Penny Hardaway: Recruiting is not like the movies

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication, along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community, have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

If there’s a new movie about sports recruiting, you can bet we’re going to watch it. Amateur, now available on Netflix, joins the ranks of the better films on the subject. It’s about a 14-year-old basketball phenom who is plucked from his neighborhood high school to play for an elite prep school and unwittingly gets gamed in a corrupt system.

Movies about recruiting can be problematic in their portrayal of the process. We think there is already plenty of drama in a young athlete’s search for a college program that will allow him or her to pursue their sports dreams. Hollywood tends to play up and sensationalize recruiting excesses and abuses (have you seen Johnny Be Good? Don’t!)

The ones that come close

There are several good films out there in which recruiting plays a role. Jordan Wells, NCSA Head Football Recruiting Coach, recommends the Netflix docu-series, Last Chance U for its “very accurate portrayal of how the recruiting process can be for a junior college prospect. It gives insight into coaching, atmosphere of those programs, and then shows the types of opportunities you can have coming out of a program like that,” he says. Wells also gives The Blind Side a thumbs-up for its portrayal of how college coaches pursued “Big Mike” (Michael Oher).

But for the most part, our Senior Recruiting Coordinator Chris Sartorius reminds us, movies focusing on “the glam and glitz” are not relevant to families choosing a college. “It’s not this big TV drama,” he says.

Penny Hardaway’s unique perspective a player, coach and actor

In batting around sports recruiting movies in the NCSA office, Blue Chips was also cited as a favorite. That’s the one in which the college coach played by Nick Nolte sells out his ideals to land five-star prospects portrayed by Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. On March 20, Hardaway, four-time NBA All-Star and inductee last year into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame, was hired as the men’s basketball coach at his alma mater, the University of Memphis. As someone who has experienced the recruiting process as a player, a coach, and yes, an actor, we reached out to him to provide a recruiting reality check, and he graciously agreed.

For starters, he said with a laugh during our phone interview, a movie about his recruiting experience would be boring. “I knew I wanted to go to Memphis,” he said. “A few coaches came to talk to me and my grandmother but I had my mind made up. I didn’t go through the whole process of being courted. I only made one other college visit and that was to the University of Arkansas. I had some buddies on the team. Those guys were telling me stories (about their recruitment), and I was like, ‘Wow, my experience was nothing like that.’”

With one notable exception, Hardaway noted, recruiting hasn’t really changed. “You have to let an athlete know you really want him and give his parents or guardian the right words that will allow them to understand that if the athlete does come to your school, he’s going to get a good education and get the best chance to make it in basketball afterward,” he said. “One thing that has changed is more kids want to be one-and-done. In my day, we went to school for four years. If you have that type of talent, okay, you can go, but we’re going to hook you up with online courses. Even if you’re a one-and-done you should still finish (your education).”

A  great recruiting story

Hardaway was recently involved in one of the more uplifting recruiting stories—the kind they don’t ordinarily make movies out of—when he was reunited with point guard Alex Lomax, who he has coached or mentored since Lomax was in the sixth grade. Lomax was an integral part of Hardaway’s three consecutive state championship teams at East High School. He had signed a letter of intent to play with rival college Wichita State prior to Hardaway’s hiring at Memphis. Wichita Coach Greg Marshall called it “the right thing to do at this time” to withdraw Lomax’s letter of intent and allow him to play for Hardaway and Memphis without penalty. “Alex is a great kid,” Hardaway said. “I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve spent with him.” Last week, Lomax officially committed to Memphis (along with Hardaway’s son Jayden).

Hardaway is a firm believer in recruiting local talent. “I think it’s important,” he stated. “You do have to recruit nationally, but you really have to nurture the talent you have here.  We have enough talent alone to win a national championship. Memphis is a hotbed for basketball. It would be crazy not to take care of your own first.”

Hardaway has a unique perspective on the recruiting process with his experiences as an elite recruit and now a college coach building his first recruiting class. As a player, he said, “I was the person out there with the basketball in my hand. I controlled my own destiny. As the coach, the control is taken out of your hands. All you can do is give your speech to the family and the athlete and say this is why I want you, this is why we need you, this is what we can do for you and this is what you can do for us. You have to leave it in the athletes’ hands.”

Athletes need to be involved-it’s their future

He is a strong believer in not leaving the recruiting process to the parents. “It’s a decision the athlete needs be a part of,” he said. “They cannot leave it up to their parents. They have to be involved in the decision because it’s their future.”

His advice to athletes: Be humble. “I was fortunate to be the No. 1 high school player,” he said. “I had a lot of attention going into college. Take it all in and don’t let it go to your head. Continue to work; (success) is not going to be given to you, it has to be earned.”

To parents, he urges “to not sell your soul. Stick together and be supportive. There are people around (elite) players that tell them what they want to hear. That’s not good at all, because you’re going to ruin the kid’s psyche. He will think things will be given to him. You have to have a great support system so they don’t fall into that category.”

Most important, he adds, is, “Take the time to make the right decision because if you force a kid to go somewhere they don’t want to, it will not be fun for the kid or the coach.”

Recruiting, he concludes, is not like the movies. “Get more than one option, talk it over, and make a sound decision. Don’t think about the movies,” he said with a laugh.

But we couldn’t let him go without asking about Blue Chips, which he said was literally a life-changing experience. He had not yet been drafted by an NBA team when he appeared in the film. He confirmed: “Everything I did in that movie with Shaq was an audition to get him to do what he did (which was urge the Orlando Magic to draft him).”

More Stories

NCSA: How to get recruited for women’s rowing

NCSA gives tips, guidelines and camps ideas for help getting recruited to college for women's rowing.

Read the full article

National Signing Day: The Biggest NCAA Men's Basketball Commitments

Here’s a look at who signed with some of the best Division I men's basketball programs in the NCAA on National Signing Day.

Read the full article

NCSA: Five social media lessons for coaches

Any coach who's looking to brush up their social media skills should look at these tips and tricks from NCSA.

Read the full article
More NCSA Recruiting