(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
There’s a column that I’ve wanted to write, but I decided to wait for just the right time to spring it on my unsuspecting readers. I wanted to wait until just the right time, so as to shock and amaze like the unveiling of Kong or a M. Night Shyamalan twist.
With all the awesome college basketball going on, and in honor of my Memphis Tigers – who looked horrible in the NIT semi’s Tuesday – I figured this is as good a time as any.
Even though I didn’t go to college there, I was always on the pre-name change Memphis State campus in the early ‘90s playing pick-up basketball.
My friend Thomas was a student there, so my buddy Jay and I used to meet him at the Field House almost every day to get our hoop on. An added bonus to playing on the pristine court was the Tigers held practice there.
Sometimes we would get to watch Coach Larry Finch run his team through drills, and there were even times when we were fortunate enough to play with, or against, Tiger players who elected to hone their skills against the general public.
In retrospect that probably wasn’t such a great idea, considering the potential pro careers that could have been wrecked by a hack from ‘Joe Jump Shot’.
I’m sure most of you remember that Anfernee Hardaway played at Memphis for two years in ’92 and ’93. You probably remember that Penny picked the Tigers over the Hogs and led Memphis past the Razorbacks in each of his two seasons.
Or maybe you recall the Lil’ Penny commercials or his time with Shaq. Whatever the case, he was a one-of-a-kind talent, and probably the most talented player ever to hail from Memphis.
But when he was still just a Prop 48 sophomore, I had the pleasure of playing pick-up ball with him at the Field House.
Now I never played high school basketball. I was a typical know-it-all teenager who didn’t see the merits of running in basketball practice. Yeah, I know, I put the “d’oh!” in dolt. But I always played against the basketball players and held countless games at the goal in my apartment complex.
I had (and still own) a deadly jump shot, so it was with the utmost confidence that I took the floor that day to get next against Penny Hardaway.
We were running five-on-five, with me, Jay, Thomas and two scrubs we didn’t know. The three of us were a perfect team, with me running point, Jay patrolling the paint as an undersized post player, and Thomas a slashing wing who was all elbows and knees on defense.
Penny was the only Tiger on the floor, as his team was made up with equipment managers and wanna-be ballers like us.
Of course, Hardaway was dominating everything. He was dunking, hitting pull-up 3’s from just over half court, and swatting away anything that came into the lane.
We were playing to 50 by one’s and 3-pointers counted as two. Penny’s team built a quick 15-point lead and that’s when it got interesting.
If I didn’t mention it before, I’m a pretty good shot. It might look unorthodox – Jay used to say I shot like former Washington Bullet Michael Adams – but it goes in.
With my long-range shooting, Jay’s work on the inside, and Thomas’ lock down defense on anyone not named Hardaway, we quickly began our comeback. I got hot from long range, and five shots later, we were only down by six.
Some of Penny’s scrubs made a few buckets, but thanks to yours truly lighting it up, they couldn’t get over the six-point hump. After I hit another trey (I say trey even though it was only a deuce) to make the score 40-39, it happened.
Hardaway finally left the paint and came out to the arc to guard me. Normally I probably would have soiled my britches at the thought of his 6-foot 7-inch self sticking to me, but I was in the zone and it didn’t matter.
The first trip down with him on me, I pump faked him and dished to a wide-open Jay who hit a crazy reverse to tie the game. Penny’s peeps scored on the other end and Jay hit a free throw line jumper to keep it even at 41.
Hardaway dunked and then picked my pocket and drained a three that gave them a three-point lead. We managed to get it in and one of our nameless scrubs hit a long range two, but Hardaway hit one from almost half court and we were smelling defeat.
It was then that the basketball gods smiled on me. With Hardaway sticking me like glue, I still managed to get free and hit two straight from the arc.
Up 48-46, we needed a stop and Thomas gave it to us. He flew up the right baseline and picked off a pass intended for Penny. He kicked it ahead to Jay, and we setup for the final shot.
Hardaway was talking junk to me, saying there was no way I was going to get off another long-distance jumper. I was talking back, saying he couldn’t guard a chair or some other nonsense that I can’t repeat here.
I’m still not sure how I did it, but I crossed Hardaway over, and gave him just enough of a jab step to free myself up for the shot. He bit, and I rose up and let it fly just as he recovered enough to get a finger on my wrist.
After an eternity, the ball fell through the net and I had a story to tell my grandchildren. Penny was a good sport, and actually invited us to come back for more someday, but we never did.
I guess we didn’t want to go back and have our tails handed to us. It was a once in a lifetime game, and we weren’t going to risk spoiling the memory.
I guess one reason I’ve never written about this is because it’s April Fool’s Day. (But I really do have a deadly outside shot.)