Penny Hardaway stood at the lectern and held up his old jersey as the throng of fans cheered in raucous delight. It might as well have been 1992 in Memphis again.
The same fans who stayed away from FedExForum the previous four years packed the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center for Hardaway’s introduction as head coach of the Memphis Tigers. But this was less an introduction than a homecoming, less a press conference than a civic celebration of what Memphis basketball once was and might be again.
The Memphis basketball program is an institution in this city. In a town where the racial tension can be as thick as the July humidity, Tigers basketball has long been considered a unifying force. But the program hasn’t advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since John Calipari bolted for Kentucky nearly a decade ago. His successor, Josh Pastner, got Calipari-esque results in recruiting but failed to come close to matching the on-court success.
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Sensing a restless fan base, Pastner fled for Georgia Tech after the 2015-16 season, and the school turned to Tubby Smith, an uninspired but respectable hire. Unfortunately for Memphis fans and administrators, it was clear from the introductory press conference — during which Smith flashed the Texas Tech guns — that Smith had little understanding of the job.
In two seasons at Memphis, Smith failed to land a single recruit from the city. Despite being richly compensated for media appearances, Smith was grudging at best in his dealings with local print reporters and sports radio stations, thereby creating a perception within the city that he didn’t have the passion for the task at hand.
But Smith may have sealed his fate when he demoted former assistant coach Keelon Lawson, father of star players Dedric and K.J. Lawson, who then transferred to Kansas at the end of Smith’s first year. Smith lost another Memphis native, Markel Crawford, as a graduate transfer to Ole Miss.
“He was not a good fit in Memphis,” University of Memphis president M. David Rudd says. “That’s just a reality. Would I have expected him not to be a good fit? No, absolutely not. I wouldn’t have agreed to the hire if I expected the fit to be as poor as it was. It’s always different in the interview process than it is in practicality. But I would not have anticipated the kind of decline that we had. Certainly, we wouldn’t have done it had we thought there would’ve been that kind of a transition. I wouldn’t have agreed to it. Usually, you get a bump [in attendance]. We did not get a bump. We had a sharp decline, and it was followed by a second sharp decline. People have asked me if it worked. It absolutely did not. There’s no debating that.”
Under Smith, attendance at Memphis basketball games cratered, averaging a modern-era low 4,583 fans per game according to the turnstile count. The Tigers’ January home game against Connecticut, for example, drew fewer than 2,500 fans. As a result, the Tigers missed out entirely on an $800,000 payout from the Memphis Grizzlies for the first time since moving to FedExForum in 2004. The Grizzlies would have had the option of terminating the Tigers’ lease had the program averaged under 6,000 fans this upcoming season.
The financial implications became too much for Memphis to ignore. According to Rudd, the program was facing $13 million in unrealized revenue. Season ticket sales were projected to fall again, to roughly 2,500.
“It doesn’t take a significant amount of calculations to realize you’re going to have to make a change,” Rudd says. “And you’re going to have to make a change that brings people back into the arena.”
Indeed, Memphis may not have fired Smith if not for the availability of Hardaway, who was in the process of winning a third straight state championship at nearby East High. This was not a situation where Memphis dismissed its head coach and then embarked on a search for his replacement. Memphis dismissed its head coach because it had the perfect replacement at hand.
Hardaway, 47, had returned to Memphis after finishing his 14-year NBA career. At the time, he said he had no desire to coach. But in 2011, his childhood friend, Desmond Merriweather, needed a favor. Merriweather, the boys’ basketball coach at Lester Middle School, was battling colon cancer. His chemo treatments drained his strength to the point where he couldn’t conduct normal practices any longer. So Merriweather asked Hardaway to take over, and Hardaway agreed.
Over the next several years, Hardaway’s teams at Lester and East High School would claim multiple championships. Last March, East High completed the three-peat. Hardaway was overcome with emotion as his team celebrated, lingering to take photos with his players, and at times stopping to wipe away tears.
“Fate has played a huge part in my life,” Hardaway says. “To win three straight titles in middle school and high school, nobody does that. To be able to coach the top kids in the country and then become the head coach at Memphis — it’s a blessing.”
Hardaway will tell you he wanted to be considered for the Memphis job when Pastner was forced out. Memphis never seriously considered his candidacy that time around. But after the Smith disaster, Hardaway wasn’t just considered a candidate — he was the only candidate, the only person who could give Memphis basketball the jolt it needed.
That’s why there was such a raucous reception when Hardaway was introduced as head coach. It wasn’t just about the return of a former star; it was about the return of a program that had bound the city together for so long.
“I really felt like right now was the time to become the head coach at Memphis,” Hardaway says. “I felt like it’s what the city needed and wanted. The timing was everything.”
