Iconic Sports Commercials: Lil' Penny

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

How it came about

Before he co-authored a book, cracked jokes with Oprah and received a lyrical shout-out from Jay-Z, Lil’ Penny was just an out-of-work puppet collecting dust on an advertising executive’s bookshelf.

Nike had no use for him after shelving the campaign for which he was originally created.

In 1994, Wieden + Kennedy creative director Stacy Wall proposed a campaign featuring Nike’s stable of basketball players as marionettes. Nike executives liked the idea until they watched the test commercial, which took place on a puppet-sized outdoor court and featured Penny Hardaway challenging Michael Jordan to a game of 1-on-1.

“I think ‘creepy’ was the exact word they used to describe it,” Wall said. “I was really frustrated by that because I was a young creative and I thought the campaign could be so cool, but they didn’t like it. When I offered to change it, they said, ‘No, let’s do something else.’ ”

For months, the Penny puppet resided in the office of Nike advertising director Joe McCarthy, a haunting reminder of the failed campaign for Wall every time he stopped by to pitch a new idea. The puppet might have remained there forever if Wall didn’t seize an opportunity to repurpose it.

Nike asked Wall to come up with an ad campaign to sell Hardaway’s first signature shoe, a plum assignment but a challenging one. Among the NBA’s emerging stars at the time, Hardaway was Nike’s pick to supplant the newly retired Jordan as the next face of the sport, but the soft-spoken Orlando Magic wing lacked the boastfulness or bravado to carry a campaign by himself.

“When you have an icon like Jordan, you’re always talking about who’s next? Who are we going to put front and center?” McCarthy said. “We made a bet that Penny had that potential, but he was a pretty shy, reserved young guy the first couple times we met with him. The conversation that followed was that a sidekick might be the best solution.”

Sensing the need for a foil reminiscent of what Spike Lee’s “Mars Blackmon” character was for Jordan early in his career, Wall came up with the idea of repurposing Hardaway’s puppet as his wisecracking, trash-talking alter ego. The day he pitched the idea to Nike, Wall snuck into McCarthy’s office and retrieved a secret weapon.

“When everyone was in the conference room, I excused myself, took the puppet and put it in a box,” Wall said. “It was at my feet during the meeting and then I pulled it out to use as a prop during the pitch. Because I had the puppet and I could kind of imitate the voice as I explained how it would work, it kind of all came together.”

By the time Nike executives left the conference room, it was clear the Hardaway puppet was destined to be more than just an office knick knack. Lil’ Penny was born.

“I remember sitting there in that meeting laughing our asses off,” said Eric Markgraf, then an advertising director at Nike. “There was a little skepticism because we had tried the puppet thing before and it didn’t work out, but when Stacy presented it, it just came alive.”

How did Chris Rock become the voice of Lil’ Penny?

The most important casting decision Nike had to make was who the voice of Lil’ Penny would be.

In retrospect, it’s impossible to imagine anyone in that role besides Chris Rock, but initially he wasn’t Nike’s top choice.

The first call went to Eddie Murphy, whose loud-mouthed Morris the Barber character from the movie Coming to America served as Wall’s inspiration while pitching the idea to Nike executives. Murphy, apparently uninterested in doing commercials at the height of his career, quickly turned down the opportunity.

When Martin Lawrence and Damon Wayans proved too expensive, Wall suggested offering the job to a 29-year-old former Saturday Night Live cast member who was touring the nation as a stand-up comic and had just done his first HBO special. Nike executives originally worried that Rock wasn’t a big enough name since he hadn’t yet broken through as a film star. Then they heard his laugh-out-loud casting tape and quickly changed their minds.

“It was the best move we made,” McCarthy said.

Quick to recognize that he was working with a uniquely gifted comedian, Wall tried to write Lil’ Penny’s lines in Rock’s voice and gave Rock ample freedom to adlib. Rock’s influence is most evident in the way Lil’ Penny takes jabs at anyone he encounters.

“You can’t guard me. The secret service couldn’t guard me.”

“I guess Spike Lee wasn’t available.”

“You guys remind me of my shoe closet. I got one Penny and a bunch of loafers.”

Before the campaign began, Hardaway hoped Lawrence would be the voice of Lil’ Penny since Martin was one of his favorite shows. Rock won Hardaway over just as rapidly as everyone else with his distinctive voice and quick-hitting sense of humor.

“He ended up being perfect for the part,” Hardaway said. “What he did, that can’t be duplicated.”

How Tyra Banks became Lil’ Penny’s love interest

At first, Hardaway and his loud-mouthed sidekick were the Lil’ Penny campaign’s only recurring characters. Entering the campaign’s second season, Wall decided to reach out to Tyra Banks to see if she’d be interested in participating.

