Penny Hardaway and Nick Van Exel, Pt. I

Anfernee Hardaway is Memphis’ new head basketball coach, and he’d better hope Nick Van Exel doesn’t have any eligibility left. This is Great Midwest Conference paperwork we’re dealing with, there’s no way of knowing.

Hardaway’s Tigers had no fun against Van Exel’s Cincinnati Bearcats in college. In a symptom of the age, Penny’s Memphis State club found it impossible dribbling around coach Bob Huggins’ defense despite repeated attempts in 1992 and 1993. Until now it could be argued that Penny’s career highlight with his program came in 2003, when Hardaway quietly earned his degree from the school.

Penny lost six out of seven games to Van Exel’s Bearcats in 14 months, most crucially in 1992’s Elite Eight. Memphis’ lone win over UC came in a regular season contest where Hardaway, plagued by the flu, nearly blew the game at the free throw line. When Cincinnati returned to the same Elite stage in 1993, taking eventual champion North Carolina to overtime before falling, Hardaway’s Tigers had already dropped in the NCAA tournament’s opening round. 

Anfernee just tolerated the torment before declaring pro. He’d already licked real wounds. Nick Van Exel’s first game as a college starter came against Penny, which is something. NVE was a JUCO transfer on nobody’s radar but his and Huggins’ own when the coach shifted Nick away from a supersub role and into the Bearcat lineup following a disappointing midseason defeat to DePaul during 1992’s first month.

The timing was lovely for Hardaway, just a dozen games into his college career, Cincy’s 75-66 victory over its conference rivals from Memphis would spark an eight-game winning streak for the Bearcats.

Recognizing the thrash that marked Van Exel’s two seasons with Trinity Valley JC (where he’d pocketed around 19 points per game with six assists and four rebounds), Huggins conceded possessions to his hybrid scorer in exchange for the sort of gusto that creates conflict.

In full view, Van Exel was allowed to act himself. To mix three-pointers and loping drives, to dig in as if Damon Bailey was already booked, to lend spirit to a Bearcat team that had next-to-no association with the city it played in: Huggins came from further south, Nick from Wisconsin, most of the rest of the club’s workers were drawn from California.

Memphis was different. Penny was an hero in that town before basketball even knew what to do with him.

Sidelined by insufficient academic marks during what should have been his freshman basketball season in 1990-91, a Prop 48 kid, Penny responded by making that year’s Dean’s List at Memphis with a 3.4 GPA, targeting a degree in education with a minor in business.

In 1996 and at the peak of Penny’s pro career, VIBE’s Kevin Powell gave the 24-year old the chance to discuss the developing plan:

“I saw kids all through college; I went to area elementary schools and taught business courses, and it was fun to me. A lot of kids would idolize me before they would idolize their teacher or their parents. So I think that you’re helping another generation out if you help kids.”

He pauses and sighs deeply before adding, “Don’t idolize someone you don’t know; idolize someone you know.”

Hardaway’s father was from Chicago and not around, mother Fae spent the better part of his childhood chasing consistent work as a professional singer, pursuits that kept her in the Pacific zone and Penny in the care of her mother, Louise.

Fae Patterson’s own dream kept her away from Penny for over a decade, and both mother and son plowed through expected strain when she returned to Memphis to assume the role of Anfernee’s caretaker.

Penny’s grades dipped. “It was real hard when I moved back with my mom,” Hardaway told Powell in 1996, “we didn’t really get used to each other until, like, my senior year.”

By then Hardaway was a high school star in at Treadwell High School in Memphis, set to assume the same role at Memphis State once the NCAA recruiters left Tillman Cove.

Louise Patterson didn’t like to fly, so Parade Magazine’s 1990 Player of the Year stayed home.

Basketball like this just wasn’t in the NCAAs, back then, and the closest anyone could get to a name after watching Anfernee was “Magic,” which isn’t bad. It’s not altogether accurate, but the 1990s taught us that not a lot of things were.

Penny hadn’t even seen a high school basketball game before he played in his first, no adult bothered to take him after he’d spent most of his formative summer nights cracking cartilage after blacktop visits. According to Anfernee, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for venerating outsiders when “the older guys” in Memphis were holding court.

You bring what you can, in that part of the country. Todd Day just recently burst out of the Tennessee asphalt with more scoring records to count, and Hardaway’s game also resembled that of Scottie Pippen’s, similarly cultivated in southern heat.

Magic Johnson came to Michigan State ready to sell the world a better Cadillac after watching the bullshit Earvin Sr. went through every day at General Motors. Anfernee Hardaway’s interests were more local, he’d only just begun to argue on Memphis’ behalf.

Trying to prove that his was a town worth staying in.

He’d have to wait out a Prop 48 season:

''I knew I could do the work,'' Hardaway said. ''I was just a lazy person. In elementary, I was a good student and when I got to junior high, I got to this stage where all I wanted to do was play basketball. I became a junior high basketball star and I never wanted to do the work anymore. It hurt me. But once I got back into college, I faced reality again.''

