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October 4th, 2018. It’s the beginning of the college basketball season in Memphis, Tennessee which can only mean one thing: Memphis Madness. It's undeniably a basketball city. Ask anyone in the Bluff City and they’ll tell you basketball is a part of the very soul of Memphis, so the start of a new season is always treated as something special. Every year the University of Memphis puts on “Memphis Madness”. Not uncommon around the country, but uniquely embraced in Memphis, Memphis Madness is a celebration of basketball. Fans gather together for live performances, player showcases, and family activities all in preparation for a new season. In 2018 the FedEx Forum is jam-packed. Its a sold out event and there’s a palpable buzz in the air. Memphis is feeling electric and hopeful. It’s a stark contrast to the years since coach John Calipari left the University of Memphis in 2009. Years plagued by promises that couldn’t be kept and constant underachievement that eventually transitioned into bleak obscurity. Hope for U of M basketball had died out. Gone were the days of pulling in #1 recruits, replaced with a struggle to convince even hometown kids to go to the University of Memphis, something unheard of in the history of Memphis basketball. Fast forward to October 4th, 2018 and something has changed. Penny Hardaway is the new head coach of the Memphis Tigers and the difference is night and day. The hometown kid had returned and breathed life back into the city. But how did we get here? How did a kid from north Memphis become the savior of a city? How did he become a superstar whose name is known around the world? A player who’s skill rivaled the likes of Michael Jordan? It all started in a neighborhood called Binghampton.
Binghampton is a north Memphis neighborhood infamous for its gang activity and high crime rate. It’s one of the poorest areas in Memphis. Binghampton residents lovingly refer to it as “the bowl”. People get stuck there. They try and climb out of the bowl, but inevitably end up slipping back down the sides, often into the clutches of crime and gang membership. It also happens to be the place Penny Hardaway calls home. Penny’s mother, Fae Hardaway, got pregnant when she was still in high school and his father, Eddie Gordon, left before he was born. Soon after Penny was born, his mother left him too, attempting to pursue an acting and singing career in California. She didn’t want the burden of being young and having a kid ruin her youth. Penny was left mother and fatherless, alone in one of the toughest neighborhoods in America, with only his grandmother to take care of him. Named Anfernee at birth, Penny is a nickname he would pick up from the grandmother who raised him. A grandmother who was devoted to keeping Penny out of the local gangs and on the right path. To this day Penny cites her as the main reason he stayed out of trouble growing up. Abandonment had given Penny a life that, in all likeliness, was superior to the alternative.
Growing up, Penny found reconciliation with the life that was forced upon him through the local basketball courts. A budding friendship was cultivated on the courts by Lester Middle School with a boy named Desmond “Dez” Merriweather who lived just a few doors down. Penny immediately took to Dez. He was ferociously competitive on the court, never willing to back down, but equally kind off it. During the day they went to Lester Middle together and they spent their nights on the courts honing their skills. Penny learned toughness from Dez and Dez learned how to play against bigger opponents. Their friendship was the first domino in a chain of events that would bring Penny to where he stands today. Penny also found companionship and safety through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in Memphis. When he wasn’t playing basketball it gave him something to do, and someone to look up to. Nowadays Penny works closely with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Memphis, helping raise funds and put on events.
Dez and Penny would separate after middle school, going to two rival high schools. Dez would play ball for Memphis East while Penny would ply his trade at Treadwell High. In his time at Treadwell Penny became a star. As he started putting up unbelievable performances he became legendary around the city. Everyone in Memphis was hearing about the 6’7” guard down at Treadwell who was posterizing opponents and spraying dimes across the court. He was dropping 40 point games and soon the name Penny Hardaway was known to recruiters around the country. Even all of the blue bloods were vying to steal away Memphis’ crown jewel. In his senior year, Penny was unstoppable. He averaged 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 3.9 steals, and 2.8 blocks per game and was named National High School Player of the Year by Parade Magazine. He was a truly unique talent with his size and ability to handle the ball at either guard spot, like a late 80’s version of today’s “unicorns”. The kid from Binghampton had arrived. Every college in the country wanted him on their squad, but for Penny, there was only ever one choice—Memphis State. The city rejoiced. Penny was already a legend around town and for him to stay in Memphis meant more to the city of basketball and blues than can be put into words. The hometown hero was staying home.
