This post is not related to any current sporting event, but sometimes it’s nice to celebrate the past.
“One is Fredo, who was never ready for me to hand it over to him. One is Sonny, who will do whatever it takes to be the man. And one is Michael, who, if you watch the trilogy, the Godfather hands it over to Michael. So I have no problem handing it over to Dwyane.”
Back in 2005, in one of the most compelling quotes in the history of the NBA, Shaquille O ‘Neal wrote the final stanza in the tragic arc of Anfernee Hardaway’s career. At one point the most popular player in the NBA, bestowed with a grace hard to fathom, now relegated to the role of bumbling and incompetant brother. Shot in a boat, forgotten. Shaq’s analogy works for Kobe’s furious quest for power and Wade’s cool-headed efficiency, but was Anfernee really not ready to claim the glory that his talents so desperatly warrented?
If you grew up watching basketball in the mid nineties, you were into Penny. Gilbert Arenas certainly was, as he points out in the foreward to the remarkable Free Darko Almanac. As was Lebron. As was I. And, if i recall correctly, as were Oprah’s studio audience, where he visited at the height of his popularity to the delight of the hysterical hoardes. Penny was Obama in basketball form- smooth, thoughtful and willing to share the rock. I mean, even Li’l Penny was writing biographies:
But what really united future superstars, myself and Oprah followers in there admiration for Penny?
Firstly, he was dead calm. If you want to look like you know what your doing, sometimes it’s best to do nothing. For a half Penny would sit back and throw passes to Shaq, as though his mere presence on the court was enough to grant victory. There was no rush to impact the game, because there was an implicit understanding that the game would be delivered to him. It’s rare to see a player so confident in their own ability that they exhibit no insecurity about letting it go quiet for a while (Scottie Pippen is one example). Before you know it, Penny’s got 27 points, 11 assists (including an impossible mid-air-behind-the-back pass) and 4 steals. And he’s not even sweating yet! I don’t know Penny’s personality traits (he did instigate a coup d’état at one point) but perhaps what really bothered Shaq was his insulting effortlessness.
Secondly, for a 6’7″ freak, he played with a gracefulness rarely displayed even in the NBA. It’s a popular experiment, but try this: Go to the YMCA. Find the next guy over 6’5″ shooting hoops. Looks ridiculous doesn’t he? Like he can’t control his limbs? Now look at Penny:
Penny could pass, defend, rebound, shoot and dribble – version 2.0 of Magic Johnson – add some strength and you get version 3.0 – Lebron James. But unlike James, who operates on a whole other level of brute power and subtle speed, Penny’s game was linked to an innate agility – he wasn’t strong, but he knew how to move, damn it.
So when Penny succumbed to injury and gradually faded into the warm pinewood of a twelve man roster, as we saw less of his quick first step, saw less of li’l Penny , as we heard Shaq ‘s comical evaluation, as he suited up for the Suns and then Knicks – a symbol of mere adequacy, fighting Stephon Marbury(!) for ownership of the ball- and finally got dropped by the Heat – it was hard to watch. Perhaps that’s why most of us turned away. I didn’t hear much about Penny after his injury, and it’s only after Gilbert and Lebron’s reminiscing does it feel safe to look again.
Our first Dead Ball Icon illustrated the glory of an athlete starting from the most humble positions only to receive redemption through unexpected brilliance. Our second, Penny, illustrates the tragedy of infinite potential unrealised, cut down by nothing more than the fraility of knees and the passing of time.
For those of my generation who remember, there was never a more beautiful player to watch. Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway, Deadball salutes you.