Photo courtesy of Memphis Athletics.
By David Cordova
On October 4th, 18,000 people in Memphis, Tennessee made their way to the FedEx Forum to check out a new era in the city’s basketball scene. They got to see the University of Memphis Tigers in action at their annual, “Memphis Madness,” event to kick off the upcoming season.
But aside from the fact that the Tigers were showing off their skills on the court, there was the big reason the fans and supporters came out. It was the return of one of the city’s native sons, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, who is now the head coach.
Many know Hardaway for being a four-time All-Star over 14 seasons in the NBA with four teams, most notably, the Orlando Magic. But many in the city of Memphis know him as the local basketball star that is bringing their town some notoriety on the national basketball landscape.
On March 19th, Hardaway was named the coach of the Memphis Tigers, replacing Tubby Smith, who was fired after two seasons. With his arrival, there is a chance that the school is in the midst of a renaissance and will eventually get back to the program it was 10 years ago, when the Tigers made the national championship game under John Calipari, who is now the coach at the University of Kentucky. But this time, it will be with someone from the area leading the charge.
“It means a lot to the city, they’re showing their appreciation by coming out to a Memphis Madness, which is a pep rally to show the introduction of the team. 18,000 [fans] strong. So they’re showing their appreciation for me coming back, and trying to help rebuild and trying to put the university back to where it has always been in the past, and that’s on top,” said Hardaway.
When asked why he chose to be the head coach at Memphis, he replied, “Well, I mean, I think the timing was right, I think that it was needed, [with] me coming back. I felt like I could recruit, I felt like the staff that I could get could be phenomenal for the city and the reason why I chose to. Like you said, I didn’t have to, but I felt like there was a need, that the city needed me.”
Along with Hardaway on the Tigers coaching staff as assistants are Mike Miller, who played 17 seasons in the NBA and won two NBA championships with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. Then there is Sam Mitchell, who played 13 seasons in the NBA and coached for four teams in a 14-year span in the NBA, including the Toronto Raptors, where he won the NBA Coach of the Year Award in 2007. And lastly, there is Tony Madlock, who was Hardaway’s collegiate teammate at Memphis, when it was known as Memphis State, and who also has over 20 years of coaching experience at the collegiate level.
Although Hardaway, Miller and Mitchell have never coached on the college level before, what they lack in experience they make up for with knowledge about the pro game, which will help the Tigers in terms of development.
When asked if it was an internal thing that led him to coaching at the school, he replied, “You know what, you just hit on something. It’s just to me, it probably is deeper than what I thought it was. You know, I was always on the cusp of thinking about whether I should come back to the university or not, when I was coaching middle school or high school, but now that I’ve made the decision, it’s made me realize that maybe this is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and just never really put it in the forefront, it’s always been on the backburner, and when the time was right, it came to the forefront.”
On Hardaway using his pro-level tutelage with the Tigers, he replied, “That’s my history. That’s where I learned a lot of things to be able to bring to this level, and today’s athletes, they want to go to the level after college, and that’s the NBA. They want to be where I’ve gone, they want to go where I’ve gone, you know, that’s the selling point now, and you have to use that.”
Aside from the court, Hardaway also takes great pride in making sure academics is also at the forefront. On the Memphis Tigers’ basketball page, Hardaway was shown checking on the players while they were in class, making sure they were doing the right things and getting their knowledge.
He wants them to stay on top of their work, because he knows what can happen, from personal experience, if you don’t take care of your academics. As a high school senior at Treadwell High School in 1989-90, he averaged 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 3.9 steals, and 2.8 blocks per game and was named the Parade Magazine High School Player of the Year.
But all of the fanfare attached to him proved meaningless the next fall, when as a freshman, he was ruled ineligible to play during the 1990-91 season under what was then known as Proposition 48 rules established by the NCAA, because he did not have a qualifying score on the ACT. Later on in his academic career, he averaged a 3.4 grade-point average and made the Dean’s List.
As a redshirt sophomore, Hardaway decided to leave Memphis to go into the 1993 NBA draft. But ten years later, in 2003, he would end up getting his bachelor’s degree in professional studies.
“Yeah, you know, like you said, I came in and I was a Prop 48, I didn’t pass the ACT, but in that year that I sat out, and the years to come, I was ageless, so when I coached middle school, I added a tutoring program afterwards, the same thing in high school [at Memphis East], and now that we have the tutoring for our guys, I go and check two or three times a week, and my message to them is: ‘You’re going to need education for the rest of your life. Sports isn’t going to be with you, basketball isn’t going to be with you [forever]. You still have to live,’ And academics is going to be No. 1 on our team,” said Hardaway.