Unfortunately, Penny’s first season with the Tigers was far from ideal. In fact, he describes it as one of the most miserable years of his life. For Penny, it started out hopeful. He had an entirely different life ahead of him, a life diametrically opposed to the one he had known so far. He had climbed out of “the bowl”, a feat few ever managed to accomplish. But what was Penny excited for most? Was it a potential future in the NBA or a shot at Memphis State glory? All the new friends he was about to make or three free meals a day? No. What Penny was most excited for was a bed all to himself. His entire life he had shared a bed with cousins or other family members. He never had his own space or even room to stretch out at night. For someone who had grown up with so little, it was the small things that truly signified he had made it. (Just don’t ask the 6’7” guard how he felt when he walked into his dorm for the first time and found out it was a twin size.)
Unfortunately, the gleam of a new life was soon dulled when poor ACT scores meant that Penny would spend his freshman year ineligible to play basketball. He was miserable, one of the few constants in his life was ripped away from him, even worse was that it was his own doing. JUCO schools tried to tempt him away from Memphis, giving him a way to get right back into basketball but Penny wasn’t going anywhere. He was going to stay and fight for his hometown. Sadly this wasn't the end of the story, Penny’s freshman year seemed determined to tear him down. Misery turned into tragedy when his freshman year took yet another turn for the worse. Hanging out in front of his cousin’s Memphis home, four men jumped out of a car and forced the pair to the ground at gunpoint. The gunman held a pistol to Hardaway’s neck as they stole their wallets, jewelry, and shoes. Hardaway was certain they were about to die, that’s just how it went in neighborhoods like his. Instead, the thieves grabbed the stuff and ran off, firing indiscriminately behind them as they went. Luckily, everyone escaped with their lives, but one stray bullet ricocheted off the concrete and lodged itself in Penny’s foot, breaking three bones. Yet another set back for the man who just a few months ago was named National High School Player of the year. As he laid in his hospital bed Penny took his life into consideration. Up to this point, he had beaten all of the odds. He had survived Binghampton. Survived his parents abandoning him. He had gone from the courts of Lester Middle to arguably the top High School recruit in the nation. Yet even now, when everything seemed set for him to reach the mountaintop, life was still fragile. Penny thought about how basketball was almost taken away from him and decided he wasn’t going to leave anything else to fate. His foot recovered fully and Hardaway returned to Memphis State reinvigorated. The next two years Penny made deans list and reached even greater heights on the court.
If his first year was a disaster, his next two seasons were anything but. Penny wasn’t looking back and he took his sophomore and junior seasons to electrify every court he stepped foot on. The odds are if you were watching Penny don that #25 Memphis State jersey, you were going to witness something great. What was so captivating about a game featuring Penny was that his natural electricity pervaded through all of his teammates creating moments of genuine magic whether he was leading the play or finishing it off. He floated through the air on putback dunks and lobs. He looked like Michael Jordan out there, in fact, many considered him the next Jordan. Magic Johnson was a big fan of Penny in college as well and many likened Penny to a more athletic Magic.
“I tell you, you talk about somebody who can do it all. Pass it, shoot it, rebound. It's him” - Magic Johnson on Anfernee Hardaway
Penny dominated every aspect of the court. His last season at Memphis State Penny averaged 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.4 steals, and over a block per game. He could dish out dimes from any position on the court. Soaring through the air, mid-shooting motion, from the other side of the court. If you were open, he was going to get you that ball. In his first season, Penny led the Tigers to their first NCAA tournament appearance in five years and helped them make a Cinderella-like run to the Elite Eight with Penny leading the charge. The Tigers would disappointingly get knocked out in the first round of the tournament his junior year, but Penny was named a consensus All-American as well as earning his second conference player of the year award in a row. He was named as a finalist for the Naismith College Player of the Year award as well as John R. Wooden award. Penny’s final year in Memphis State was an unqualified success. He decided to forego his senior year at Memphis State and opted to capitalize on a phenomenal year by entering the NBA draft. For now, his career in Memphis was over. He had given the city everything for those three years and the city loved him for it. Penny loved them back. It’s a bond that has guided penny to this day, but now it was time to take the next step.