And while plenty of people outside Memphis rolled their eyes at the hire — comparing it to Houston’s hire of Clyde Drexler or St. John’s hire of Chris Mullin — those comparisons are more lazy than apt. Drexler went straight from the NBA to Houston. Mullen went from an NBA front office job to St. John’s. Hardaway, by contrast, spent the last seven years coaching middle school, AAU and high school basketball. If he weren’t a basketball icon, Hardaway’s recent résumé might suggest he was a basketball grinder, one of those coaches — like John Beilein — who started at the bottom and worked his way up.
“He chose to coach middle school, high school, AAU — people don’t understand the grind that goes into that,” says assistant coach Mike Miller. “Until you walk through it, and do it, you can’t understand. The man cares. He puts his money where his mouth’s at.”
Still, Hardaway had some questions to answer about his ability to do the job.
Question No. 1: Can he run a program?
If his staff is any indication, yes. Hardaway hired Miller, a two-time NBA champion, and former NBA Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell as assistants.
Miller, like Hardaway, had learned a good deal about grassroots basketball through his Memphis AAU team. After retiring from the NBA at the end of the 2016-17 season, Miller fielded assistant coaching offers from TCU, Louisville and Florida, his alma mater. But the Memphis opportunity stood out.
“I saw the excitement in the city [when Hardaway got hired],” Miller says. “I realized at that point how it captivated this place. It gave me flashbacks to how it was like when Calipari had it. This really is at the end of the day a Tiger town. … From 100 miles away, just looking at the situation, Memphis was a no-brainer. I was gonna get into coaching. I got to stay here. After the first meeting, and especially the second meeting, it was like I was looking at myself in the mirror.”
Question No. 2: Can Hardaway really recruit?
Make no mistake: Hardaway was hired, in large part, because of his ability to land recruits. He’s a celebrity. When Hardaway entered the gym at an adidas AAU event in May, he was swarmed by adoring fans. He’s the only coach in college basketball with a signature Nike shoe. LeBron James patterned his game after Hardaway’s. His Orlando Magic highlight videos have millions of views. Though his NBA career is one of the great what-ifs — injuries robbed him of his electric gifts — his Foamposite shoes are a global bestseller.
The kids know Penny, and through his years on the AAU circuit, Penny knows the kids.
Hardaway’s first recruiting class ranked No. 22 according to Rivals, the highest-ranking Memphis class since 2015. It included Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, two local point guards who were headed elsewhere before Hardaway was hired.
“All the kids he’s recruiting wear his stuff,” says Antonio Anderson, who played for the Tigers in the mid-2000s and is the winningest four-year player in school history. “Who better to recruit you than a guy whose shoes you’re dropping $230 on? That, and there are just experiences only Penny can show you. He can see things kids don’t see, then teach them. He sees stuff that the average college coach can’t see or can’t teach.”
This is why Memphis has a realistic shot at the No. 1 player in the country in 2019, James Wiseman. And another top-five player in the country, Matthew Hurt. And a top-20 player in Trendon Watford.
Question No. 3: Can he deal with the media?
As a retired NBA player, Hardaway had gotten used to a life of leisure that included lots of golf and not many obligations. People wondered if he’d have the stomach or patience to handle the extensive media duties. But since getting the job in March, Hardaway has done well over 250 radio interviews. He’s ramped up his Instagram account to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at Memphis basketball. So check that box, too. Fans are once again engaged with their beloved program.
Question No. 4: Can he coach?
People close to the program laugh at this common question. Basketball is basketball, they say, whether it’s middle school or the NBA. Hardaway is aware that those outside of Memphis are skeptical of his staff. He is, after all, a first-time college coach. Assistant coach Tony Madlock — Hardaway’s teammate at then Memphis State — is the only man on staff with any college coaching experience.
But, to Hardaway, experience isn’t only earned by holding a clipboard.
“We have a lot of knowledge on that bench,” Hardaway says. “We know what we’re doing. … It would seem disrespectful to us to say that we couldn’t coach in college. They forget we played at the highest level. You can’t ever forget that part.”
Miller tells a story about Erik Spoelstra, his coach with the Miami Heat. Miller recently contacted Spoelstra for some practice plans. Spoelstra sent back a few suggestions. But with them, he attached a note: “Make sure your X’s are bigger, faster, and better than their O’s.”
The Tigers’ coaching staff is working on that. And they’re embracing the outsized expectations that come with the job.
Hardaway openly talks about national championships.
“We don’t need to qualify our expectations around here,” Rudd, the U of M president, says. “Part of the identity of Tiger basketball is being in the top 25 consistently. We didn’t invest $21 million in a new practice facility to finish outside of the top 100 or 120.”
So Hardaway plans to go head-to-head with Calipari in pursuit of Wiseman. He plans to stiffen the Memphis schedule. And he plans to get the Tigers back in the NCAA Tournament, and perhaps further than he took them as a player.
“I believe in our system and what we do,” Hardaway says. “We develop kids. We understand X’s and O’s. I know we’re gonna get the talent, and once you get the talent, it makes it a lot easier. We’re gonna be back. Under me, Memphis basketball will be back.”