“We were sitting there thinking, ‘Who would be Lil’ Penny’s dream girlfriend?’ ” Wall said. “At the time, all you had to do was look at the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and there was Tyra. We figured, ‘Let’s see if she’d do it.’ ”

Viewers first learn of Lil’ Penny’s interest in Banks during a dream sequence as he’s floating in Hardaway’s swimming pool.

“Hey Tyra, you left your toothbrush at my house,” he tells her.

Later, they meet in person when Hardaway pulls up next to Banks at a stoplight and Lil’ Penny rolls down his window to spit game at her from the passenger seat.

Said Banks to Complex Magazine in 2016, “I have people still to this day yelling out of the car, ‘Stop the car! That’s Tyra Banks, fool!’ ”

How Lil’ Penny came to life

The unsung heroes of the Lil’ Penny campaign were the people responsible for bringing him to life. They operated the cable-run animatronic puppet by hand during shoots and hand-sculpted or stitched his many props and extensive wardrobe.

The leader of that team was Jamie Hyneman, founder of a San Francisco-based special effects company known as M5 Industries and future co-host of Mythbusters. Hyneman constructed the intricate system of levers and pulleys that enabled Lil’ Penny to make any movement the script demanded of him.

It usually took six people to operate that mechanism, Hyneman on the butt rod that controlled the movement of Lil’ Penny’s torso and other puppeteers on the head, mouth, arms, hands and feet. When the director of the commercial asked for Lil’ Penny to walk along a sidewalk, talk on the phone or float on a pool cushion, the puppeteering crew had to figure out on the fly how to make it look realistic.

“What was funny was they treated Lil’ Penny like an actor,” Hyneman said. “The director would come up to the puppet and say, ‘Can you do this a little bit more this way?’ Then it would be up to us to make it happen.”

Chrystene Ells was the member of the team who had the unenviable job of creating Lil’ Penny’s Nike-heavy wardrobe. Before every shoot, she would spend hours sculpting replica Air Penny basketball shoes or stitching together nylon jackets or mesh shorts to match items Nike wanted to showcase.

Just as painstaking as the clothes were the pint-sized props Lil’ Penny required, anything from headphones, to a donut, to crutches and a cast. Toughest of all was when Ells had to figure out how to make Lil’ Penny blow a bubblegum bubble, a task she finally achieved via a generator, a plastic tube and some well-chewed Dubble Bubble gum.

“We discovered different people have different saliva and there were better and worse bubble gum chewers for that gag,” Ells said. “It turned out that I had the best saliva for the bubble gum gag, so I had to chew a lot of gum on the set.”

Impact on pop culture

Penny Hardaway recalls the exact moment he realized his new Nike campaign was a bigger hit than he expected it to be.

Soon after the first couple commercials began airing, strangers began shouting Lil’ Penny lines at Hardaway wherever they stumbled across him.

“On the street. In restaurants. Asking for autographs at arenas. Anywhere and everywhere,” Hardaway said. “People who weren’t fans of basketball were still fans of the Lil’ Penny ads, so it was definitely something special to be part of.”

The flood of interest turned into a cultural phenomenon as the Lil’ Penny campaign evolved.

Fans created websites devoted to Lil’ Penny. Rappers dropped his name in their songs. Lil’ Penny appeared on Oprah to promote the book he co-authored with Wall entitled “Knee High and Livin’ Large.” Danny DeVito even called Wall to explore the possibility of doing a Lil’ Penny full-length feature film.

The most unmistakable sign of the popularity of the Lil’ Penny campaign might have been Nike’s 1997 Super Bowl spot.

It included cameos from a who’s who of A-list athletes and celebrities, from Tiger Woods, Barry Sanders, Ken Griffey Jr., Juwan Howard and Michael Johnson, to Stevie Wonder, Tyra Banks, Jaleel White, Terence Trent D’Arby and the little kid from Jerry McGuire.

When Wall came up with the concept of having Lil’ Penny throw a Super Bowl party, he hoped to find a couple of recognizable actors or athletes willing to show up to the shoot. Instead, so many expressed interest in participating that Wall begrudgingly had to sacrifice the commercial’s story arc to make sure all the celebrity guests received airtime.

“The popularity became its own sort of problem,” Wall admitted. “The comedic arc got taken out of it and it ended up being kind of a mess of a commercial. I wince every time I see that one. It was just trying to do too much in 60 seconds.”

Some at Nike believe Hardaway had a chance to become as culturally relevant as any NBA player besides Jordan had he become the perennial all-star the shoe-apparel giant projected him to be. Injuries instead derailed Hardaway’s career after he made four straight appearances in the NBA all-star game from 1995-98.

“We did everything we could to elevate Penny from one of many young stars to Jordan-like status, but he had to do it on the court, too,” McCarthy said. “Injuries were a big part of that. It was unfortunate, but I can look back and say we did pretty much everything we could to set the stage.”

