Depending on how you look at it, Friday night’s Heat/Grizzlies game was either sweetly nostalgic or bitterly depressing for NBA fans like myself who fell in love with the game in the 1990s.
On the court, Jerry Stackhouse was starting at two-guard for the Heat … but in 19 minutes he finished with 2 points and 2 fouls and had a couple ugly misses. Whichever young whippersnapper he was guarding — be it Rudy Gay or Xavier Henry — was in immediate “I got this” mode whenever they got the ball with Stack in front of them.
In the crowd, Penny Hardaway was sitting courtside in street clothes. But he looked closer to a retired “Didn’t you used to be?” guy than the All-NBA performance who was once viewed as the next Magic Johnson. Penny, however, sees it another way. He doesn’t see himself as a retiree yet.
Ever since the Heat put together its Big Expensive Three this summer and went looking for affordable vets to fill the rest of their roster, Penny’s name has surfaced as an option. As a 6-7 swingman he’d offer experience, ball-handling and court vision. And according to Grizzlies announcer Brevin Knight, who entered the League as a rookie just when Penny’s notorious injury problems began, Penny is in good shape and looks like he’s close to his playing weight.
And Penny, 39 years old, still wants to play in the NBA. Can he?
From Boston Globe writer Gary Washburn:
After a short stint with the Heat in 2006, Hardaway has waited for a call from an NBA team. He is relegated to sitting courtside at Grizzlies games, longing for an opportunity to be an old man on a championship-caliber roster, but knowing it’s highly unlikely.
“I still love the game and I feel like I deserve that chance, but at 39, everybody’s looking at the age,” he said. “They’re not looking at it as if I can still play.
“I don’t have a lot of miles on my body because my knee was hurt for so long. But I feel like I can play a minimal role on anybody’s team and help out. Role players now are playing 10-12 minutes a night. That’s simple, man.
“My knowledge, my playmaking ability, I can still knock down an open shot. I watch the game and still see things out there I can do to help teams, but who knows if that will ever happen? I doubt it, but I’ll be ready if the situation did occur.”
It’s not all about age. As Penny points out, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Shaq are still starters on playoff-contending teams. And a number of older guys are coming off the bench for solid teams in key roles.
“Small minutes, you can do it on a nightly basis easily,” he said in the Globe article. “It has to be a veteran team, a team that understands basketball for me to play. It can’t just be a young team that’s just trying to play.”
What really stands in Penny’s way is the history of injuries (six knee surgeries) and the simple reality that once you’re out of the NBA, it’s a hell of a lot harder to get back in. That’s why there are 100 players floating around the Euroleague who are better than Brian Cook or more durable than Bobby Simmons, but can’t get a spot in the League because those aforementioned two keep getting work. Penny may have just been gone too long.