Any NBA fans out there? Let me re-phrase. Any NBA fans out there who remember what the game was like before the No Fun Police legislated defense out of the game; during the time when big men would post up in the paint; during an era before a NBA “contest” would be a hard fought game instead of a 5-on-5 version of H-O-R-S-E from 25 feet from the basket? We don’t have to go all the way back to the “Show Time Lakers” with Magic Johnson at the point surrounded by a Who’s Who of pro basketball legends: I’m just talking abut the league back in the nineties. Back then, when Michael Jordan dropped a “double nickle” (a 55 point individual single game output) against the New York Knicks meant more than the Golden State Warriors putting up 141 points against the Washington Generals (Harlem Globe-trotters reference) because the New York Knicks were mean, muscular, & played defense as if they were defending a fresh kill against a pack of hungry hyenas! Well, back then, pop culture was still trying to find a new superstar to coronate as the “Next Jordan.” Mind you, this was fifteen years before the chatter started that Lebron James or the late great Kobe Bryant had either equaled or . . . gasp . . . even surpassed His Airness. Yeah. It started way back then. And early on, sometime during the mid-nineties, a rising star who caught my eye as a player who could actually replace MJ emerged onto the scene in the form of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
Penny Hardaway wore No. 1 on his jersey, which was a bold statement given he was a junior teammate to NBA legend an immensely large human Shaquille “Superman” O’Neil. And like another great point guard with whom Penny drew comparisons, he played for a showbiz like franchise in the Orlando Magic. Penny Hardaway’s height, length, & athleticism–this brash new rookie managed to glide to the rim against physical, ferocious set defenses in a manner reminiscent of the Great No. 23. The fact that the aforementioned 23, Jordan, had changed up his offensive arsenal on account of his advanced age (mid to late thirties) for a pro athlete–the path appeared set for an eventual passing of the torch to occur. Even I, a die hard MJ supporter, could not deny the implications that nobody stays on top forever & that Father Time eventually takes his toll on everyone. Jordan, while still the best active player in the game at that time, had moved away from the flamboyant “Come fly with me” style that characterized his career in favor of a more veteran savvy approach that frequently took advantage of his older, more muscular physique to bully slimmer defenders around in the post. In short, Penny Hardaway sometimes looked more like the original No. 23 than Michael Jordan did!
It’s funny how hindsight is 20/20. Many fans still regard MJ as the “Greatest of All Time,” myself included . . . twenty-five years after one of the original debates. I mean no disrespect to either athlete as both gifted men accomplished a great deal at the Pro level. But early in his career, Hardaway got hurt & rumors surfaced that we would never regain “the Magic” he had in Orlando.
I remember watching a press conference as Hardaway introduced himself as the newest member of the Phoenix Suns organization. I will never forget how defiant this proud athlete was when he declared his intention to prove all his doubters wrong. I’m going from memory here, but what he said went something like this:
“I hear all the noise out there . . . That I’m washed up–that I’ve lost it–that I don’t have it anymore!” Essentially, Hardaway went on to declare that he was going to prove everyone wrong. I felt for my former sports hero out there–seemingly feeling abandoned by his fans & given up for dead as a superstar so quickly. In my mind, I equated his story as one of a Prince who was promised the throne early on but never got to become King. Quietly, I pulled for Hardaway to return to vintage form although I suspected he would not. I wanted to see him succeed–I sympathized with his struggle . . . because I knew that it was just a matter of time before I would feel that way on whatever path my own life would take me.
Not long ago, I came to terms with the proof of my own aging process. In an earlier post, I wrote: “Growing up is bitter-sweet. Growing old is, well–bitter. I was actually down on myself for a few days. I soon replaced that emotion with anger. I used my anger to rip through strenuous workouts in the gym, resolving myself to conquer Father Time on sheer anger & commitment alone if nothing else. But then I went to Church on Sunday for the first time since the Covid shutdown, & have since replaced my anger with yet another emotion.
Just because Penny Hardaway’s status as an NBA superstar ended around the time I witnessed that fateful press conference, he was still right to dismiss the idea that he was washed up. One era in his career may have been over, but his career would continue. And once Penny’s career would end, his life would continue. Likewise, just because I had lost my youthful boyish charm didn’t mean that I am now less valuable or even less likable. I’m a much better person in almost every way aside from metric that I carry a bit more mass around the waistline now (BMI) & a bit less mass atop my head (thinning). But in almost every other way, I am a much more complete person in the here & now. Perhaps I’m equally likable, albeit for different reasons. Long story short, without breaking into scripture & evangelizing to you–attending service yesterday provided me with meaningful perspective.
This journey we call life–maybe we shouldn’t think of it as a single multi-year, uninterrupted span of time. Perhaps its more useful to view our lives as a series of mini–lifetimes chained together. When one mini-lifetime ends, we have a brand new one to look forward to. In some ways, our new life will carry with it benefits that the previous one did not. In some cases, however, these new benefits will come at the cost of some qualities that we had held dear earlier. The trick is, at least for me, to learn to adapt a new standard to each new era in this extended series of lives. I’m no theologian, but right now, this perspective works okay for me.
I used to consider the term “washed up” the ultimate insult. But, like most everything else, the term carries with it whatever connotation I assign to it. Maybe “washed up” means nothing more than washing away the scars of negative feelings of that last era of live & emerging from the waters refreshed, ready to take on the challenges of the next era. This explanation works much better with my approach of treating life as a series of eras–or, if you prefer, mini-lives wired together along a multi-year, multi-path journey that hopefully brings with it more satisfaction than regret.
I’ve meant no disrespect to any NBA players or fans, past or present. Times changes, standards change. And I still count Penny Hardaway as one of my favorite NBA players of all time. What I used to perceive as a rise & fall of a gifted player–something that used to bring me sorrow–wasn’t anything to be sorry about at all. It’s just part of a process that most of us will experience at some point. There’s no shame in leaving who we were before in order to arrive at who we are now. I’m no philosopher or life coach, for that matter. This was just all my 2 cents; or two “sense,” if you prefer.