When LeBron James recently said he envisioned himself being the next Penny Hardaway, he made an important distinction -- the "early" Penny, he said.
Distinction II: Late Penny isn't looking too bad, either. Credit rookie Amare Stoudemire as the reason the Suns are a playoff team again if you like, but the fact is Phoenix had a losing record with Amare and without Hardaway. Other than wins and losses it's hard to define what Hardaway means to the Suns with numbers. But if you understand the rhythms of basketball and you've seen Phoenix with and without him, you know how much easier he makes the game simple by knowing how to space the floor, spot up, shoot on the catch or attack the rim, get up on an opponent or play the passing lanes -- and doing it all with a limited number of touches and noticeably reduced athleticism.
"Some guys just have a court presence and that's Penny," forward Jake Voskuhl said. "He's one of the smartest players I've ever known."
I know, I know, it's practically a hoops faux pas to give Penny props at this stage of his career. Reminding everyone who Penny once was feels on par with exhuming bones from a grave and putting them on display in the town square. Long forgotten is the All-NBA first-teamer considered a lock-solid franchise cornerstone as a 6-foot-7 point guard with a tight handle, extraordinary court vision and a high basketball IQ who's fearless about taking the big shot but not hesitant to find an open teammate. His more memorable legacy among some hoop-a-holics is that he helped push Shaquille O'Neal out of Orlando, then wore out his own welcome with a series of suspicious knee injuries, signed a massive $86 million sign-and-trade contract and then never lived up to it and blew a chance to resurrect himself in Phoenix. Synopsis: Too expensive, too soft and too sensitive. In all, too much.
At least credit Hardaway for knowing his rap and putting aside the desire to prove it wrong at the Suns' expense. He admittedly butted heads with Stephon Marbury last season over floor leadership and felt humiliated when coach Frank Johnson told him last summer that he'd have to compete for a starting job with Joe Johnson and Casey Jacobsen. He put all that aside, though, and, despite a midseason thumb injury that sidelined him for several weeks, he has found a way to provide a calming influence, smart decisions and key baskets even with Marbury directing the offense. Ask the Suns and they'll tell you Penny is still sensitive, but he shot a career high from 3-point range (35.6 percent) despite wearing a brace on that troublesome thumb since early March.
"Injuries made people lose confidence in me," Hardaway says, "but I never lost confidence in myself. I can scream and yell that I can still play but unless I prove it, people will say, 'Yeah, Penny, whatever.' If I've learned anything, it's that you can't take anything for granted."
The Suns can lop off the last two years of Hardaway's existing contract after next season. He'll be 33 by then and not likely to be worth the $14.625 million and $15.75 million he's scheduled to make. But don't be surprised, should he stay healthy, if he's a reasonably hot property on the free-agent market. His steady jump shot and court awareness are assets that will only sweeten with age.
"He knows how to play," Shawn Marion said. "He knows the game. And he's been places."
Not all places that he would care to visit again. But for all the questions about his commitment or desire, he's made it back to the floor and back to the playoffs. That's more than can be said for Grant Hill, Matt Geiger, Vince Carter, Terrell Brandon or Big Country Reeves. Some took the money and ran. Some haven't, or couldn't, overcome their injuries. I'm not knocking them, but would you have expected Penny to be the exception?
"I've put my ego aside," Hardaway says. "I think I can still be a 25-point scorer. But it's not my team anymore and my goal is to win a championship. I can pass on a lot of information. I'm just never going to be the 21-year-old Penny Hardaway again."
Sounds as if he doesn't have to be. LeBron is ready and willing.