If you’re a fan of Penny Hardaway, it’s impossible not to consider what could have been. Penny was All-NBA First Team twice by the time he was 25. Who knows what heights he could have reached if only his body had held up?
That said, there’s no point to focusing on what didn’t happen at the expense of celebrating what actually did. Penny’s all too brief period atop the basketball world brought him a well-deserved enduring legacy, and his eternally cool Nike signature line and 1 Cent logo continues to resonate with sneakerheads of all ages.
Look no further for evidence than the jam-packed Nike x Sole Collector event in Las Vegas on Halloween weekend to premiere the Nike Zoom Rookie LWP, which also commemorated the many high points of Penny’s career. We caught up with Penny to discuss his thriving partnership with Nike, a few memories from his playing career, and how he continues to explore new ways to build his brand.
*** *** ***
Dime: I’m a fan of the Zoom Rookie, I’m hoping to get a pair. What do you think of them?
Penny Hardaway: I like the shoes. I’ve worn them for a while now, and it’s a really good shoe, man. It looks really good, and it wears really well. I’m definitely proud of it.
Dime: How much do you keep in touch with Nike regarding your brand?
PH: I keep in touch with them on a weekly basis about all the shoes that are coming out right now and when things drop, and I meet with them about the shoes before they’re released. I’m really involved with them now.
They’re going to put maybe four shoes out a year, maybe a t-shirt or two here and there, a hoodie. They don’t want to wear the brand out â€“ to have people tired of seeing the 1 Cent sign.
Dime: A lot of people say you have the best signature line outside of Michael Jordan. What has it meant to you to have the best sneakers on and off the court?
PH: It means a lot! You know, I’ve wanted to take it larger. Like MJ chose Chris Paul and Carmelo and Ray Allen and those guys, I would have loved to get a group of guys together to wear my shoe. That’s a dream. To be able to pick five, six guys to be able to wear my shoe, that’d be great.
Dime: Off the top of your head, whom would you pick?
PH: You know, that’s a hard question. I’ve had guys ask me before, like my homeboy Thaddeus Young that plays in Philly, he wanted to wear it. Gilbert Arenas, O.J. Mayo, they’ve wanted to wear it … I think even Zach Randolph wanted to wear it. I mean, these are just good friends who’ve been interested, but I don’t know, I’d really have to sit down and think about that.
Dime: Tyreke Evans is a Memphis guy, signed to Nike, He’d be a natural, right?
PH: He could definitely wear it if he wants to. All my Memphis guys who are Nike guys, I’d love for them to wear it, for sure.
Dime: We talked about Jordan – one of the coolest moments to me was when you and MJ wore each other’s sneakers in a playoff game in 1995. What did seeing Jordan in the Flight One mean to you?
PH: It meant a lot because it shocked me. I looked down at his feet, because that’s what you do when you’re looking at M, you’re like, “Man, what is he wearing tonight?” And when I saw him in my shoes, I was like, wow. That was a huge compliment.
M and I play golf a lot in Miami, and he’s an unbelievable role model. If I’m going to emulate anybody in the basketball and sneaker world, it’d definitely be him, so I definitely appreciate the relationship we have.
Dime: What would you say is your favorite sneaker in the Penny line? For the record, mine is definitely the Penny II.
PH: The Penny II is a really good-looking shoe. Me, I’m a big Foamposite guy, but if I had to pick one of the other shoes, it’d be the Penny I. It just hit so big when it first came out, it looked like it had the wing on the side and all that, so I’d say in terms of looks? The Penny I. But the Penny II has definitely played better for me on the court.
Dime: The Li’l Penny ads were so instrumental. Did you know they’d be as huge as they were?
PH: I didn’t know until we probably got about four commercials in, and everywhere I went, everyone was talking like Chris Rock. (laughs) I was like, “Wow, this thing has really gone to the next level.” I thought it was funny, but I didn’t think it would hit like this. I really enjoyed doing those commercials.
Dime: Switching gears to your playing career. Your workout with the Magic, where you convinced them to do that Draft-Day trade that sent Chris Webber to the Warriors, what do you remember that you did that impressed Orlando that much?
PH: The first time I went to work out for them, nobody was even at the airport to pick me up. Stuart Scott was an anchorman for one of the news stations down there; he came to pick me up and took me to the hotel. Orlando just measured my vertical leap, I put up some jump shots, stuff like that.
I then left college and started filming the movie Blue Chips. And Shaq and I had hit it off so well, the chemistry was so great, that big man coach Pete Newell â€“ God rest his soul â€“ he was telling Shaq, “You need this guy in Orlando with you.”