Penny entered the 1993 NBA draft as one of the premier prospects available. Chris Webber of the Mighican Fab Five was drafted number one overall by the Orlando Magic while the Golden State Warriors selected Penny with the third pick. The magic getting to pick first overall was a story in itself, considering they had missed out on the playoffs by just a few games and had a 1/66 chance of landing the top spot. A promising youngster by the name of Shaquille O'Neal had already established himself as a budding superstar in the league and after dismay about not getting to see him in the playoffs, the top pick was a pretty decent consolation prize. Magic fans salivated at the prospect of Chris Webber and Shaq forming and unstoppable frontcourt duo for the foreseeable future, but Webber and Shaq weren't exactly excited about sharing the big man spotlight. Instead, Shaq suggested his co-star from Blue Bloods, the high flying point-forward from Memphis. On Shaq’s recommendation Magic GM Pat Williams invited Penny to workout with the Magic for the second time for a chance at becoming the number one pick in the draft. Pat left the workout awestruck, declaring Penny the next Magic Johnson or Oscar Robertson. The Magic went into draft night with Penny as the end goal, but in a savvy move, they drafted Chris Webber first overall and traded him to the Golden State Warriors for number three draft pick Penny Hardaway and three future draft picks. The Magic had their man and a perfect partner for Shaq.
Initially, Magic fans decried the fact they were getting some point guard from Memphis instead of the leader of the Fab Five, but their minds would soon change. From the jump, it was clear Penny and Shaq were as close as anyone was going to come to being Magic and Kareem. Their partnership was dominant. Penny began the year at the shooting guard position, learning the system under the tutelage of veteran Scott Skiles. By the midway point of the season, Penny was the starting point guard and running the Magic offense. Penny and Shaq led the Magic to a 50 win season and the franchise’s first ever playoff birth. Penny averaged 16 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and ranked 6th in the league in total steals on his way to being named to the NBA All-Rookie first team and a 2nd place finish for the Rookie of the Year award. The young Magic were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs but the message was clear. With Penny and Shaq at the helm, the future was bright.
Big things were expected of the duo, but few expected them to arrive so soon. The ‘94-’95 season, Penny’s second year in the league, saw the magic win a then-record 57 games on their way to an NBA Finals appearance. Penny and Shaw were unstoppable on the court. Penny’s dominating size for his position and natural vision meant he could set up Shaq from anywhere and Shaq reaped the benefits with 29 points per game on his way to a second place finish in the MVP race. Better than all the stats and accolades was simply watching the pair play together. You were always a few seconds away from a backboard-shattering dunk or a gravity bending behind the back pass. It was constant edge of your seat action and can’t miss TV. On top of all this Penny was named a starter for the All-Star game and First Team All-NBA in only his second year. Its a feat very few had achieved before and have since. Everything was going right for Penny. He was an all start, first team All-NBA, had his own signature shoe with Nike, and was quickly becoming one of the most popular players in the league. Penny’s official arrival at the top level of the NBA, however, came in the second round of the playoffs as the #1 seed Magic faced off against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
The connection between MJ and Penny was well known at that point. MJ had talked repeatedly to people in the league how impressed he was with Penny. That was special, MJ doesn’t do that for anyone. While everyone in the league had taken up Anfernee’s nickname of Penny, the greatest had given him a new one—“Kid.” MJ felt that Penny was the next kid coming up in the league, perhaps the next in line for the throne. MJ had signed off on Penny early when Penny signed a deal with Nike his rookie season and requested to wear a custom version of the Air Jordan 9’s with his #1 on them. MJ obliged and Penny was one of the first to ever wear a player exclusive Jordan Brand shoe. In the time since, Penny had been granted his own shoe line as the face of the Nike Air Flight One, but the sentiment remained.
