Penny Hardaway’s case for Basketball Hall of Fame induction is cursory but convincing

Anfernee Hardaway played 704 games in a career that somehow, almost miraculously, was stretched across 14 seasons. Those who know, those who were blessed to be there, who saw what was possible when he was at his very best, can explain that more than half of each were not the real Penny.

One look at his career statistics can illustrate the difference.

In his second season, Penny averaged 20.9 points and 7.2 assists and teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to push the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. In his third season, he averaged 21.7 points and 7.1 assists as the Magic won 60 games but were swept by the Bulls in the Conference Finals. In his fourth year, he was good for 20.5 points and 5.6 assists, then escalated his scoring to 31 a game in an unsuccessful playoff series — following Shaq’s departure for LA — against the Heat.

And that really was the end of peak Penny.

Could that burst of brilliance possibly make him a Hall of Famer?

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On Friday, Hardaway was added to the list of nominees for the 2024 induction process. The finalists will be announced during NBA All-Star Weekend in February. Selections for the 2024 class will be presented at the NCAA Final Four in April and then inducted formally in the annual ceremony in August.

Hardaway has been eligible for induction for more than a decade, and this is his first time on the ballot, which suggests sort of a longshot candidacy. Maybe, though, nobody ever sat down and thought hard enough about this: What if Penny is basketball’s Gale Sayers?

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In the NFL, Sayers played only five full seasons and was rostered for just seven. His career total of 4,956 rushing yards ranks 160th in NFL history, just behind Greg Bell and just ahead of Dorsey Levens. Those who watched him play before he endured a major knee injury recognized they’d seen one of the game’s greats. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, a half-dozen years after playing his final game with the Bears.

There is a strong case to be made that Hardaway fits the Sayers mold.

Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway

(Getty Images)

Hardaway was such a force in the sport and the culture that Nike built an enormously popular advertising campaign around his appeal, creating the character of “Lil Penny” that was voiced by comedian Chris Rock.

Hardaway was one of the most creative passers in the game’s history, which was the primary reason he was named to the All-NBA First Team in his second and third seasons – ahead of teammate Shaq and such veterans as Gary Payton, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Mitch Richmond. All of those players are in the Hall.

Richmond never was first-team All-NBA, but was a six-time All-Star and scored more than 20,000 career points. Hardaway stalled at a bit more than half that, but what became of his basketball wizardry was not really his fault.

Hardaway had what seemed a minor collision with a Pistons player in the 1996 playoffs, but that apparently led to a knee issue that wasn’t fully obvious until much later. He finished the postseason and even won a gold medal with the United States at the 1996 Olympics. Gradually, the knee became worse and required surgery. He has said he never felt the same afterward.

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Hardaway never again averaged 20 points. He never again topped 7 assists per game. He never again played more than 80 games. He never played in another NBA All-Star Game. He appeared in 23 playoff games over the remainder of his career – fewer than he’d played in his first three seasons.

Injury made him almost unrecognizable as a player, but we still should be able to see clearly what he was.

As a collegian, Hardaway averaged 20.0 points and 5.9 assists for two Memphis Tigers teams that reached the NCAA Tournament, including one that advanced to the Elite Eight. He now is in his sixth season as head coach at his alma mater.

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Penny Hardaway

(Getty Images)

I moved to the city in February 1993, near the end of his final season with the program, and got the chance to cover his last several games for The Commercial Appeal newspaper. To illustrate what he was capable of achieving, I like to tell the story of one particular play that remains the most amazing sequence I’ve witnessed in four decades of writing about the sport.

Yes, it was more astounding – though far less impactful – than Christian Laettner’s shot to beat Kentucky.

Hardaway’s teammate, Billy Smith, was at the foul line for a free throw attempt. Hardaway was on the right side of the lane, between two opponents. Smith’s try bounced off the rim to the left, and Hardaway dashed across the lane and knocked it free from an opponent attempting to gather the rebound. The ball rolled toward the foul line, and somehow, after a scramble of bodies, Hardaway wound up with the ball in his lap, his legs directly in front of him and pointed toward the basket at the other end of the court.

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In an instant, Hardaway picked the ball up with his right hand and zipped it over his left shoulder toward the goal, where Smith was alone, uncovered, and converted a layup.

Hardaway had made no obvious attempt to look for Smith. He just knew. After all that chaos, he just knew.

In a retrospective near the end of the season, Hardaway told our beat writer, Lynn Zinser, that had been the most memorable play of his career. Being new to watching him close up, I wanted to be sure the superhuman wasn’t routine.

With Hardaway, though, it almost was.

Until it wasn’t.

Sometimes, a Hall of Famer doesn’t receive the gift of longevity. What Hardaway gave to us as a player ought to earn him a permanent place in Springfield.


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