Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway never blew out his knee. He didn't gain 97 pounds during an NBA lockout, and he didn't give up on the game following the signing of a massive contract extension. All he did was work as the all-world point guard for a team that made the NBA Finals in his second year, and rightfully run as an MVP candidate (up against a healthy Michael Jordan, mind you) for the first few months of his third season. Silly him.
Then Hardaway dealt with a series of knee issues that crippled his career before it could ascend to Hall of Fame levels. Sure, he was around to ply his trade with the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks for years following his setbacks, but he never took on that franchise player mantle that his athletic gifts and intellect suggested (read: screamed). And because he never tore up his knee in some dramatic, Joe Theismann-esque fashion, nobody seemed to take his struggles seriously.
SLAM: Did you feel you were misdiagnosed? How did the Magic respond?
PH: To me, there was a lot of confusion. Back then you played hurt, so they were like, "Oh, it's just in your mind." It was hard to believe. They kept asking me, "Did you hear anything? Did you hear your knee pop?" I would tell them, No, but it really does hurt. All of a sudden there was pain and I was very frustrated. I went from being very athletic, one of the best guards in the NBA, to barely making it. No speed, no agility. I had to change how I played because I couldn't exercise or train because my knee constantly hurt.
SLAM: Did any other players reach out to offer support?
PH: Nobody bonded with me at that time. No support. It was weird. Nobody would say, "Hey man, are you OK?" Nothing. It was more that people thought I was faking, and I have no idea why they would think that. When Grant Hill came back to Orlando after having all of his surgeries, I was the first person to call him and congratulate him for making it back. It seemed like nobody cared about what I was dealing with. That's just how it works, man.
That's hard to read, in retrospect. As a high schooler, writing online back during Penny's time in Orlando, I made plenty of Hardaway jokes while suggesting (not unkindly) that Darrell Armstrong take over as Magic point guard -- moving Hardaway over to the less-strenuous off-guard position in the starting lineup. And because he didn't tear up his knee in a publicized, Bernard King-sort of way, I'm definitely amongst the "we" when I tell you that we didn't give Penny the respect his injuries deserved.
And to understand, years later, that he was one of the first that had to undergo microfracture surgery in order to sustain his career? We all should have been bonding with Penny at the time, so to speak.
As a measure of gratitude and regret, we humbly offer a (NSFW) YouTube mix:
- Sports & Recreation
- Sports & Recreation/Basketball
- Orlando Magic