By Brian Taylor
Last June the Miami Heat won their first piece of Larry O’Brien hardware on the shoulders of “The Big NBA” Shaquille O’Neal and up-and-coming basketball prodigy Dwyane Wade. One of the main questions when the Diesel landed in South Beach was whether or not he could avoid another diva-like battle for the spotlight, like his messy divorce with “Bean” out in L.A. O’Neal, being of sound mind and older body realized that if he wanted another ring he’d have to defer a bit to the team’s other star. He did it in L.A. for a while, garnering rings with Zen Master/Warlock/Head Coach Phil Jackson, but Tinseltown wasn’t the first place Shaq had beef with a teammate. Before Wade, before Kobe, there was Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
When the Milwaukee Bucks first entered the league, they encountered the typical expansion doldrums until they won a coin toss (like the Izod bucket, the draft was sooooo old school) and landed Lew Alcindor (a.k.a. Kareem Abdul Jabbar). In their third season of existence the Bucks landed an NBA title. A similar situation happened in Orlando where one of the new kids on the block were the Magic (coming in that expansion wave that introduced the Hornets, Timberwolves and Heat). The Magic struggled for years until they won the Shaq Sweepstakes in 1992, and (mysteriously) won the draft lottery again in 1993, picking Chris Webber, but sending him West for Golden State’s pick, Hardaway.
In Orlando a revolution took place. No longer a just team with sparkly jerseys, a leprechaun for a point guard, and stripper-like cheerleaders, the Magic turned into a legitimate, contending team, thanks to the Diesel and the jaw-dropping, ridiculous play of Penny Hardaway.
The wild thing about Penny was that at 6’7”, he had the height of a small forward, but played like a speedy point guard with a dash of Magic Johnson thrown in for good measure. He was slowly becoming the prototypical, new-era type point guard – one that could post you up down low because of his height, or burn you on the break, Steve Nash style.
Penny also brought a ton of flair to Orlando. Everyone knew about the hulking, bionic, 9% bodyfat O’Neal on the low post, but Hardaway was all about insane no-look passes, crossovers, and disgusting dunks. I still think that his alternate road jersey was one of the illest of all time (the electric blue with pinstripes, and of course the “#1”). Who can forget the first post-Jordan playoffs, where Penny and Pippen clashed in the East? He even had his own caricature in the Chris Rock voiced “Lil’ Penny”. If it wasn’t for Nick Anderson gagging at the free throw line in ’95 Penny might have a ring now.
The trouble started when allegedly Shaq realized he was number 2 on the squad with Hardaway now garnering the infamous “next Jordan” tag from the experts. In 1996, after Penny won Olympic gold, O’Neal played the “him-or-me” card and lost, turning free agent and signing for a gazillion bucks with the Lakers breaking up what could’ve been an Eastern Conference dynasty.
From that point on things got worse for Orlando as a team and Penny as a player. In the 1997-’98 season Penny wrecked his knee and had surgery but played in an All-Star game he was voted into anyway despite never playing any regular season games for the Magic that year. This did not sit well with Orlando’s management and as a result, he was shipped to the Valley of the Sun, for Pat Garrity, Danny Manning (remember him?) and picks.
For a hot minute Penny did ok in Phoenix, taking them to the playoffs only to lose to the eventual punks, I mean champs, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers. After continued knee problems, Penny tried his trade at the World’s Most Famous Arena in New York, which was a disaster, before going back to Orlando and getting waived by the team.
If he hadn’t been hurt, I still think he’d be one of the league’s stars today. Check out this handy little link if you want to see Penny in action.