Nice article, though its nothing really new in it.
Penny Hardaway keeps the mental snapshots of his Orlando days locked in a closet.
There's the freeze-frame of him torching Michael Jordan for 36 points in 1995 in what he called his coming-of-age game.
There were two All-NBA first-team selections when Hardaway was considered one of the league's top five players.
There were four All-Star games, an Olympic gold medal in ’96 and an NBA Finals berth in ’95 after derailing Jordan's first comeback with the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The memories are cherished proof of how Hardaway fought his way from the depressed streets of Memphis, Tenn., to the top of the NBA heap — a reminder that he has accomplished more than any of the Suns' other current starters.
But the memories are no longer bargaining chips in an insatiable quest for
stardom. At age 31, Hardaway is finally at peace with his diminished role in a Suns lineup geared for the future.
"It's not about Penny any more and I've accepted that," said Hardaway, whose 10.6 points-per-game average this season was a career low aside from his injury-riddled 2000-01 campaign. "The system has changed. Everybody that I came here to play with, Jason Kidd, Cliff Robinson and those guys, they're all gone. When they traded for Steph (Marbury) I figured that was my clue that I wasn't going to be the guy."
Acceptance didn't come easily. Hardaway admits he struggled with the decision — one he calls his own — to take a back seat to Marbury, Shawn Marion and now Amare Stoudemire in the Suns’ offense, especially when Hardaway felt healthy for the first time since 1997, when his chronic knee problems began.
"When I came back from my knee surgeries last year I still felt like I could be the guy I was before the injuries," he said.
Upon returning to the lineup last season he and Marbury engaged in a heated argument that may have contributed to a fractured locker room and the Suns’ 36-46 season.
"Penny came back and wanted to prove something," Marbury said. "We bumped heads. It happens. We're just competitive." After sitting down with Hardaway and hashing out their differences, Marbury believes he understands how difficult it was for Hardaway to accept his new role.
"This guy was an All-NBA player," Marbury said. "When you've been at the top like he was there's a lot of pride that goes into it."
At the core of Hardaway's drive was a desire to prove his critics wrong — those who said he wouldn't play hurt and those who said he should retire or give back the balance of the $86 million contract he signed with Phoenix before the 1999-2000 season.
Hardaway credits longtime friend and aspiring minister Terry Starks with helping him move past that prideful venture.
"NBA players have a lot of people around them who make them feel good by telling them what they want to hear," Starks said. "Penny didn't need that. He needed someone to tell him the truth because the truth is what will set you free. It's like medicine that doesn't taste good but it's good for you.
"It was hard telling Penny the truth. I had to look him in his eye and say, 'You ain't what you used to be, but you still got a lot of good things in you. We either deal with this now or we can patch up and I can be one of your yes-men telling you what you want to hear.'
"To Penny's credit, he wanted the truth."
The truth has produced an almost Zen-like transformation on the court. To a man, the Suns now talk about Hardaway's calming influence on the club, his court vision and his court intelligence.
"The guy just understands the game," Suns coach Frank Johnson
Hardaway, who has averaged 14 points and 8.5 rebounds in two playoff games against San Antonio, is even trying to impart some wisdom on the guy who will soon take his job: guard Joe Johnson.
"I idolized him growing up," Johnson said. "I always pictured myself like him so any knowledge that he's willing to give I'm grateful for."
Nowhere near as grateful as the Suns’ management team, which had privately wondered if Hardaway's ability to compete and be a team player had evaporated like the cartilage in his now infamous left knee.
"Penny has a tendency to wear his feelings on his sleeve where it can be perceived as negative or aloof but after getting to know him I think Penny is one of the most misunderstood players in the NBA," Suns president and general manager Bryan Colangelo
"He wanted to prove to a lot of people he could still play this year, but in the final analysis, Penny didn't have a lot to turn around. He was always one of the most responsible people on the team. "For him to contribute in the way he has this season — to remake his game the way he has for the team — speaks volumes about him."