Why Penny Hardaway can relate to Russell Westbrook's situation

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Penny Hardaway played six seasons with the Magic. (Getty Images)
Penny Hardaway played six seasons with the Magic. (Getty Images)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway came down a hallway at Methodist University Hospital – Styrofoam box of food in one hand, keys to the gym in the other – still looking like a Nike pitchman because of his cap, sweatshirt and sneakers. Nine years removed from his last NBA game, Hardaway is now coach of Memphis East High School, finding fulfillment in leading one of the nation’s top-ranked teams and helping talented kids from his neighborhood reach the dreams for which he once aspired.

Stripped down from the glam of his heyday, Hardaway no longer needs a Chris Rock-voiced little puppet to serve as his hype man. Hardaway was once a pop-culture phenomenon, part of a must-see TV pairing with Shaquille O’Neal that was billed as the second coming of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But their three-year run with the Orlando Magic will always sit atop the list of greatest NBA dynasties that never came to fruition, undone by ego and impatience.

Right behind would be the Oklahoma City Thunder of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both organizations made one NBA Finals trip, where they lost to a former No. 1 pick who won the first of back-to-back titles, never returned and had the run abruptly end in similar fashion – with the first player to get drafted and reach stardom bolting for California in free agency and leaving behind a stunned partner who was forced to carry the franchise.

“When KD came up as a free agent, I was like, if he left, it would be like, for Russ, it would be like me and Shaq,” Hardaway, 45, recently told The Vertical. “That’s what happened. Russ has to carry the load. He has a nice supporting cast still left, because they had a nice team. So he’s not strictly by himself, but he has to do a lot. He has to do a ton.”

Long before their careers were linked by similar circumstances, Hardaway viewed Westbrook as his favorite NBA player, drawn to Westbrook’s unrelenting motor and menacing scowl. “No doubt,” Hardaway told The Vertical. “Russ is a unique player, because he gives it his all every possession, to me. Of course, I’m not on the inside, but from what I see, the energy that he plays with, the passion that he plays with, the aggression, I love it.”

Westbrook’s “go” button on the court is always being mashed and that has made it easy for him to accept the increased responsibilities with mind-blowing production – the kind that hasn’t been seen in 55 years, when Oscar Robertson became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. With 24 triple-doubles through his first 48 games, Westbrook also is on pace to match Robertson for the most triple-doubles in a single season with 41.

Hardaway passes to Shaquille O'Neal during the 1995 NBA Finals. (Getty Images)
Hardaway passes to Shaquille O'Neal during the 1995 NBA Finals. (Getty Images)

Life without Durant has meant fewer wins but greater appreciation for Westbrook, who stands as one of the leading candidates for league MVP and is even more beloved – at home and on the road – while keeping Oklahoma City in playoff contention. Hardaway’s adjustment without O’Neal in 1996-97 was much more difficult, especially because then-coach Brian Hill was ousted through a player coup and for the first time in his career Hardaway battled injuries, which would eventually shorten his effective years. Though he made third-team All-NBA and led the Magic into the postseason – where he had consecutive 40-point games in a first-round loss to Miami – Hardaway wasn’t quite the same without O’Neal.

“The thing was, I never wanted the team to be mine. I wanted to be a winner,” Hardaway told The Vertical. “And I wanted the team to stay intact. And whatever I needed to do to win a ring, a game, whatever it had to take, I was going to do. When Shaq left, that definitely put the onus on me. I could turn it up, if I really wanted to. I had to dial my game up to make it work. I knew my talent was good enough, but it went from having a guy on your team that was going to be double-teamed, to you being double- and triple-teamed and having to pass to other guys. It made my job harder, but not the workload.

“I welcomed it, but I didn’t want it, because I wanted to have a better team,” Hardaway continued. “I knew we weren’t going to be good anymore, like we were before Shaq left. It was looking very bleak. I didn’t know if we were going to draft someone. I didn’t know if we’d get a free agent, trade. It wasn’t looking promising after Shaq left. It was looking bad. I didn’t know if I’d ever get [a ring] and I never did.”

