Monday, May 24, 2010

Penny Wisdom

I had it in my head that I was going to write up this post all about how the Scary Movie series is better than the Shrek series, how Anna Faris is to Mike Myers as Michael Jordan is to Penny Hardaway.  Then I realized that that would be unfair.  To Penny Hardaway.  I did the responsible thing, you see, and did some research.  No, I still haven't seen any of the Shrek movies.  Instead, I looked up Penny Hardaway on Wikipedia.

Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, former NBA All-Star, is best remembered for his early seasons with the Orlando Magic.  Together with a young Shaquille O'Neal, Penny turned the budding franchise into a contender, leading the team to the 1995 NBA Finals.  Although the Magic were swept by a Houston Rockets team led by veteran superstars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the young Orlando team with young stars was the hottest thing going in the NBA in a mostly Jordan-less season.  It was during this period that Nike launched the "Air Penny" shoe line, which it successfully marketed with the memorably obnoxious "Li'l Penny" series of commercials featuring Chris Rock as the voice of a puppet version of Penny, which Penny himself would bizarrely interact with as though it were a real and separate person.

Jordan would be back to dominating the league the next season, however, and before the start of the 1996-1997 season, Shaq would part ways with the Magic.  While Shaq would go on to win four NBA championships, Penny would mostly be forgotten after that.  He had a few more seasons of competence, but he never again played for a contender.  The Nike commercials and celebrity endorsements also went away entirely, and as someone who only tuned in to watch games of consequence, I never heard any talk of Penny Hardaway, except when he was sometimes tangentially brought up in conversation as one of a number of overrated young guards who rose to fame and fortune on the Diesel's coattails.

Looking back now at those first four seasons, however, I can say that Penny was a true star.  An anomalous player, he played point guard and had the speed and ball-handling to excel as his team's floor general, but, with the size and athleticism of a shooting guard or even small forward, he could also just as easily take it to the hoop himself.  His unorthodox construction made him difficult to guard and allowed him to maintain more-than-solid points and assists-per-game averages while keeping a high field goal percentage.  You could say that he had Shaq during those early seasons, but when Shaq was injured at the start of the 1995-1996 season, Penny rose to the occasion and picked up the slack to carry the team to a 17-5 record.  During that Shaq-less period, he even dropped 36 points on Jordan, beating the Bulls and briefly taking the league scoring lead from Jordan.

When Shaq left the Magic for good and Penny seemingly disappeared, I was quick to draw what I thought were obvious conclusions concerning the legitimacy of Orlando's own equivalent to Scottie Pippen.  Now I can see that I was being unfair and plain wrong.  Actually, Penny had one of his most impressive seasons as the Magic's lone star, again leading his team to the playoffs, where his scoring average was second only to Jordan.  It was only a major knee injury that caused him to miss most of the next season, and even though Penny eventually returned, he was never the same.

The last time Penny Hardaway made any kind of news was in 2008, when he donated one million dollars to the University of Memphis toward the construction of a sports hall of fame for the athletic department.  Given how most NBA players live, I'm amazed that Penny still had a million left to give after seasons of shrinking salaries in a career that finally ended unceremoniously with the Miami Heat waiving him just a year prior.  I can only hope that he's still getting checks from Nike for those Air Pennies they're still selling.

To summarize, whatever his career totals might suggest, this guy was not a mediocre talent.  His skills were real and he could have been great.  He just ran into some bad luck.


Czardoz said...

I read that "Move over, Michael" article, and it's shocking to read some of the names being bandied about the league a full 15 years ago. It reads like an article that should be titled "The Forgotten," and goes to show that if a good player like Penny is mostly a footnote now, what do most players have to look forward to 15 years after their heyday? "Stars" like Vin Baker, Damon Stoudamire, Robert Pack, Mark Price, Dan Majerle, and Glenn Robinson - ashes and dust.

My favorite line:

"Asked what Kevin Garnett, 19, brings to the Timberwolves, Sam Cassell replies: maturity."

It's enough to make a man want to break out his copy of NBA Live '96 for the Super NES.

Henry said...

Mark Price, still the league's all-time leader in free throw percentage, was also a great passer and three-point shooter. He was like Stockton or Nash, minus whatever intangibles made those players great.

Dan Majerle, one of my Phoenix Suns, was the first reserve player ever to be voted in as a starter in the All-Star game. Yet as popular as he was in his day, his Wikipedia entry is the most woefully incomplete of all the players you mentioned.

Robert Pack, although five inches shorter than Penny, was the other dunking point guard in Live '96. (Well, Kevin Johnson barely made a third.)

Glenn Robinson was no Glen Rice, but he did finish with 20+ points per game. He was another guy whose career was sidetracked by injuries and having to play only on crap teams.

Vin Baker and Damon Stoudamire? Jabronies.