Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Thoughts on Coach Hardaway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 19, 2018 at 8:34 AM

With the imminent hiring of Penny Hardaway as the 19th basketball coach in Memphis Tiger history, I've had a few thoughts delivering no-look passes in my head.

Rare is the star player who becomes a star coach, and this seems especially the case in basketball. The gold standard, of course, is Bill Russell. The Celtics legend won a pair of NBA titles as Boston's coach, but he had the luxury of an all-time great at center: himself. Larry Bird took Indiana to the 2000 NBA Finals (where the Pacers lost to the Lakers), but he hasn't coached a game since. Clyde Drexler coached for two forgettable years at his alma mater, the University of Houston, and Kevin McHale had some success with the Houston Rockets (he was fired early in his fifth season on the bench). Patrick Ewing just went 15-15 in his first season as coach at Georgetown. Since Hardaway's playing days, the only first-team All-NBA player to take a coach's seat has been Jason Kidd, and he was recently fired by the Milwaukee Bucks. There's a reason we don't recall Coach Chamberlain, Coach Robertson, or Coach Jordan.
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To begin with, men with extraordinary talents can find it challenging to teach younger men with more ordinary skills. Larry Bird the player had no trouble draining a three-pointer from the corner with two men guarding him in a game's final minute. Why can't his players?!? Kidd saw angles and openings on the hardwood that few other players even knew were there. Why can't his players?!?

Another component to this dichotomy is something we'll call "mountaintop syndrome." Star players tend to win championships and accolades, making them somewhat less motivated — less hungry — for glory in a suit and tie. And this is where I find Hardaway's situation so intriguing. Penny was a glorious player, but never quite reached the mountaintop. He didn't win a state title at Treadwell. As a sophomore at Memphis State, his Tigers fell a game short of the Final Four. (They lost in the opening round in 1993, his final season in blue and gray.) He helped the Orlando Magic reach the 1995 NBA Finals, but they were swept by the Rockets. Hardaway's a compelling case for the Hall of Fame, but not yet an inductee. (If Jamaal Wilkes is a Hall of Famer, so is Penny, however abbreviated his career may have been.)

I'm guessing there's still a fire in Hardaway's belly for the kind of championship hardware that truly makes for basketball immortality. It may be the factor that separates him from other superstars unable to thrive in a coach's office.

Hardaway is a young coach only relative to his 66-year-old predecessor. Hardaway turns 47 in July, making him older when he coaches his first Tiger game than Larry Finch was when he coached his last. (Finch was merely 35 when he replaced Dana Kirk as Tiger coach in 1986.) Gene Bartow was 40 when he was named Tiger coach in 1970, Kirk 44 (in 1979), and John Calipari 41 (in 2000). In part because of his nickname, Hardaway will always be somewhat of a kid in these parts. His playing style was as electrifying — as young — as any we remember. But Hardaway's at a life stage where a major college coaching job fits him. His players and staff will know who occupies the boss's office.

• Hardaway changes his phone number. A lot. He's nowhere near the recluse fellow Tiger great Keith Lee has become. Hardaway is actually the rare Tiger fan who's been a regular at FedExForum the last few years, in a courtside seat, no less. And he's delightful when approached, as all grown men called "Penny" must be.

But you get the impression Hardaway doesn't necessarily love a camera and microphone. People much closer to the Tiger program than I am have had difficulty reaching him. Cameras and microphones are getting ready to be new appendages for this man. The media glare will only intensify when things go very well (or very poorly) with Tiger basketball, and particularly under Hardaway's watch. It will be interesting — maybe cringe-worthy in the first few months — to see how this hometown legend returns the community hug he's been offered. He's no longer just a Memphis Tiger legend, but the face and voice of the program. And that voice cannot go silent. Should Hardaway wonder about that, he can ask his old pal Larry Porter how it worked out for him.

ESPN's Jeff Goodman is reporting Hardaway has agreed to take the Memphis job. The official press conference announcing the move is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center.

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