The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame recently inducted their 2018 classes, Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, Randy Moss, and Brian Urlacher, among others, joining their respective sport's pantheon of immortals. Which has me thinking about the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the shrine in Springfield, Massachusetts, devoted to honoring and celebrating legends of the hardwood. In particular, the recent ceremonies in Cooperstown and Canton have me thinking of this city's most popular living sports figure, and his place in basketball history.
Anfernee Hardaway is a Hall of Famer. Or at least he should be.
Here we are, almost 11 years since the pride of Treadwell High School played his last NBA game (December 3, 2007), and Penny Hardaway cannot be found among the greatest to play the sport he commanded for an all-too-brief professional career. And that's the catch for Hardaway: However great he may have been, we're tortured by the question of what he could have been, perhaps what he should have been with stronger knees.
But there's an advantage Hardaway holds as a former basketball great. The Basketball Hall of Fame has a significantly lower standard for induction than baseball's Hall, and even lower than football's. Unless your name is Sandy Koufax, a career abbreviated by injury eliminates you from consideration for Cooperstown. You have to have played ten seasons just to reach baseball's ballot, and most inductees enjoyed careers of at least 15 years. As for football, Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis have recently been inducted, joining Gale Sayers among gridiron greats who starred brightly enough during brief careers to earn enshrinement.
Then there's the hoop Hall. Here's a look at four recent inductees to factor into the equation of Penny Hardaway's qualifications:
• Maurice Cheeks (will be inducted this year) — Four-time All-Star. Never named to an All-NBA team. Played a supporting role (to Julius Erving and Moses Malone) on one of the greatest teams in NBA history, the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers. Played 15 years in the NBA.
• Sarunas Marciulionis (2014) — The face of Lithuanian basketball (particularly at the 1992 Olympics). Played seven seasons in the NBA. Never an All-Star.
• Jamaal Wilkes (2012) — Three-time All-Star. 1974-75 NBA Rookie of the Year. Played supporting role (to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) for three L.A. Laker championship teams. Never named to an All-NBA team.
• Satch Sanders (2011) — Played supporting role (to Bill Russell and John Havlicek) for eight Boston Celtic championship teams. Never an All-Star and never named to an All-NBA team. Never averaged more than 12.6 points in a season.
Sorry, but these four players don't so much as approximate the star power of Penny Hardaway in his prime. Let's consider 50 games a "full" season for an NBA player. Penny played nine such seasons, so it's not as though he went down after five or six no-look passes and a reverse dunk. He was named All-NBA three times, and twice first-team (after the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons). Consider his company on the 1996 All-NBA team: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, and David Robinson (all members of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team). Hardaway was a four-time All-Star and averaged more than 20 points per game three times.
Let's forget the stats and accolades, though. Basketball doesn't have a significant counting number — 3,000 hits or 10,000 rushing yards — that introduces a player into discussions about Hall of Fame status. In nearly every case, it's an eye test. Did the player do things on a basketball court we don't see many (if any) others do? This is where Penny Hardaway's Hall of Fame case becomes lock-down secure. Beyond Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, who can fill — to this day — a 60-second highlight reel like Hardaway?
He was the national high school player of the year (according to Parade magazine) in 1990. He was named first-team All-America as a junior at Memphis State in 1993. And he remains an unforgettable performer at basketball's highest level, an Olympic gold medalist. (Get this: Every member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame . . . except Penny Hardaway.) The good folks at SLAM magazine recently published an issue ranking the 100 greatest players of all time, and Hardaway checks in at 92. (None of the Hall of Famers mentioned above made the cut.)
I'm convinced the Naismith selection committee will someday get this right. But make no mistake: the Basketball Hall of Fame is incomplete without Penny Hardaway.