Penny Hardaway Shoes Remind Us Why the 1990s Were So Awesome
You can't tell the story of the NBA in the 1990s without mentioning Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. The shooting star of a shooting guard became one of the game's most popular players while playing for the Orlando Magic.
Hardaway's ascension to the top of the basketball food chain was in large part due to several genius marketing campaigns around the young superstar that sold a ton of shoes for Nike and made Hardaway very, very rich.
Here’s a look at the career of Penny Hardaway and the shoes that made him so popular during his era. Thanks to sneakerheads, they have gotten an extended life over the last few decades.
From Memphis Comes a Basketball Hero
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway was born in Memphis in 1971 and raised there. His nickname came from his grandmother, Louise, who called him "Pretty," but because of her Southern drawl, it sounded like "Penny." Thus, the nickname.
Hardaway became the nation's top prep basketball player at Treadwell High School, where he averaged 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 3.9 steals and 2.8 blocks during his senior year and was named Parade Magazine National Player of the Year.
As a 6-foot-7 point guard, Hardaway was part of the first generation of players following Magic Johnson who were bigger point guards. Which made them almost unguardable.
The Nation Meets Penny Hardaway
Penny Hardaway wasn't allowed to play college basketball right away. He was forced to sit out his first season of college and lose a year of eligibility thanks to the antiquated Proposition 48 rule, as he'd failed to meet the minimum requirements for an ACT score.
Hardaway stayed close to home and enrolled at Memphis State — now the University of Memphis. College basketball fans across the nation became familiar with Hardaway in his first collegiate season, 1991-92, when he averaged 17.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals on the way to being named an All-American.
The next season, Hardaway was even better, averaging 22.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.4 steals on his way to being named an All-American once again.
The next step was obvious. Despite having one year of college eligibility left, Hardaway was headed to the NBA.
1993 NBA Draft Provided the Greatest NBA Draft Drama of All Time
In 1993, Penny Hardaway was part of the single-greatest day of NBA draft-related drama in history.
For the second year in a row, the Orlando Magic owned the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, having made the no-brainer selection of LSU center Shaquille O'Neal in 1992. The best player in the NBA draft in 1993 was a no-brainer with Michigan power forward Chris Webber — who the Magic promptly took with the top pick. That's when things went crazy.
Just a few minutes later, the Magic traded Webber to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Hardaway, who the Warriors selected at No. 3 overall, and three future first-round draft picks.
It was a draft-day move that's been unmatched since then.
The World Meets Penny Hardaway
The pairing of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal was catnip to NBA fans around the world, and their games became can't-miss TV.
Hardaway took over as the Orlando Magic's starting point guard midway through his rookie season and became a full-fledged superstar during his second year, helping lead the Magic to a record 57-win season along with being named an All-Star starter and first-team All-NBA.
Orlando made it to the NBA Finals, but despite being swept by the Houston Rockets, the die was cast for both Hardaway and O'Neal. They were the future of the NBA.
And part of that future for Hardaway meant selling lots and lots of shoes for Nike.
All Hail the Nike Air Penny I
Few marketing campaigns have made a professional athlete more appealing to the masses than Nike's "Lil' Penny" campaign, which featured Penny Hardaway and a small doll voiced by comedian Chris Rock to sell the Nike Air Penny I.
This was just the first drop in the bucket of marketing for Hardaway, who would also star alongside Shaquille O'Neal in the 1994 film "Blue Chips" and became an even bigger star thanks to his outsized role in the popular video game "NBA Jam."
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Still Rising: Nike Air Penny II
By Penny Hardaway's third season in the NBA, you could make an argument that the only player in the league more popular than the young point guard was Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan.
Having to take on more of the load with teammate Shaquille O'Neal injured, Hardaway was once again voted a starter in the All-Star Game and once again named first team All-NBA.
With that success came another signature shoe from Nike. The Air Penny II was released in 1996 and was a huge hit with consumers thanks in big part to its wavy foam midsole.
Can We Just Take a Minute to Appreciate the Shaq-Penny Era? It Really Was Glorious.
It also really was only for a minute. But we still got moments like this interview with Ahmad Rashad. And it doesn't get much more '90s than this.
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Be Careful What You Wish For
The fame that came the way of Penny Hardaway early in his career was something few players in NBA history have experienced. And there were pitfalls that came with it.
One of those pitfalls was Hardaway alienating teammate Shaquille O'Neal, who bounced to the Los Angeles Lakers in a massive free-agent deal following the 1995-96 season. Hardaway thought he was the man in Orlando.
Hardaway quickly found out that going it on your own can be a pretty dicey proposition. Especially when you don't have one of the greatest big men of all time on your side.
At Least It Was Fun While It Lasted
It's also fun to imagine what might have been if Shaq and Penny had played together for more than three seasons with the Magic in Orlando.
Sneaker Perfection: Nike Air Foamposite I
Released in 1997, Penny Hardaway's signature shoe was the Nike Air Foamposite I. It remains a classic basketball shoe that sneakerheads still love 25 years later.
Originally designed for Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, Nike designer Eric Avar showed Hardaway the Foamposite I during a meeting to determine the third shoe coming out for the Orlando Magic star.
"So we’re just finishing up, and Penny looks over and says, 'What’s that in the bag?' " Avar said. "I almost hesitated to take it out, but I did, and he grabbed it, and just goes, 'What is this?!' I said it’s this concept we’re working on. He just stopped me right there, and said 'That’s it. I want that to be my next shoe.'"
Penny On His Own
Penny Hardaway got his wish with the Orlando Magic. Without Shaquille O'Neal around, he was the focus for the Orlando Magic, and he promptly led a coup that took down head coach Brian Hill halfway through the season.
While Hardaway was still an All-Star starter and still an All-NBA pick, injuries were beginning to take their toll. He only played in 59 games and the Magic were swept by the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Injuries Start to Take Their Toll
In the 1997-98 season, Penny Hardway's star began to lose a bit of its shine — mainly thanks to an incredibly selfish decision to come back and play in the NBA All-Star Game despite not being fully recuperated from offseason knee surgery.
In all, Hardaway played just 19 games that season. He bounced back to play all 50 games in 1999 during a strike-shortened season, then forced a trade to the Phoenix Suns that offseason. Hardaway only played 60 games in 1999-2000 with the Suns, then played just four games the next season due to microfracture surgeries on his knee.
While Hardway played until the 2007-08 season, he never played another full season in the NBA. And after averaging 10.6 points for Phoenix in 2002-03, he never played more than 40 games in a season again and never averaged double-digit points.
One Last Hurrah With The Big Diesel
Penny Hardaway finished his career with the Miami Heat in 2007 and rejoined an old teammate, Shaquille O'Neal.
But the magic was gone as Hardaway averaged just 3.8 points in 16 games before hanging up his sneakers for good.
Penny's Legacy: Shooting Star in the Early 1990s
It's not hyperbole to say that Penny Hardway's legacy is tied almost entirely to his time playing for the Orlando Magic in the early 1990s and is largely tied to the enduring popularity of his signature shoes from Nike.
Hardaway's final career stats were 15.2 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals over 15 NBA seasons, of which he missed all or parts of 11 seasons due to injuries.
Hardaway cashed in on his success. He made just over $120 million in NBA contracts alone, and in 2012, he became the first NBA player outside of Michael Jordan to have his signature sneaker line reissued by Nike.
Back Home, Coaching His Alma Mater
Since 2018, Penny Hardaway has been the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Memphis, where he returned 10 years after he played his final college game to receive his bachelor's degree.
He led the Tigers to the NIT championship in 2021 and to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2022, where they lost in the Round of 32.