Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Penny Hardaway was, in many ways, the quintessential Orlando Magic superstar. Since the franchise’s inception in 1989, a handful of the most exciting players of the past 23 years have donned the pinstripes and none have truly reached the limits of their physical gifts in a Magic uniform.
Shaq bolted for L.A. after four seasons. Tracy McGrady’s career with the Magic was derailed by injuries and then resurrected once he was traded to Houston. Dwight Howard bullied his way to the Lakers this past summer. Penny’s left knee betrayed his body before being traded to Phoenix.
The Magic have a tendency to feature superstars with outsized personalities and even more stratospheric on-court abilities, and these stars have an unfortunate propensity for having their time in Orlando end in disappointment. The unsung hero of this group is Hardaway, whose prime, like T-Mac’s, was cut short by some bad injury luck just as he seemed to be building a dynasty in Orlando.
Penny’s career is largely an afterthought in the greater public view, despite being one of the most iconic players and cult figures of the mid-to-late-’90s NBA. Part of that may simply be how far removed he is from having played in an NBA game and how irrelevant he was, for the most part, following the Magic portion of his career. None of this is fair to him and he deserves every bit of recognition he gets as not only an integral player in the Magic’s history, but also in the overall fabric of the game.
One viewing of this highlights mix is all it takes to remind you how unstoppable Penny was in his prime. Not for nothing did LeBron James grow up idolizing him. Penny was a do-it-all scoring threat in the same mold as Magic Johnson. His explosiveness and creativity made him nearly impossible for opponents to guard, especially attacking the basket. Everything he did looked effortless.
In the three seasons Penny shared control of the Magic offense with Shaquille O’Neal, the pair formed a lethal inside-outside tandem. The Shaq-Penny duo peaked in 1995, as they led the Magic to their first Finals appearance in franchise history (they were swept by the Rockets).
Penny had showed plenty of promise in his rookie season. But his sophomore campaign was his breakout year, the first of three seasons that would constitute his apex as a player.
The beginning of Penny’s prime coincided with Michael Jordan’s first retirement and the beginning of his comeback. Penny was the first in a wave of players anointed the “next MJ” — a group that would later include the likes of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Vince Carter. Penny wasn’t the defender or psychotic competitor Jordan was, but it’s impossible to watch footage of his first four seasons with the Magic and not see some Jordanesque moves as a scorer (to say nothing of the ubiquity of his “Lil’ Penny” Nike commercials, which helped to make him one of the most popular players of his time).
Shaq left Orlando for the Lakers in 1996, following Penny’s finest season in a Magic uniform. It put an end to the duo with a legitimate shot at challenging the newly-reconstructed Jordan-Pippen Bulls for Eastern Conference supremacy, but gave Penny the opportunity to take center stage as the unquestioned leader of the team.
Unfortunately, we never got a real chance to see how that played out. Injuries to his left knee began eating away at Penny’s athleticism and he never truly regained the peak form of his first four seasons. Looking back in retrospect, his legendary performance in the Magic’s first round series against the Miami Heat in the 1997 NBA playoffs, where he had back-to-back 40-point performances in Games 3 and 4, was the last we saw of prime Penny.
Penny played in just 19 games in the 1997-1998 season. He was voted a starter on the Eastern Conference All-Star team that year and his incredibly ill-advised decision to play in that game, despite rehabbing from one of his six left knee surgeries in his career, may have further jeopardized his chances at returning to the height of his powers.
He played all 50 games in the lockout-shortened season of 1999, but the wear-and-tear on his left knee by that point, combined with the compressed schedule, resulted in a further diminished season. That offseason, he was traded to the Suns in a much-hyped attempt to partner with Jason Kidd, but his health prevented that deadly-on-paper backcourt duo (nicknamed “Backcourt 2000″) from fulfilling its promise as well.
Despite his own career flaming out long before its time, Penny’s influence is still felt in the NBA today. His combination of elite scoring ability and Magic-like passing genius have served as something of a blueprint for the score-first point guards that dominate the league in the 2010s, such as Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving.
We can only hope that another one of those players, Derrick Rose, does not meet the same fate Penny did. Rose is currently recovering from a torn ACL, which threatens to jeopardize the career of a player even more explosive than Penny was in his prime. It would be a shame if another player with Hall of Fame potential became linked to Hardaway in that way.
Penny should have been the one passing the torch to the new crop of star point guards after a long, productive career. But the importance of his prime years with the Magic cannot be overstated and should not go unrecognized.
Voter breakdown for Penny Hardaway
What is #ORLrank?
Magic Basketball ranks the top 10 players in Magic franchise history. #ORLrank is the Twitter hashtag to use if you want to get involved in the discussion or just follow along.
You can also follow along here: @erivera7
How did we rank the players?
Five MBN writers ranked each player 1-to-10, in terms of the quality of each player.
Thanks to Daniel Myers, Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference, and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus for contributing to the project.