Nick Van Exel went 18-1 as a starter in 1991-92, beginning with that home game against Memphis State:

"If you play (Van Exel) for the jump shot, he goes around you, and if you lay off him, he shoots the jumper," said Memphis State guard Ernest Smith, who covered Van Exel.

Penny was real good in 1991-92, 17.4 points with seven boards and 5.5 assists, he even took 5.6 threes at a 36.3 percent clip.

Coach Larry Finch’s team mostly won, too, in the first Tigers season at The Pyramid. Smith capably shared a backcourt with Anfernee and thick forward David Vaughn was a double-double threat. A young Tim Duncan would play 15 games for the team, scoring 30 points in total for the 23-11 outfit.

Four of those losses came against Cincinnati. Prior to the tourney trip, Memphis fell again to Huggins’ Bearcats in Tennessee and later in Chicago Stadium during 1992’s Great Midwest Conference championship game.

The Cincinnati coach was always impressed:

Huggins sees Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway on a regular basis in the Great Midwest Conference, and Huggins matter-of-factly calls him "the best player in America.

"He can do more things better than anyone in the country -- he can score, rebound, pass, and he can really sit down and guard you."

The NCAA would set them, knowingly, in the same bracket.

Penny paced Memphis past Pepperdine in 1992’s first round, Hardaway managed 21 points on 15 shots with eight rebounds and seven assists, counterpart Doug Christie contributed 23 points in defeat. At the next turn, Vaughn’s 26 points pushed the Tigers past Arkansas and Penny’s five three-pointers countered a 29-point game from Jon Barry as Memphis squeaked past Georgia Tech in overtime in the Sweet Sixteen.

The Tigers were in the Elite Eight. For a few minutes, at least.

The Bearcats swamped Memphis in the Midwest Regional title game by 29 points, sweeping the season series behind Nick Van Exel’s 23 points. Hardaway sat most of the first half after picking up three fouls, he’d score a dozen points on 4-9 shooting in the loss to raise his personal field goal mark against UC to 35.4 percent on the season. Cincinnati pulled away for good with its trap with Penny sitting most of the first half in foul fear.

That UC made its first Final Four in 31 years at the expense of Memphis State seemed appropriate. By the time of the 88-57 drubbing, the Tigers were big fans:Hardaway led the Tigers to the Elite Eight, its first clean run through the NCAA tourney in decades, but Cincinnati was the burr that nobody could stop talking about.

Larry Finch wasn’t finished:

“I hope (Cincinnati) wins it all," Memphis State Coach Larry Finch said. "I think they're a good enough defensive team to do it. They're a hard-nosed group of young men and those are the type of teams that win championships.”


"We missed some easy shots," Hardaway said. "I just can't understand it. It happened every time we played them this year."

Hardaway lost to Van Exel and the Bearcats four times in nine weeks. “This year” wasn’t even all that long.

Still way better than last year.

Hardaway’s right foot caught a grazed bullet in April, 1991. A robbery victim, he and a friend emerged lucky with their lives.

From VIBE:

“I was living on the Northside and some guys from the Southside came over,” he says slowly, recalling the day he was shot. “Me and my friend were just sitting in a truck, and I saw them circle around us five or six times.

“I guess they thought we sold drugs because we were in a Cherokee with tinted windows. We were there because my cousin had left his wallet in the truck and we had to go give him his wallet back. And instead of one of us getting out and knocking on the door, we tried to call him on a cellular. But the phone was busy.”

Four guys jumped him and his buddy when they got out of the Jeep:

“They told us to get on the ground. They said, ‘Where’s the dope?’ and we was, like, ‘What dope?’ They tore up the truck, took money, shoes, jewelry.” Hardaway pauses at the recollection.

“After they had robbed us for everything, they drove off and went off about, I guess, 100 feet, and they started shooting back to where we were. A bullet bounced off the street and hit me dead in the foot.”

The giant cast he had to pull around didn’t seem to drag him nearly as much as his Prop 48 status.

“People,” Hardaway noted as his college playing career wrapped up, “thought I was flat out dumb.”

From Ralph Wiley’s Sports Illustrated feature on the Tiger:

“[LSU coach] Dale Brown coached me at the Olympic Festival. He said he thought I was wild, out of control. I guess that’s because I’m Prop 48. Later he told me he was wrong.

“’Coach [Mike Krzyzewski, 1990 U.S. National Team coach]’ didn’t even bother to speak to me.”

One of the perks of privilege is assumption.

On the flip of that, as Penny considered his professional prospects, was Larry Finch:

Finch talks about wanting to make sure Hardaway is mentally and physically strong enough to play in the NBA.

But Finch hastened to add that if it becomes apparent Hardaway will be the first or second player drafted this year, "I'll say, 'Bye. See ya later.' "

These were the idols around Penny. Silence and sniping ringing in equal volume while Hardaway was off talking to kids, listening to adults, and learning to walk straight again.