Three Fun Facts:

1. At the height of Lil’ Penny’s popularity, Reebok ran a commercial taking a jab at its competitor. After Shaquille O’Neal speaks about his goals on “Planet Reebok, a Lil’ Penny lookalike doll pops up and asks, “You got room for a brother on your planet?” O’Neal responds by flicking the puppet off the chair with his left arm. If the purpose of Reebok’s ad was to irritate Nike, it didn’t work. Said McCarthy, “You know you’ve got them worried if they’re doing stuff like that.”

2. Penny Hardaway had the only Lil’ Penny puppet he ever owned stolen soon after the Phoenix Suns traded him to the New York Knicks in 2004. “I had my business manager and my secretary ship everything I owned to Memphis,” Hardaway said. “I guess during that move, someone was smart enough to say, ‘I’m keeping this.’ ”

3. Ask the man who built and operated Lil’ Penny if he has a favorite spot from the campaign, and his answer may surprise you. “Not really,” Jamie Hyneman says. “I actually hate puppets. I like the mechanisms and machinery, but if I turn on my TV and puppets come on, I change the channel.” Hyneman does have a soft spot for Lil’ Penny, though. The steady revenue from the campaign kept his special effects company afloat, putting him in position to become the co-host of Mythbusters in 2003.

Iconic commercial: “Frozen Penny”

When he learned the Lil’ Penny campaign would conclude in 1997, Wall dreamed up a daring way to finish the puppet’s three-year run.

He proposed having Lil’ Penny die after collapsing courtside while watching his namesake play, an idea Nike perhaps rightfully rejected.

“We were going to zoom in on Lil’ Penny’s eyes while the life support machine was beeping and we’d see him boxing with the Grim Reaper,” Wall recalled. “There was even going to be a New Orleans-style funeral.

“This all sounds crazy, and maybe Nike was smart to kill it, but as a petulant 26-year-old writer, I was upset they wouldn’t let me do it. I started looking for something else that was a little snotty to do.”

What Wall came up with was in some ways even more brazen than his first idea. He wanted to parody a particularly pretentious Michael Jordan commercial his own agency had done for Nike the previous year.

In “Frozen Moment,” time stands still as Michael Jordan spins around a defender and soars for an emphatic dunk against the Los Angeles Lakers. A man’s bathroom sink overflows because he can’t take his eyes off Jordan, nor can kids watching from their garage or a row of joggers watching from the gym.

In “Frozen Penny,” Hardaway pulls off the exact same move as Jordan in a pick-up game … and nobody cares at all. Banks blows bubbles, an old man snoozes in front of the TV in his chair and Lil’ Penny shoots off a rocket and shields himself against spray from a wet dog.

To hammer home the satirical effect, the same choir music plays in both commercials, but the words are different in the Hardaway spot. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the purposely nonsensical lyrics, “Penny, Penny. You’re so cool. Why do you make time stop? Ice cream falling. Bubbles float. LP needs a raincoat.”

Not everyone understood the meaning of the spot when it aired, but those who did realized how brave it was of Nike and Wieden + Kennedy to parody their most iconic brand. Director Joe Pytka recalls an angry conversation with Jordan after the Penny commercial aired.

“When Michael saw the spot, he called me afterward and said why did you do that,” Pytka said. “I told him that he was too big to care about stuff like that and to get over it.

“But that’s how audacious they were. Stacy was making fun of a commercial his own agency produced. That won’t happen anymore.”

Wall only has one regret about that commercial — that Lil’ Penny has crutches and is wearing a cast on his left leg. Hardaway began experiencing chronic knee pain soon after that spot aired in 1997, robbing him of his athleticism, forcing him to undergo four surgeries and derailing his path to megastardom.

“Little did we know that Penny would go on to have the knee injuries,” Wall said. “As a superstitious person, I wince when I see that.”

Will we see a Lil’ Penny comeback?

It’s the question Penny Hardaway hears most frequently these days.

Now that the University of Memphis coach is back in the spotlight again as the head coach of his alma mater, will Nike begin working on another set of Lil’ Penny commercials?

“Never say never with Nike,” Hardaway said. “They like to strike while the iron’s hot. If we made a run at [a championship], it wouldn’t shock me if Lil’ Penny shows up somewhere.”

A Lil’ Penny reboot also wouldn’t stun Wall, now a director at Imperial Woodpecker, the production company he co-founded a decade ago. Wall even has an idea he thinks Nike should consider.

“To me, a great Nike campaign today would be middle-aged Lil’ Penny doing local commercials that would only air in Memphis,” Wall said. “They would be Lil’ Penny commercials as if he’s the spokesperson for the best barbecue place, for the best barber shop, for the best car dealer. Just make it Memphis-centric, and only run it for two weeks.

“I think that would blow up. I think that would be a huge success.”

Maybe so. If Lil’ Penny was able to transition from collecting dust on a shelf to becoming a pop culture sensation, perhaps he’s capable of a successful comeback too.