A few weeks ago, as my buddy Jay and I watched the Knicks host the Grizzlies, we discussed whether Anfernee Hardaway belonged in the NBA Hall of Fame. Jay believed that Penny is a sure-fire lock to be nominated. I disagreed.
Now, if I’m not one of the biggest OG Hardaway fans there are, I’m definitely in the top one percent. I am convinced he is deserving, but I’ve always been of the opinion that since he never won an MVP or a Larry O’Brien trophy, that the voters would leave him out in the cold.
This brings us to just the other day when I was perusing the posts on the Memphis Tiger Basketball Fan Page on Facebook. I like to check daily and see what fans are arguing with each other about, so imagine my surprise when I discovered a post where a debate was underway about Penny’s HOF bonafides.
This gave me the impetus to do a deep dive and definitively determine whether or not a case could be made for his enshrinement. Some player comparisons leaped to mind, as did a few crucial questions.
What makes a player worthy of the Hall of Fame? Does the criterion hinge on the number of championships won? Is it measured by MVP trophies or mind-boggling statistics? How about the impact a player had on the sport and the culture that surrounds it?
The answer to these questions depends on which Hall of Fame you’re discussing. As far as the NBA goes, there are no clear-cut requirements, and the voting is held in secrecy. So no one knows who is voting or the reasons behind their selection process.
And technically, there is no NBA Hall of Fame. Instead, it’s the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It celebrates every level of men’s and women’s basketball, from amateur to professional to overseas.
Penny obviously never won a championship, an MVP, or broke any statistical records. However, his impact on the game is undeniable, and he is always at the top of the ‘if he could have stayed healthy’ lists. Therefore, I took a comprehensive look at his accomplishments and numbers in order to compare him to the players already in the HOF. Unsurprisingly, he stacks up.
For this exercise, I tried to exclude anyone who had won a championship or an NBA MVP since that would be the first thing his detractors will point to. I compiled a list of 15 players in the Hall, whose numbers are all comparable. Only one of those won a title, Sixers guard Maurice Cheeks. But Cheeks was never an All-NBA selection, and his career and playoff averages are subpar when held up against Hardaway’s.
Of the 15, here are 6, and a breakdown of how their careers measure up against Penny’s.
Penny Hardaway, G, (1993-07)
- Two-time All-NBA 1st team; All-NBA 3rd team; Four All-Star games
- All-Rookie 1st team; Runner-up Rookie of the Year
- 3rd in MVP votes; Gold Medal winner
- Career Avg. 15pts, 4reb, 5ast, 61.9% Win Share; Playoff Avg. 20pts, 6ast, 4reb, 2stl
- Finals Avg. 25pts, 4reb, 8ast, 50% FG
- Parade National High School Player of the Year; NCAA All-American; Naismith & Wooden finalist.
Vlade Divac, C, (1983-05)
- One All-Star game
- All-Rookie 1st team
- Euro legend
- Career Avg. 11pts, 8reb, 3ast; Playoff Avg. 12pts, 7reb, 2 ast
- Finals Avg. 18pts, 8 reb, 2ast, 56% FG
Sidney Moncrief, SG, (1979-89, 1990-91)
- All-NBA 1st team; Four-time All-NBA 2nd team; Five All-Star games
- All-NBA Defensive team; 4th in MVP votes
- Career Avg. 15pts, 4 reb, 3ast; Playoff Avg. 16pts, 3ast, 5reb
- NCAA All-American
Calvin Murphy, PG, (1970-83)
- All-Star game
- All-Rookie 1st team
- Career Avg. 17pts, 2reb, 4ast; Playoff Avg. 18pts, 1reb, 4ast
- Finals Avg. 9pts, 1reb, 0ast
- Two-Time NCAA All-American
Mitch Richmond, SG, (1988-02)
- Three-time All-NBA 2nd team; Six All-Star games
- Rookie of the Year
- Gold Medal winner
- Career Avg. 21pts, 3ast, 3reb; Playoff Avg. 19pts, 5reb, 3ast
- Finals Avg. 2pts, 0reb, 0ast
Ralph Sampson, C, (1983-95)
- Four All-Star games; All-Star game MVP
- Rookie of the Year
- Career Avg. 15pts, 8reb, 2ast, 20.1% Win Share; Playoff Avg. 18.7pts, 10reb, 2ast
- Finals Avg. 14pts, 9reb, 3ast, 43% FG
- 3-time Naismith winner; 2-time Wooden winner; 3-time All-American
Maurice Stokes, PF-C, (1955-58)
- Two-time All-NBA 2nd team; Three All-Star games
- Rookie of the Year
- Career Avg. 16pts, 17reb, 5ast, 16.1% Win Share; Playoff Avg. 12pts, 15reb, 2ast
Again, numbers and accomplishments seem to dictate he belongs. Richmond was on Dream Team 3 with Penny. Would it shock you to know that Hardaway is the only member of that Gold Medal winning squad who is not in the Hall of Fame?
There are other achievements from his career that should also be taken into account. For example, the year he finished third in MVP voting, he was the only player in the NBA who averaged at least 20 points and 5 assists to shoot 50% from the field.
After Shaq left, despite his injuries, he led the Magic to the playoffs as a 45-win team in ’96-’97. Their first-round matchup was with Pat Riley and the Miami Heat. In that series, Penny became the first player in NBA history to have back-to-back 40-point games when his team failed to score 100 points. He was also the first player to drop 40 in consecutive games against a Pat Riley coached team. He averaged 31 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block in the five-game series loss.
Twice Penny was named as one of the five best players in the world. The ’96 All-NBA team also included Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and Karl Malone. He was seventh in the league in points in ’95-’96 and finished 11th in average. He scored 17 points in the Olympic Gold Medal game.
He also had an impact culturally with the Lil’ Penny commercials. Hardaway’s signature shoes are only behind Air Jordan in popularity. The Foamposites are still considered to be the second-best basketball shoe ever created. In fact, Penny’s kicks are the only ones that Michael Jordan ever wore that weren’t his own. And have you noticed how many athletes are named Anfernee these days?
I believed before I started this research that Penny was a Hall of Fame player. I am convinced now that if he never gets in, it will be a travesty. He had a career worth remembering and celebrating, and the numbers dictate that even with his brilliance being dimmed by injury.
Most everyone remembers his time with the Magic, but he was still a productive NBA starter with the Suns and a playoff contributor with the New York Knicks. It was only the last couple of seasons in his 14-year career that he could have been considered just a journeyman.
I could end this essay by declaring that this is just another case of Memphis vs. Everybody, and he will never get in. That Memphis is never shown any love, and Hardaway’s NBA career will only ever be looked at through the lens of ‘what if.’
I could, but I’m not.
He will get in one day. It might be after all of us who watched him play are gone. It might be in the next few years when he leads the Tigers to our first National Championship. Either way, it will happen.
And then the entire world will know forever what we Memphians have known for over 30 years. That Anfernee Hardaway was one of the best basketball players in the history of the game.
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