Magic's Magic : Orlando's Hardaway Worthy of Being 'the Next Johnson'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Wassup, baby?

"Gimme some love, Penny! I want you to know that not only are you starting for the East Coast, but you got much flavor down there in Orlando! What do you 'spect to do in the All-Star Game, baby?"

It was MTV's Bill Bellamy, leaning through the crowd around Anfernee Hardaway for a chat that went out live between music videos.

For those who aren't up on the slang, Bellamy asked Hardaway what's up, told him it's good to see him and how much he admires Hardaway's play with the Orlando Magic. Additionally, he wondered how Hardaway was approaching his first All-Star appearance.

"Well, just do a lot of Showtime," Hardaway said, falling into the routine.

"Throw a lot of alley-oops, get a lot of dunks for myself, three-pointers . . . and point at you while I'm doing it!"

"You gonna point to me?" Bellamy squealed in delight.

"Point at you while I'm doing it!" Hardaway assured him.

"That's what I'm taking about, baby!" Bellamy said. "I will point to you and this is Notorious B.I.G.!"

Hardaway, 23, has seen a lot of things, but something new and weird seems to pop up every day. TV stars he watches all the time know his name.

Magic Johnson never got this. When he played, in the Pleistocene Age or the '80s or whenever, MTV didn't cover the NBA. Now Bellamy works one side of the room at the All-Star interview session and Downtown Julie Brown the other in a little white shift, prompting Charles Barkley to bellow: "Julie! Where's the rest of your dress?"

Barkley inquired about the rest of her outfit with a curiosity so frank, even the brassy Brown was embarrassed.

"Charles!" she said. "Quit!"

Yes, it's a new world for your modern NBA superstar.

"It's kind of amazing," Hardaway said, "where something you play all your life, free, like in the playgrounds, in high school, college, you get paid a lot of money for and then get all this notoriety. Everybody knows you. It's kinda crazy."

It's his world now, and the craziness is just beginning.

*

"His name rarely is mentioned without the name of Magic Johnson. As in: court personality not unlike a young Magic Johnson, more advanced at this stage than Johnson, plays with Magic style, is the next Magic Johnson."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 7, 1989

Anfernee Hardaway had just begun his senior year in high school when that appeared.

Magic, Magic, Magic. He started hearing it when he was a sophomore, and, after that, he heard it so often, Magic was like a member of his family.

There have been a bunch of "next Magics"--basically every prep over 6 feet 6 who could dribble a basketball. None has come close.

Hardaway was the first for whom the comparison wasn't ridiculous, the first to hear it from Johnson, himself.

"He makes it worse," Hardaway says, laughing. "I tell him to stop saying that, but he always says, 'When I look at Anfernee, it seems like I'm looking at myself in the mirror.' It's good for him to say that, but it just puts more pressure on me."

There was always an excitement about Hardaway that made his elders blow their cool. He had the Magic size, the court sense, the unselfishness, the flair. He had athleticism Johnson never dreamed of.

But he wasn't Magic.

Magic was more than a flashy game and a big smile. When he turned pro at 20 with an NCAA title under his belt, he was already a grownup, with a personality as brash as his game.

When Hardaway turned pro at 21, he was a soft-spoken young man who had been sheltered in basketball, if not life.

Hardaway was from a broken home in the violence-riddled Binghampton section of Memphis. His father skipped out immediately. His mother left the baby with his grandmother and traveled the country, singing in night clubs.

He was raised by his grandmother, Louise Hardaway. She nicknamed him Penny--his version of "Pretty," her pet name for him--and he was devoted to her.

Memphis is a hotbed that dotes on its high school stars, such as Todd Day, Larry Finch, William Bedford, Elliot Perry and Vincent Askew, but Penny was king. With Arkansas' Nolan Richardson breathing down his neck, he chose hometown Memphis State to stay near his grandmother. The city fell at his feet.

The hard part was survival. In Hardaway's neighborhood, children grew up to the sound of gunfire. The young Penny counted the days until he could go to college, 15 minutes away but in a safer area.

One day in his junior year in college, a robber put a gun to his head in Binghampton. Hardaway and a friend were told to lie down. As the robbers drove off, they opened fire. Hardaway was hit in the right foot by a ricochet and suffered three broken bones.

"All I thought," Hardaway said, "was that I just kept hoping they wouldn't shoot. . . . If I survive Memphis, there isn't anything in the world I can't survive."

Ineligible as a Prop. 48 freshman at Memphis State, he became a dean's list student. He could have been a No. 1 NBA draft pick after his sophomore season. By the time his junior year was over, there was no doubt he was ready.

He entered the 1993 draft with two prize underclassmen, Chris Webber and Jamal Mashburn. Orlando had gotten the No. 1 pick through the lottery for the second year in a row, and its pick would get to play with Shaquille O'Neal.

Webber was the consensus.

A Webber-Shaq front line could be the most powerful ever put together. O'Neal wanted Webber. Hardaway's first tryout for Magic officials was so-so.

Orlando personnel director John Gabriel, however, was intrigued by Hardaway. Penny had gone on to Los Angeles to do a movie called "Blue Chips" with O'Neal. They started playing pickup ball, and, the next thing you know, Shaq was wild for Hardaway.

Penny was invited back to Orlando for another workout, and, this time, he left Magic officials' jaws hanging. On draft day, the Magic made a deal with the Warriors and wound up with Hardaway plus three No. 1 picks.

Magic fans, ready for the more famous Webber, booed.

When Hardaway was chosen as substitute of the game in one of his first exhibitions, they booed that. Penny, the soft-spoken civic idol who had never heard an unkind word in Memphis, turned taciturn. The young man who had had a pistol against his head still calls the draft "the worst night of my life."

He says it took a month or two to get comfortable in Orlando, but by mid-season he had moved point guard Scott Skiles, voted the most popular Magic player in O'Neal's rookie season, to the bench. At season's end, Hardaway was voted the fans' new most popular player. When he held out last fall--the Magic had made him a restricted free agent in return for accepting $1.75 million as a rookie--the rumbles started anew and Hardaway was stung by it all over.

"Sometimes the fans here make me feel wanted," he said, "and sometimes they don't."

He started slowly again, then made a quantum leap toward superstardom, Magic Johnson in popular lore to O'Neal's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

They trail the Laker legends by five titles and haven't won their first playoff game, so imagine all that is to come--the impossible expectations, the inevitable disappointments, the adjustment to fame. Think of all Johnson went through.

"I think I like the role I'm in right now," says Hardaway, "where I can go out and get bothered a little bit, not a lot. Go shopping. Go to the movies and just have fun. Once you get to that stage where Shaquille is right now, you have to take security everywhere with you. I think it stops being fun.

"Last year, it was kind of easy. I was a rookie. Nobody knew who I was. I could go a lot of places. This year, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, being on ESPN, CNN all the time, it's got a lot worse 'cause people see my face a lot."

Magic ate this stuff up. It's harder for Hardaway, buffeted by mood swings.

Hardaway has everything else--the dedication, the work ethic. Dismayed when Orlando was swept in the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers, he worked all summer and came back a 51% shooter. On three-point shots, he's up from last season's 27% to 36%.

"I want to be the best guard, to put me in the category, after I retire, of Magic, Michael (Jordan), Larry (Bird), all those guys," he says. "And have people say, 'Anfernee Hardaway was truly a guy who played this game well and worked hard at it when he was doing it.' "

So he'll be the first Penny, not the next Magic. That will do.

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