During his time as a player, the Tigers were in the Great Midwest Conference, which dissolved in 1995, which led to them going into Conference-USA before they moved into the American Athletic Conference in 2013.
When asked about coaching in the AAC, as the conference is commonly referred to, he replied, “You know what, this conference is super, a lot of people try to downplay this conference, but when you look at the teams and the coaches in this conference, it’s a great conference, and I don’t think we’re second to anybody, so it’s great coming in, I’m ready to compete.”
As of late, Hardaway coming back to the University of Memphis as a head coach has drawn a lot of interest in the high school basketball community, as kids today may know him from the Nike Penny sneakers in stores or from his former capacity as the head coach at Memphis East High School and from running the Team Penny AAU program on the Nike EYBL circuit.
For all of the prospective high school players that plan to play for Penny Hardway, this is what you can expect at the University of Memphis: “Well, we’re teachers. Like I said, education is first, and then our staff is going to teach you and develop you on your game and if we do that, then we know we’re going to win.”
This year’s Tigers consists of six players – four players from the Memphis area in Tyler Harris, a 5-foot-9 point guard from Cordova High School, and then three of his former players at Memphis East, which include Hardaway’s son, Jayden, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who just finished a post-grad year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and also 6-foot-5 forward Ryan Boyce and 5-foot-11 point guard Alex Lomax. The other two players are 6-foot-6 shooting guard Antwann Jones from Orlando, Florida and 6-foot-7 shooting guard David Wingett from Winnebago, Nebraska.
When asked about his freshmen, he replied, “You know, Alex Lomax has played for me since sixth grade, a really good point guard, very tough and a lot of people are going to love his game. Tyler Harris, who’s probably our highest-ranked freshman, [is] explosive, he’s small in size, but his game is really big. Antwann Jones, was at one time, the No. 2 shooting guard in the country, and then Ryan Boyce, who played for me as well. David Wingate, is going to be our darkhorse, a lot of people don’t know about him now, but will know about him soon, can really shoot it, and then my son, Jayden Hardaway, another shooter, so we have a great freshman class, so we’re excited about it.”
From last year’s team, they return their top two leading scorers in 6-foot-3 senior guard Jeremiah Martin and 6-foot-8 senior forward Kyvon Davenport. Other returning senior contribtors from last year’s 21-13 Tigers team were 6-foot-2 guard Kareem Brewton, Jr., 6-foot-8 forward Mike Parks, Jr. and 6-foot-7 senior Raymere Thornton.
As for the recruiting, the Tigers are doing well for this year’s recruiting class as they have landed two local players in 6-foot-8 forward Malcolm Dandridge, who played for Hardaway at Memphis East and 6-foot-7 forward D.J. Jeffries from Olive Branch, Mississippi, who recently decomitted from Kentucky and is a top-25 recruit.
However, they are still in the running for another one of Hardaway’s former players at Memphis East. The player in question is none other than 7-foot center James Wiseman, who is rated as the No. 1 player in the country by various publications and is also being courted by Kansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida State.
If the Tigers can get Wiseman, they could be a dangerous team next season and can be reminiscent of the 1972-73 team that went to the national championship team, in which the majority players were from the Memphis area. And also, the Tigers could be a destination for top talent in the years to come.
When asked about building Memphis as a place for local players and national talent to go to, Hardaway replied, “Well, I mean, we want to build a fence around the city. I feel like we have a lot of talent, as much talent as anywhere else in the country, and you have to take care of home first, and that’s what we want to do.”
Also, the mission is to keep players from going to other places and helping other teams make it to the tournament every year. Hardaway expanded on that by saying, “Yeah, it’s very important [to build that presence around Memphis]. It has saddened me. Even though, kids can go wherever they want to go, but we’ve had a lot of top talent be in the NCAA Tournament, doing great things for other schools. And now we want to make sure that talent stays home. Like I said we want to make sure we build a fence around the city and keep our talent home.”
But first things first, Hardaway must first get through his inaugural campaign as head coach before such expectations can occur. With his five seniors and six new freshmen, plus the other remaining players, you can expect the Tigers to make an impact on the AAC.
On October 25th, before a crowd of 6,373 fans in attendance at the FedEx Forum, the Tigers went on a tear, as they won 120-66, over LeMoyne-Owen, a Division II program in the Memphis area. Harris scored 26 points and four other players scored in double figures, while Brewton grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds and Lomax added a team-high nine assists.
As James Earl Jones said in the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, people will come.” That’s just what Penny Hardaway is planning to do. He wants to build a top-flight program and make it successful the way he did with Team Penny and Memphis East. However, it will take time. The first test will come on November 6th in the home opener when they take on Tennessee Tech.
But when its success comes as planned, look out for the Memphis Tigers.