Home Is Where the Hardaway Is

By Karon Warren   |  Photography courtesy of the University of Memphis

Who says you can’t go home again? For Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, that’s exactly where he wants to be.

Following high school in 1990, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway faced a tough choice: play college basketball at the Georgia Institute of Technology under coach Bobby Cremins or stay home and play at Memphis State College, now known as the University of Memphis.

“I did want to go to Georgia Tech to play with Kenny Anderson and those guys, but the hometown got the best of me,” Hardaway says.

In 2018, 25 years after stepping off the court as one of Memphis’ most prolific players, Hardaway returned to the University of Memphis (renamed in 1994) as the men’s basketball coach. Once again, the hometown pull was too strong to resist.

“I felt like the timing was perfect,” he says. “I had good momentum. I felt like I had done a lot in high school (as East High School head coach), and I wanted to help my college out.”

Hardaway certainly brings a lot of experience and success with him to his latest basketball endeavor. Following a tenure as the Parade Magazine High School National Player of the Year at Treadwell High School in Memphis, Hardaway continued to rack up the accolades during his two years at then-Memphis State. He was a two-time All American and two-time Great Midwest Conference MVP and played on back-to-back NCAA Tournament teams, reaching the Elite Eight in 1992.

Not surprisingly, Hardaway was the No. 3 pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, going on to play with the Orlando Magic for six years. During his professional career, he was a four-time NBA All Star, played in the NBA Finals in 1995 and was named to the All-NBA First team twice. And he won a gold Olympic medal with the 1996 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team.

Following stints with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat, Hardaway called it a career in 2007. But that didn’t keep him from the game. He returned to the court in 2012 as temporary head coach at Lester Middle School while coach Desmond Merriweather battled cancer. Merriweather moved on to coach at East High School in 2014, but sadly succumbed to cancer in February 2015. Hardaway worked with the team and later became head coach at East High School, which would earn state titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

During Hardaway’s first season as head coach at Memphis, the Tigers accumulated a 22-14 record, reaching the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament and earning a spot in the National Invitation Tournament. While it may seem coaching basketball is as natural for Hardaway as playing, he admits there are challenges.

“Being a player versus a coach, I felt like I could do more about the situation back in the day because I was playing,” he says. “Right now, it’s been fun because it’s a new era of guys I’m coaching, and I’m glad to be a part of this. I think it was much easier when I was a player, because I could get out there and do something about it.”

Having players growing up and living in an online connected world also is challenging.

“We didn’t have many distractions at all,” he says of the days when he was a player. “The social media outlets they have an opportunity to be a part of [today], it’s a challenge for them to stay focused. The distractions are real.”

Hardaway says he’s also had to adjust to more game planning than before as well as working within NCAA compliance rules.

“You can get a violation for the smallest of things,” he says. “I think that’s what shocked me at this level. This should be an easy situation to handle, but the compliance rules say differently.”

Even so, Hardaway is thrilled to be where he’s at in his career. He loves being a part of the college atmosphere once more.

“It was the most fun time of my college career as a basketball player because it was so innocent, learning on the fly,” he says. “It was part of a great wave of things that were happening in sports. We were pretty good, which made it easier. Just being in a college atmosphere around college students is fun. I really enjoy that now.”

When not coaching, Hardaway spends time with his family, who enjoy having him back home. The father of three grown children, Hardaway currently coaches son Jayden, who plays on the Tigers’ men’s basketball team.

“They love me coming back,” he says. “They understand my time is going to be shared with them and the city, but they are proud that I came back to try to make a difference.”

And, during the off-season, you can find Hardaway playing ball, albeit a bit differently. He loves to golf, usually at TPC Southwind in Memphis and Spring Creek Ranch in Collierville, Tenn. And, despite his often serious countenance, you probably will find him laughing as he indulges his love for comedy, particularly Eddie Murphy.

Looking ahead, Hardaway doesn’t rule out a move to NBA coaching, but, for the moment, his focus is solely on winning a national championship for the University of Memphis.

“I really want to do that,” he says. “I feel like if I could pull that off it would be great for the city, and I want to help my city.”

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