years, maybe seven, I accomplished more than what most players did their entire career. I’m All-NBA two or three times, All-Star four times. If it wasn’t for all the injuries, I’m pushing for the Hall-of-Fame.”

And he’s right.

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