Issue 29: The Only Player Named After a Coin

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Issue 29: Cool Cats: The Only Player Named After a Coin

Welcome to the latest installment of our “Cool Cats” series, where we check out a player that’s just as interesting off the court as he is on it. Today’s Cool Cat: former point guard Penny Hardaway.

Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway is synonymous with “successful Tennessee basketball.” He grew up in Memphis. He went to school at Memphis State. He’s currently coaching at that same school, now called the University of Memphis. But he’s also had other stops along the way, so let’s dive on in.

As Pretty as a Penny

First of all, that nickname. Despite the title of this issue, “Penny” comes from his grandmother describing him as “pretty,” but her thick southern drawl made it sound like the coin.

I’ve said these words aloud to myself at least eight times while typing this sentence, and I still cannot get to “penny” from “pretty.” Then again, I don’t have a southern accent, which would probably help.

Louise Hardaway was protective of her grandson. His first love was football but she was like, “no sir, you will not play football because it’s a barbaric sport that literally ruins lives.”

I’m not sure if that’s a direct quote, but several decades later she seems to have been very ahead of her time. Instead, Penny buckled down and focused on basketball, overcoming both a year of academic ineligibility AND getting shot in the foot during a robbery outside of his house. Hardaway improved his grade point average to 3.4 and entered the NBA Draft.

Let’s Play a Game of “What If”

It’s hard to imagine someone could make $120 million over 14 seasons and still have a disappointing career. Yet Hardaway’s career is a tremendous tale of “what ifs.”

For starters, what if Hardaway didn’t have the panache to request a second workout from the Orlando Magic?

Back in 1993, the Magic were planning to pair Chris Webber with Shaquille O’Neal, their exciting young center who still weighed less than 300 points at that point and was surprisingly mobile for a big man. Webber is also quite tall, so that would be a formidable duo down low.

But Hardaway wanted to play with Shaq (and I mean, how could you not want to hang out with the guy?) so he requested a second workout with the Magic.

He played in a pickup game with some other Orlando players, and the Magic were like, “you know what? Let’s trade our pick to the Warriors and get a ton of future picks in the process, too?” That turned out to be a pretty good move, at least at first.

In Orlando, Hardaway made four All-Star appearances and helped lead the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance. He even won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996 (not to be confused with the 2000 Olympic team, where Vince Carter dunked over a very tall man). Penny and Shaq looked like a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

But then Hardaway suffered a brutal knee injury at the start of the 1997-98 season. For a player who relied on his smooth acceleration and ability to cut all over the court, not having functioning knees is a bit of an issue.

And it only went downhill from there, which is what makes Hardaway such a great “what if” player? What if he didn’t have five surgeries on his knees — would he be routinely named among the greatest point guards of all-time?

Of course, we’ll never know, as Hardaway never really recovered to his full abilities. That’s really too bad because he was terrific at his peak.

However, he did pull off the nice distinction of playing for both the Phoenix Suns and the Miami Heat, the league’s “hottest” teams. That’s a fun fact that literally only I and no one else appreciates.

And Now, Chris Rock is Here

Perhaps Hardaway’s greatest feat, though, was being part of a marketing ad for Nike that featured his own miniature talking puppet, Lil’ Penny.

Hardaway chatted with his Mini Me, voiced by Chris Rock, and as you may expect, it was an absolute delight.

One commercial includes Rock asking Hardaway to tell Kevin Garnett, “Lil’ Penny from the science club says hello,” which is not a funny line in and of itself. Yet I still randomly say that line, even 25 years later. Go ahead and try it – it’s a blast.

Or better yet, watch this montage of Lil’ Penny commercials, which feature a barrage of cameos, from Spike Lee to Tyra Banks.

Put it all together and Penny Hardaway is one cool cat.

That’s all ’til next time. Thanks for reading!


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