Hardaway doesn’t want to see Westbrook leave the game without capturing the ultimate prize. “I would say to him, ‘Don’t let your ego get involved by not getting another superstar,’ ” Hardaway told The Vertical. “’If you can talk another superstar into coming to play with you …’ He only needs one more player. And he can do damage. Don’t get to the point where you feel like you can do it by yourself. It’s too tough. You can get another All-Star, like a Carmelo Anthony, that would want to come there and try to get a ring. I think that’s what he wants.”

When he made his Fourth of July announcement, Durant informed Westbrook, half of a fearsome twosome for eight years, of the news with a text message. O’Neal never gave Hardaway any warning of his plans to leave Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers, even as they were teammates on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta that summer. “I was definitely blindsided,” Hardaway told The Vertical. “I didn’t know that he had signed the deal. Reporters started asking me questions about it, ‘How does it feel not to have Shaq?’ I was, ‘If that’s the case, then I wish him well.’ I didn’t think he was already gone. So I really got blindsided. I never talked to him during that whole Olympics.”

Hardaway said O’Neal eventually sent him an autographed picture with a message that read, “I’m sorry that it didn’t work. Good luck.” The two remained cordial whenever they crossed paths, Hardaway said. They even reunited as teammates in Hardaway’s final season with Miami in 2007-08. But they didn’t discuss O’Neal’s decision to break up for almost 20 years, until the two came together to film a documentary on the Magic. Hardaway said he never had any hard feelings for O’Neal, so the reunion wasn’t awkward.

Hardaway speaks during his induction into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame on Jan. 20. (AP)
Hardaway speaks during his induction into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame on Jan. 20. (AP)

“It’s always been natural like that, because he’s silly, and a jokester, and I like to joke around a little bit as well, but not as much as him. But it was natural with us. [The rumored feud] was never us. It might have been agents, but it was never us,” Hardaway told The Vertical. “He’s always showed me love and I’ve always showed him love. We’ll always have that relationship. But that’s it. Nothing where we were calling each other on the phone. Nothing like that.”

Westbrook recently acknowledged that he and Durant are not on speaking terms, months after that separation. Hardaway didn’t find the situation unusual, though Durant and Westbrook were together more than twice as many years as Hardaway and O’Neal were. “It depends on what relationship they had,” he said. “If they didn’t like each other when they played, it would be an easy transition not to speak to each other. If we’re just tolerating each other, it’s easy not to talk after that.”

Three years after O’Neal defected, Hardaway was also ready to leave Orlando. Frustrated by the Magic’s inability to construct a competitive team around him and feeling that he was being punished for O’Neal defecting, Hardaway demanded a trade to Phoenix, where injuries contributed to his career fizzling. The Magic invited Hardaway back for the 2012 All-Star Game and again for the franchise’s 25th anniversary a few years later. His six years in Orlando were honored on Jan. 20, when the Magic inducted him into the team’s Hall of Fame.

“It felt great, because honestly … hindsight, I shouldn’t have ever left. I let my emotions get the best of me,” Hardaway told The Vertical. “Once I left Orlando in ’99-2000, I wasn’t ever going back, because we left on bad terms. But after all the things that happened, with me leaving and coming back, and the love that they showed me, it lets you know that time heals all wounds.”

Where coaching leads him, Hardaway isn’t sure but he can eventually see himself in the NBA or college ranks. The profession has already taken him where he could never go as a player, as he led the Mustangs to a state title last season, his first as a head coach. “It is addictive. It’s very addictive,” Hardaway told The Vertical about coaching. “But there is more to it, because we’re invested into the kids. I have a lot of guys depending on me to teach. Once I started it, I said I’m going to go ahead and finish it.”

Though all of his players were born after he made the last of four All-Star appearances, Hardaway doesn’t spend much time talking to them about what he’s done because most have already seen videos on YouTube. Besides, how many high school coaches wear their signature Air Foamposite sneakers on the sideline while barking out instructions? “They’re very well aware of what’s going on and how I played,” Hardaway told The Vertical with a grin as he waited for his players to arrive at the gym. “I think they did the homework.”

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