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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Former Tiger, NBAer Penny Hardaway Working Out with Tigers

Penny enjoys being involved with Tigers

Former Tiger Penny Hardaway has been working out and playing pickup games with members of the U of M team.

NBA career on hold, he's reconnecting with U of M

By Dan Wolken
June 18, 2007

Nearly every afternoon in January and February, Penny Hardaway would come to the Finch Center and quietly train for a return to the NBA. But with every weight Hardaway lifted and every basket he shot, he wasn't just inching closer to a return to professional basketball.

In a way, he was coming home.

After years of barely being involved in the University of Memphis basketball program, Hardaway is beginning the process of reconnecting with the school and perhaps laying the foundation for a more official capacity once his playing career is over.
"I'm going to be involved until I leave this earth, because this is where I went to school," Hardaway, who will be 36 next month, said. "This is where I'm from."

Several longtime Memphis supporters say that Hardaway has been around the program more over the past few months than he has at any time since playing his last college game in 1993.

Mostly, Hardaway said, that's a function of his NBA career, which took him to four All-Star appearances before a series of knee injuries that limited him to 37 games in 2004-05, then just four in 2005-06 and none last season.

After rehabbing in Miami and getting to "all the way back healthy," Hardaway moved back to Memphis. He bought a house in Southwind to make his primary residence and began working out at the Finch Center in early 2007, usually slipping out just as the Tigers began practice.

Then, Hardaway became even more visible during the NCAA Tournament, traveling to both New Orleans and San Antonio as the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight.

"It was fun because I hadn't had the opportunity to do that since I've been in the league," Hardaway said. "I didn't have the chance to go to any games, definitely didn't have the chance to go to NCAA games. And it was a fun experience for me to live that through them, with them, because I did the same thing they did, going to the Elite Eight. It's a magical run. It's a fun time of the year for everybody, and I was just glad to be around them."

And coach John Calipari certainly has no problem with Hardaway being around, playing pickup games and advising his players on what it takes to become a professional. Moreover, Hardaway has begun doing other things to help the program like purchasing equipment for the weight room.

"It's good for our guys to be around Penny," Calipari said. "Of all the guys from here who have gone to the NBA, Penny is someone I can count on."

The natural question is whether all this will lead to something more, whether Hardaway is headed toward some sort of official job with the program in the near or distant future. Hardaway refuses to directly address that issue, saying he's only concerned with playing in the NBA again.

"I'll talk to whoever is coaching at that time when I finally retire," Hardaway said. "Now I'm just trying to focus on getting back in the NBA and finishing up my career and trying to support them as much as I can while I'm doing my thing. After I retire, I'll try to figure out what I want to do from there."

And Hardaway is not eager to concede retirement.

Though he said he was healthy last season, Hardaway found a decided lack of interest in him from NBA teams, including the Grizzlies. Hardaway said he would have even taken a 10-day contract just to prove that he could play again but found no takers.

"I'm going to do a better job of marketing myself this summer," he said. "Last summer, I thought that because I was healthy teams would just bring me in. I was fooled by that because it didn't work like that. This summer I'm going to let everyone know I'm back and ready and if they need to see me, I'll do individual workouts and they can get a better look.

"It won't be anybody giving me anything or sympathy. I'm going to show them I can still play. It's just getting in the door."

As one foot tries to stop the NBA door from closing, the other seems to be leading him back to the Tigers.

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