The series started out hot with the Magic taking game one. After the match, Nick Anderson of the Magic declared “No.45 is not No.23” referring to Jordan’s new jersey number after he retired for a brief stint in baseball then returned to the NBA. The greatest of all time didn’t take too kindly to that. He came back the next game wearing the 2-3 again and dropped a cool 38 points with 7 rebounds, 4 steals, and 4 blocks on his way to evening the series 1-1. Jordan was back, and he hadn't missed a beat. After game two, however, Jordan was fined $5000 for the color scheme on his new shoes and was faced with a decision. Instead of opting for an older model of Jordan’s, MJ asked Nike for a pair of “the Kid’s” shoes, the Nike Air Flight Ones. It was the first and only time MJ would ever wear another player’s shoes, and he wouldn’t disappoint. His Airness dropped a series-high 40 points but the Magic secured the win and 2-1 lead in the series. For Penny, MJ’s shoe choice is a moment he’ll always cherish, and the “ultimate level of respect” he could imagine
“We all know that Michael Jordan is one of the fiercest competitors ever. He’s not gonna wear just anybody’s shoe … he wouldn’t do that for a lot of people,” -Penny Hardaway
The Magic went on to win that series in six games and Penny had officially reached the mountaintop. They would get swept in the finals, but Penny Hardaway was a household name now. He had combatted with the best and come out on top. He was first-team All-NBA and the greatest player of all time had worn HIS shoes. The rest of Hardaway’s Magic career went similarly. The next season the Magic won a franchise record 60 games. Hardaway again was named to the All-NBA first team but this time around the Bulls would best the Magic in the playoffs on the way to yet another championship for MJ. In the summer following, Penny earned a spot on the famous Olympic “Dream Team” and helped them to a gold medal win. The 96-97 season saw the departure of Shaq and probably the last great Penny season. An injury-plagued season for Penny hurt the Magic’s record but they still managed to sneak into the playoffs where Penny dropped 42, 42, and 33 in a 3-2 playoff series loss to the Miami Heat.
The 97-98 season was the beginning of the end for the Penny Hardaway era. A devastating left knee injury put him on the sidelines for the majority of the season and in the end, would signify the end of the Penny Hardaway we once knew. Over the rest of his career, Penny would have four more surgeries on that left knee. As the injuries continued to mount up Penny would become a shadow of his former self on the court. He could barely stay on it to begin with, but whenever he did get on the court he lacked the athleticism and explosiveness we had come to associate with Penny. The Penny of old was gone. He bounced around from team to team until retirement came in 2007. The career that started so bright and full of limitless potential had collapsed into abject obscurity. Penny took it hard, until that point he had always overcome. He had always beaten the odds. Binghampton couldn’t stop him. Neither could bullets or dead beat dads. But injuries did. They crippled a career that even Michael Jordan was excited by. A career that a young Lebron James based his game off of growing up. It’s one of the great “What if?” stories of all time. The one who almost was.
During his career, Penny had made over $100 million and could have gone anywhere in the world to retire. Lived any sort of life you could dream of. But for Penny, there was only ever one place to go—back home. Penny didn’t know it yet, but the next stage in his journey was about to begin. In his time in the league, Penny and Dez Merriweather had done their best to keep up with each other, but the crazy schedules and constant moving around meant their relationship consisted of a phone call or a dinner every year or so. Dez had gone on to play for a D2 school for four years then came immediately back to Binghampton to coach the Lester Middle School basketball team, the school Penny and Dez had grown up in. Dez saw basketball as an opportunity to influence the Binghampton community in a positive way. Dez was going beyond basketball. He was uniting young kids together and mentoring them, in an attempt to keep them out of gangs and crime. He found success on the court and off but as his team started to put things together, Dez’s health started to deteriorate.
