MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — So, Penny Hardaway, you and Memphis East High School just won your third straight state championship, what are you going to do next?
“I’m going to play golf,” Hardaway said.
And after that?
“I’m the coach at East High School,” he said.
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You asking for a raise?
The man will be getting a raise, certainly, and a new job description, too. Head coach of the University of Memphis Tigers. He’ll be introduced at a press conference early this week.
But before claiming the new job title, there was the matter of claiming a final state title, which merely reduced Hardaway to tears.
East High defeated Whitehaven Saturday, 72-50. As the final seconds wound down, Hardaway buried his face in a towel and wept.
He wept as he walked down the line, congratulating Whitehaven’s players. He was still teary during his postgame interview.
“I just hit me at one time,” he said. “It’s the journey, man.”
They say he’ll flop as coach at Memphis because NBA-stars-turned-coaches usually do. Look at Clyde Drexler, who didn’t last long at Houston. Look at Chris Mullin, who isn’t exactly lighting it up at St. John’s.
But Hardaway isn’t a guy who woke up one morning and decided he’d like to be a Division I head coach. He’s not a former player who got bored with retirement and decided he’d like to do something other than play golf.
Hardaway started coaching at middle school. Middle school! Because an old friend needed some help.
Then he built one of the best AAU programs in the country. Then he spent years coaching a high school team.
Does that sound like someone who doesn’t want to roll up his sleeves and do the work? Does that sound like someone who is just in it for the glory and the glitz?
The truth is, if it weren’t for Hardaway’s iconic stature, he might be characterized as a grinder, as a guy who worked his way up from the lowest levels of basketball on the strength of his relationship with the kids.
So there was exactly no chance that Hardaway was going to formally accept the Memphis job before coaching East in one last state tournament. There was exactly no chance that he was going to let someone else coach the last high school game of Alex Lomax, the point guard Hardaway took into his home and helped raise.
“I’ve been with him since sixth grade,” said Hardaway.
The two of them were going to see it through.
And see it through they did, defeating Whitehaven for the fifth time this year. Lomax was named MVP. He and Hardaway took special care to pose for a photo under the goal after the game.
It was sweet, watching the players and coaches celebrate together. Holding up No. 1 fingers and high-fiving their fans in the stands.
Hardaway may win bigger games and get more attention in his next gig, but it’s hard to imagine that the wins will have more meaning or that he will have more fun.
He continued to dodge the inevitable questions about the Memphis job in the postgame press conference. At one point, given all the questions about future employment, he asked his principal if she had fired him. When someone asked Hardaway a general question about how to “right the ship” at Memphis, he said he respected former head coach Tubby Smith too much to use the phrase “right the ship.”
OK, but then what does the Memphis program need? Did Hardaway have any thoughts about that?
“You need to get people coming back to the games,” he said. “That’s all I can say. I know they were coming when i was there.”
“Maybe they’ll come again,” someone offered.
Said Hardaway: “Maybe they’ll come again.”