Shaq called down there and told them to bring me back, and this time, they had a lot of Magic players there to play against me. One of the players was Anthony Bowie, their best defender â€“ the guy they’d put on Michael Jordan, Mitch Richmond, all the top stars. I just dominated him. I knew that was my audition, and I had to really just make him look bad, and impress them, and I did.
Dime: I’m sure you do, but do you ever think about what could have been had Shaq not left for L.A.? I’m a Knicks fan, but I was still crushed when he left Orlando and broke up that team.
PH: You were crushed? I was crushed! I thought that we would at least have one championship, I thought multiple … things would have definitely gone different with Shaq staying around and not leaving.
Dime: When you averaged 31 points against the Heat in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, to me that showed what you were truly capable of. Would you say that represents the best of what you were on the court?
PH: Absolutely, because that was me at my best in every area. Like, from shooting, to the post, to one-on-one moves, it all came out in that series. That was definitely the height of my game at that point.
Dime: I know you still play a ball a lot, and you tossed around the idea of playing for the Heat last year. Is that still something you’d consider if the right situation came along?
PH: No, I’m not really considering anything like that. I mean, it’d have to be something that falls right into my lap, where somebody saw me playing and said, “Hey, we need you.” It’d have to be like when P.J. Brown came back to the Celtics â€“ he didn’t play many minutes, and then when the playoffs started, he was ready. But it’d have to be something perfect, where a team has seen me play and they know I can really help them.
Dime: What do you feel you would have offered the Heat if that had come together?
PH: I would have offered the Heat leadership, and my playmaking ability would have definitely helped LeBron and D-Wade out. And then I’m able to knock down shots, and I think I would have brought all that to the table.
Dime: If anything, do you think there’s anything LeBron needs to improve at to get to the next level?
PH: I think his jump shot is really the main thing, the mid-range jump shot, and he really does need to work on posting up. He’s so big and so athletic, if he ever got a post game â€“ consistently â€“ he’d be so dominant. He takes a lot of acrobatic shots; it’d be less tough for him to score easily down in the post if he could just get that going, while continuing to work on that jump shot.
Dime: The backlash against LeBron for The Decision, do you think that was warranted?
PH: Well, I think the way he did it, he even regretted it. He had a right to leave and to do it the way he wanted, but the whole entire state of Ohio, definitely the city of Cleveland … they cherished LeBron. And I think they deserved a better understanding of what was going on before he went on national TV.
I knew he was excited, that it was like a dream come true for him to go to Miami and play with D-Wade and Chris Bosh, and he kind of lost it a little bit â€“ and then got things in perspective. But because Ohio had been so grateful for him and had supported him, I thought he should not have done it that way.
Dime: Can you compare this year’s lockout to the one you went through as a player in 1998?
PH: There are a lot of similarities. This last year was the best year the NBA has had recently, and back in ’98 we were coming off the Jordan era. There were a lot of young players that stepped up this year that got the fans excited, and this lockout was definitely damaging the same way ours was. It’s hard for fans to understand when owners say they’re not making any money.
Dime: You just had a new high school tournament, the Penny Hardaway Hoopfest. What does it mean to you to get involved with high school hoops?
PH: It means a lot. I had a tournament about three years ago, trying to help a friend raise money for multiple sclerosis. We had the local teams, and a couple of small teams from out of town. I really enjoy being around the high school kids, and this gives our Memphis kids the opportunity to play against the best from around the nation. Best of all, the proceeds are going to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Dime: We talked about the leadership you would have brought to the Heat. In a similar vein, can you see yourself coaching at some point?
PH: I love coaching, but at this point, I prefer teaching kids how to play the game the right way â€“ when to pass the ball, being a great teammate, how it’s not just about yourself. So for now, I do love teaching kids, but I might try coaching in the future.
Dime: You also do the Bottom Line Radio Show on the Internet. Can you see yourself as a commentator at some point, maybe for a studio show?
PH: I’ve done a little with NBA TV, and I would love to do TNT with Charles, Kenny and Shaq. I don’t know how possible that would be in the near future, but I would love that. I’ve also talked to Greg Anthony and Jamal Mashburn about commentating college basketball â€“ I might try it a couple times to see how it goes. If I like it, I might stick with it.
Dime: I see kids of all ages wearing Pennys and royal blue Foams. How do you feel about the continuation of the line helping to spread the legacy of Penny Hardaway?
PH: I think it’s incredible, I really do. I never imagined this back when I was playing in the NBA, that my shoe would be going on this long. I did picture myself having a line of about 15 different pairs of Pennys, because I thought my career would go on that long and it’d be a different shoe every year.
But still, to have the line still going on, it’s a great feeling.
Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.