Dez was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given just a few years to live. Dez wouldn’t give up on his kids though, despite the pain he would continue to coach every game and practice. He wasn’t going to let these kids slip through the cracks as so many had before. Dez’s condition began to deteriorate faster than expected. He had multiple surgeries until one day his health bottomed out. Laying in a hospital bed, strapped into a ventilator, Dez was given just 48 hours to live. Unable to speak, on a sheet of paper, Dez wrote “1 cent” and handed it to his wife. On the brink of death, the only thing Dez could think about was taking care of those kids. He wanted Penny to take over for him at Lester Middle School. When Dez’s wife called Penny, he couldn’t believe what was happening to Dez. He’d had no idea the health problems Dez had been going through. When Penny arrived Dez pleaded with him to take over the team, he said Penny was “the only guy who can save our neighborhood.” These kids were stuck in The Bowl and Penny was their lifeline. Penny pledged to take over for Dez. Thankfully, Dez recovered, but Penny honored his pledge to help out and took to the sidelines as Dez’s assistant coach. Together the pair would attempt to save these kids from the mechanisms that had been dragging down their neighborhood for generations. They created mandatory tutor programs and spoke with local gang leaders to allow them to take the kids down a different path. The gang leaders granted Dez’s request and Lester Middle went on to win three middle school state championships in a row. Dez may have been working on a ticking clock, but he and Penny were going to fight through it together. Their success on the court and the great young men their players were growing up to be sustained Dez, it gave him life. As the chemo treatment went on he got weaker and had to give the head coaching reigns to Penny, but Dez’s spirit was there for every title win.
As the squad began to graduate from middle school, Penny took a break from coaching. Dez followed his squad to East High School and became the head coach in 2014. Despite cancer, the aches, the chemo, Dez kept pushing. He needed to see it through, to make sure his boys were going to be ok. In 2015, right before the state championship, Penny got the call he had been dreading for so many years. Dez’s time had come, and Penny had one last chance to say goodbye. The duo exchanged one last “I love you” and Penny watched as Dez took his last breaths and slipped away. He was 41 years old. The players struggled with Dez’s passing. They said that for them, he was like a father figure. A guide through the treacherous lives they were born into. A month later Dez’s East High squad were eliminated in the semi-finals of the State tournament with Penny watching from the stands. Penny knew he couldn't spend another moment not carrying on the legacy Dez had created and in December of 2015 Penny was back coaching the boys from Lester Middle, but this time as the head coach of Memphis East High School. In his first season, the East Mustangs won 29 of their first 31 games and landed themselves a spot in the national top 25. At the end of the season, the Mustangs were crowned State Champions, they had completed Dez’s legacy. They went on to win the State title in 2017 and again in 2018. Under Coach Penny, Memphis East became a premier school for the nations best talent. In 2017 with players like James Wiseman, the top recruit in the nation, Chandler Lawson, and Alex Lomax the East Mustangs were ranked #1 in the country.
The more East succeeded the more prominent Penny became on the Memphis basketball scene. He started an AAU program that became nationally renowned and garnered a reputation as a serial winner who could bring in any of the top names. More importantly, Memphis recruits loved him. To this day kids from Memphis learn about Penny from a young age. They idolize and model their game after him. So, after years of obscurity, it was only natural that Penny would be the one to bring the University of Memphis basketball program back to life. In 2018 Penny was named head coach of the Memphis Tigers and a new chapter began for the city.
Flash forward to Memphis Madness. A wave of anticipation permeates through the crowd. The bright lights flare as Penny steps onto the court, memories of The Kid wearing his now retired #25 flash on the big screen. His arrival is met with a thunderous roar. It feels as if basketball in Memphis is now as it always should have been, but still, you can’t help but think how surreal it is. For a kid to grow up in Binghampton, to go through the things he has, to go from coaching Middle School basketball to here. To think where he would've been if he hadn't made friends with Dez on the basketball courts outside of Lester Middle. If he hadn't gotten that fateful call, a dying man's wish asking him to coach his kids. For him to now be the coach at his alma mater, in the city that idolized him, its like a fairy tale. At Vintage Sports our mission is to preserve the sporting stories that inspire us so they can inspire others for generations to come. Our favorite thing about this story is that despite all it’s history, it’s only just begun.
Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports and native Memphian, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.
I have never read such a thorough interesting article about Penney. Job well done