If Penny Hardaway went up against Derez Deshon’s Hardaway in a battle of struggles of great proportion, it might be too much for one to handle. Though, both seemingly went through hell and back to reach their destiny, (and Penny didn’t have the assistance of autotune), you’ve gotta say the former NBA star’s road back to glory is just as, if not a bit more, compelling.
The hoopin’ Hardaway found his calling during Spring 2018 when he returned to his alma mater, the University of Memphis, as a head coach. Hardaway taking his rightful throne was no coincidence. On the contrary, the former NBA All-Star, Grind City native and Tennessee legend had been on the the school’s radar for years and according to an article in Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, the Tigers were on Hardaway’s radar, as well.
Since the John Calipari-era, expectations at Memphis had grown exponentially. Boosters expected to see the Tigers win immediately and honestly, how could you blame them? With Calipari running the show, the program was littered with talent. During his tenure, the Tigers boasted Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts aka MonteChristo Ritchie, Tyreke Evans and Dajuan Wagner; all of whom packed the arena, helped the school build a national fanbase, returned the team to prominence and ultimately boosted the program’s recruiting reach with their successes in the NBA. Though there were some scandals, (the Tigers’ most successful season is no longer part of NCAA history due to rules violations in regards to D. Rose’s SAT scores), the magic and aura that came with Calipari left as soon as he accepted a job at Kentucky and Josh Pastner took over.
In 2017, Memphis missed the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in a row. Despite the presence of Hall of Fame coach Tubby Smith, who took over after Pastner bolted for Georgia Tech, the absence from the Big Dance coupled with struggles against conference foes didn’t fit the standard of dominance an increasingly weary fanbase had grown accustomed to. So what else was left to do other than go the Hardaway?
No more mediocrity, no more Tubby Smith, just Penny Hardaway; the hometown hero with a long history and deep connection to Memphis sports. Hardaway set the city ablaze as a student at Memphis’ now-defunct Treadwell High School, where he scored 3,039 points and was named a Parade All-American. His dominance at the high school level led to signing with the University of Memphis (formerly known as Memphis State) where he watched his jersey (#25) get hoisted into the program’s rafters. After a successful run with the Tigers, Hardaway made the leap to the league, where he partnered with Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal to form the most dominant 1-2 punch in Orlando Magic history and film the movie Blue Chips, a basketball movie that highlighted the behind-the-scenes filth in the NCAA. Following a slew of wildly entertaining seasons with several teams (most notably Orlando), injuries derailed his career and left fans, including myself wondering, “What could have been?”
When one door closes, another one opens. In the case of Hardaway, retirement from the NBA opened a door that allowed him to stay connected with basketball and help uplift kids in his basketball-crazed hometown. When one of his close friends, Desmond Merriweather fell ill, Hardaway stepped in as the head coach at Lester Middle School and led the team to a state title. During this time, it was Merriweather, who planted the seed in Hardaway’s head about one day becoming the Tigers’ bench boss. “[Merriweather] would always talk and joke about Penny becoming the coach at Memphis,” said Wayne Dash who wrote the book, “On These Courts” about Hardaway’s experience at Lester Middle. “As he became sicker, he was really adamant that it was going to happen. He felt it was preordained that Hardaway would bring Memphis its first national championship.”
With his close friend’s advice in mind, the fast track began as Hardaway, who also ran one of the country’s most prominent AAU teams, The Penny Hardaway Elite, became a coach at Memphis’ East High School (the school 2018 Memphis commit Alex Lomax and 2019 top prospect James Wiseman starred at). There, he won two state titles as an assistant (though in function he was the head coach) and then led the school to its third consecutive title, his first as an official head coach in 2017.
During Hardaway’s final title run with East, Tubby Smith was axed and rumors began to swirl in regards to Hardaway being the right man to fill Memphis’ head coaching vacancy. Despite the increased heat from the media, the former All-Star expertly navigated questions in a manner reminiscent to how he sliced past defenses, quickly quelling inquiries and even responding with “I’m going to play golf,” and “I’m the head coach at East High School,” when asked about his future plans.
The dodging and eluding didn’t last long. Memphis couldn’t ignore what Hardaway had to offer -- recruiting connections, relationships with esteemed alumni, an NBA pedigree, etc and luckily for the Tigers the former floor general couldn’t turn down fate.
Since landing at Memphis, Hardaway put together a top-30 recruiting class in a span of weeks. Not only did his hiring shake up how recruits in Tennessee viewed the program, it led to a resurgence of interest from some of high school’s top hoopers outside of the state. “You do have to recruit nationally, but you really have to nurture the talent you have here,” he told USA Today. “We have enough talent alone to win a national championship. Memphis is a hotbed for basketball. It would be crazy not to take care of your own first.” If Hardaway can continue to attract top-rated talent and show he belongs in the collegiate coaching ranks, the residents of Bluff City should start preparing for a parade down Beale St.
2018 Mempis Basketball Recruits
4-Star recruits: Antwaan Jones (Oak Ridge High School), Tyler Harris (Cordova High School)
3-star recruits: Isaiah Maurice (South Plains College), Alex Lomax (East High School), Ryan Boyce (East High School)
2019 Memphis Basketball Recruits
4-star: DJ Jeffries
3-star: Malcolm Dandrige (East grad)
In the final two for no. 1 player in the country James Wiseman (who starred under Hardaway at East).