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American Athletic Conference

American Stories – A Penny Earned for Memphis

Mark Weber - Commercial Appeal

The lights are back on again at the University of Memphis basketball program.

The roar was deafening at Memphis Madness in FedExForum off fabled Beale Street this month as a sellout crowd of 18,118 jammed the arena to welcome home Penny Hardaway, the beloved son of this rock and rap city and the Tigers’ newest men’s basketball coach.

The 47-year old Hardaway made a Hollywood style appearance, escorted to the court by rapper Derez De’ Shon. He raised his arms in triumph like some heavyweight fighter, then touched his right hand to his heart in appreciation as the local rapper performed the song, “Hardaway.” The energized crowd broke into a prolonged two-minute ovation. They were dancing in the student section, wearing throwback Hardaway jerseys and his signature Nike sneakers, screaming every time his name was mentioned.

“This city practically raised me and always supported me,” Hardaway said at The American’s annual basketball media day. “They’ve been seeing me on national TV since I was 14 years old. Now, they’re just coming back to help.”

Hardaway was a local hero from Treadwell High who was a two-time All- America guard at the University of Memphis from 1991-93, where he played two years for another Tiger legend Larry Finch. Hardaway played 14 years in the NBA, was a four-time all-star and a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1996. He became a celebrity when he got a part in the movie, “Blue Chips” with Nick Nolte and Shaquille O’Neal and was the star of Nike’s wildly successful “Lil’ Penny” ads with Chris Rock.

Hardaway lived in a mansion in Paradise Valley, Arizona, but his heart has always belonged to Memphis. He brought the city’s dormant summer league back to life and he moved back home full time in 2008, buying a barber shop/beauty salon in the city and donating $1 million to help the university build a hall of fame

Hardaway never thought he would get into coaching until he volunteered to coach Lester Middle School, filling in for Desmond Merriweather, a childhood friend from the neighborhood who was undergoing treatment for colon cancer. Hardaway turned out to be a natural, winning three straight city titles at Lester Middle, then founding “Team Penny,” a highly successful Nike EBYL travel team.

When Merriweather accepted the head coaching job at Memphis East High School, Hardaway was all set to join his staff as an assistant in 2015. But Merriweather died before the season and Hardaway took over in the fall.

Hardaway quickly found his calling, coaching East to Tennessee state championships that winter, then again in 2017 and 2018 before Memphis made the call, asking for his help.

Hardaway couldn’t say no to the Tigers, just like he couldn’t say no to Memphis when they recruited him as a player.

“The University of Memphis has always been the heartbeat of the city,” Hardaway said. “The NBA came here 18 years ago. But Memphis has always been there. When the Grizzlies are good, and Memphis is good, (the city of) Memphis gets a little tilt because it’s been there through the generations.”

Hardaway was a popular choice, the only choice really, to replace highly respected coach Tubby Smith, who won 40 games in two years but never seemed to capture the imagination of the fans or the community.  A handful of players left after Smith’s first year and he was unable to bring in any local players. Average attendance for home games fell to 6,225 – a terrific number for many programs, but a 48-year low for Memphis. Despite winning 21 games and making an inspired run to the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Championship, the Tigers were on the outside looking in for a fourth straight year in when NCAA tournament bids were given out.

Hardaway had never coached a game in college when he accepted his current job, but he has hired a strong staff that includes Sam Mitchell, the 2007 NBA Coach of the Year, and Mike Miller, a former NBA starter who has strong recruiting connections. He is in a rare position to ignite this basketball-crazed city again by resurrecting a program that has been its pride and joy since the early 1970s but has not been in the national headlines since John Calipari coached the Tigers to the NCAA championship game in 2008.

“It’s great,” said senior guard Jeremiah Martin, a first team preseason all-conference choice who averaged 18.8 points last year. “He’s from Memphis. He believes in Memphis and wants the city to do better. This is his hometown and it’s what he represents. I wasn’t surprised. I heard the rumors from freshman year. He fits right in. He’s where he’s supposed to be.”

New coaches like Hardaway, Dan Hurley of Connecticut and Joe Dooley of ECU have added to The American’s already-impressive national profile as the conference continues its quest to put five or six teams into the NCAA tournament on a regular basis. “This league is filled with great coaches,” Hardaway said. “You have to do your studying, know what they’re going to do, or they can embarrass you.”

Hardaway’s first year could be a work in progress. Memphis was picked to finish fourth in the American’s preseason coaches’ poll even though four starters return. Hardaway got a late start in recruiting but scrambled to add five recruits, signing two local stars -guard Tyler Harris of Cordova, who averaged 30.3 points and was Mr. Basketball in AAA; and point guard Alex Lomax, who started for him at East.

“This year is special because it’s my first group,” Hardaway said. “You win with veterans in this league and we have five seniors who have been starters. They’re helping the young guys out and they’re really meshing well.”

Hardaway has already excited the Tigers’ rabid fan base with his recruiting efforts. Memphis is among the favorites to land a number of top-50 prospects in the class of 2019.

“It seems like all that energy has started over again from when I was in college,” Hardaway said. “You get 18,000 fans to come out just to see the introduction of the team to the city, it’s a great feeling having the city behind us. It’s a great feeling for the kids and the school.

“Last year wasn’t really Memphis. It wasn’t us. We’re better supporters of the game, especially the college game. This year, they’re being themselves. They love the game. Basketball is the most popular sport in this city. You can go to every neighborhood and there is always going to be a ball bouncing.”

This was the first time since 2014 that FedExForum was filled for Memphis basketball. The crowd was loud. Hardaway hopes it will become a preview of coming attractions if he can sign some of the elite talent he is recruiting.

“The sky is the limit,” he said. “We need to build a fence around our city. I feel like we have the best talent in the country here. That’s my personal opinion. The mindset of the players fits the school. Everything is about toughness and playing your heart out and not giving up. If we can keep the guys we want from Memphis at home and then recruit some guys nationally, we’ll be okay.”

In a city known as the home of the blues, soul and rock and roll, that is music to the fans’ ears.



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