Golden State Warrior center Chris Webber hosted a Christmas party for the homeless in Oakland in December that fed 138 people and enhanced Webber's reputation in the Bay Area as an all-around wonderful fellow. Orlando Magic guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway made a similarly commendable gesture the same month, when he spoke to a group of high school students in Orlando about the evils of drugs, but things didn't go quite so well. Hardaway told the students that as a teenager he sold drugs briefly before seeing the error of his ways. Hardaway later allowed that he never really sold drugs; he was exaggerating to get the attention of his young audience. But local television cameras recorded his speech, and the story caused such a stir that Nike, with whom Hardaway has an endorsement contract, hustled a representative out to counsel young Penny on the finer points of public relations.
That's the way life has been for Webber and Hardaway, who have been linked ever since the draft-night trade last June 30 that sent Webber, the No. 1 pick, from Orlando to Golden State in exchange for No. 3 selection Hardaway and the Warriors' first-round draft choices in 1996,1998 and 2000. Except for a preseason appendectomy and an early-season ankle injury, everything has fallen neatly into place for Webber, while even Hardaway's best-intentioned efforts have somehow gone awry. And though Hardaway has traveled a bit rockier road than Webber has, the rookies have made it to the same place: the edge of NBA stardom.
Halfway through the season Hardaway and Webber are—with apologies to Dallas Maverick forward Jamal Mashburn—the two top rookies in the NBA. In some ways their seasons have been remarkably similar. Both of them began by showing occasional flashes of brilliance that have grown steadily more frequent. The powerful 6'10" Webber has proved to be the inside force the Warriors longed for, and the versatile 6'7" Hardaway has shown himself to be basketball's version of a Renaissance man.
Hardaway, in particular, can fill up a box score. Through Sunday's games he was among the top six rookies in scoring, rebounding, steals and assists. "He's the most well rounded of all the rookies," says Orlando coach Brian Hill, whose team was 26-17 at week's end. "We knew he could do a lot of things, but his defense has been the biggest surprise. He's capable of being a great defender. He proved from Day One that he was going to be one of the premier players in this league. This guy will mean more to us than Chris Webber would have."
Webber, the top rebounder and second-best scorer among rookies, has been a revelation to Warrior watchers, who had been fed a steady diet of mediocre big men ever since Nate Thurmond was traded in 1974. "He's the best thing that has happened to this franchise, and to me personally, in the last dozen years," says Golden State coach Don Nelson, whose team, through Sunday, was a surprising 22-18. "He's doing things around the basket that haven't been seen around here in quite a while."
Like Hardaway, Webber has a flair for the dramatic, an ability to command a crowd's attention. Bay Area fans are still talking about a fast break against the Phoenix Suns in November in which Webber brought the ball down on the wing, whipped it around his waist and took it in for a dunk over Charles Barkley. It's not the kind of thing former Warrior centers Joe Barry Carroll and Alton Lister were known for. "Webber's the best rookie in the league," says Los Angeles Laker general manager Jerry West. "Mashburn and Hardaway are having good years, but Webber's clearly the best."
But in other ways Webber and Hardaway have had very different rookie experiences. Warrior fans have taken to Webber as if he were water in the desert. But fans in Orlando have taken considerably longer to warm up to Hardaway, even booing him early in the season. His major offense? He's not Webber.
"It's been hard getting acceptance,"' Hardaway says. "I don't think I've completely gotten it yet. Most people are behind me now, but there are still a lot of fans here who thought Chris was coming and are mad that he's not here. For the first time in my life I was an underdog."
It was a strange turn of events, considering that Hardaway was thought to be the luckier player when the trade was announced. When he and Webber switched caps on the podium at the Palace of Auburn Hills on draft night, Hardaway received the chance to play with Orlando center Shaquille O'Neal. And no matter how sincerely Webber insists that he's happy with Golden State, it's obvious that he had visions of standing shoulder to massive shoulder with Shaq. "It's not something I think about anymore because it's not going to happen," Webber says. "But I think we would have been the game's most devastating front line. After a little time together we could have...well, like I said, it's not going to happen."
There was every indication that it would happen until a few days before the draft. In fact, if Hardaway hadn't been such a persistent self-promoter, Webber would probably be in an Orlando uniform today. Hardaway wanted to play for the Magic so badly that he was undaunted by signs that Orlando wasn't nearly as interested in him. When Webber arrived in Orlando for a predraft workout, he was met by representatives from nearly every media outlet in the area and whisked away by a waiting car provided by the Magic. When Hardaway came to town for his workout a few days later, there was no media horde and no car. He bummed a ride into town with the only television cameraman who showed up, and they stopped at McDonald's for breakfast on the way.
After his workout Hardaway sent Magic officials a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself—his way of asking them to keep him in mind. Like any eager job applicant he followed up with a phone call asking general manager Pat Williams if the Magic would like another look at him, and the team brought him in for a second workout the night before the draft. Hardaway turned in a dazzling 90-minute performance that changed the Magic's thinking. "I've never seen someone come in and do things that Penny Hardaway did in that workout, making passes and dunks that would have had crowds screaming in disbelief if they had been there," Williams says. "Never before, that I know of. has a team had its thinking changed so dramatically 24 hours before a draft."
Changing the minds of the fans, who knew Webber could fill Orlando's gaping hole at power forward, wouldn't be so easy. On draft night Williams took that cardboard cutout with him to the podium in Orlando Arena, where about 8,000 Magic fans had gathered to watch the draft on television. When the trade was announced Williams spoke to the crowd over the boos. "Those of you who are upset, your jeers will turn to cheers," he said. "Your first look at Anfernee Hardaway will thrill your hearts."
Not exactly. The first few times Hardaway played at home, his performances were uneven. After Miami beat Orlando in an exhibition game and Hardaway, despite a so-so game, was chosen the best substitute of the game, the crowd booed his selection. The next day Magic assistant coach Bob Hill posted a copy of a newspaper article about the booing on Hardaway's locker room stall with a note: "Penny, ignore this type of reaction from fickle fans. They will come to love you and appreciate what you can do for this team and our community. Stay focused, work hard and have fun. I'm always around to talk."
The fan reaction was difficult for Hardaway to take because even more than most former college stars, he is used to being not only supported but also idolized. When he says, "I've been loved everywhere I've ever played," he's not being immodest, merely truthful. In his hometown of Memphis he's more than just another star athlete; he's a civic hero who passed up the chance to go elsewhere and stayed to play for Memphis State.
Slowly Hardaway began to change public opinion in Orlando. The turning point came when Webber and the Warriors came to town on Nov. 23. Hardaway had 23 points and eight rebounds in a 120-107 Orlando win, while Webber, a natural power forward who is playing out of position at center, had 13 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots. Hardaway earned a standing ovation, and a group of fans unfurled a banner that read WE PICKED THE RIGHT ONE BABY. UH HUH.
For their part, the Warriors are sure they picked the right one, and Webber has been a presence in Golden State both on and off the court. He has completed a remarkable transformation of his image from a scowling, taunting member of Michigan's Fab Five to a thoughtful, self-deprecating pro. At a recent practice Nelson wore a Webber-produced T-shirt that referred to his infamous timeout in the NCAA championship game last season. The back of the shirt read GET A T.O., BABY!
"The scary thing about Chris is that he's going to get so much better," says Nelson. "When he first got here, for instance, he had no idea what to do when he got the ball with his back to the basket. His entire low-post game consisted of ducking his left shoulder into the defender and trying to spin baseline. But he's such a quick learner that in less than half a season he's picked up a nice little assortment of low-post moves. That tells you he's not done improving by a long shot."
Nor is Hardaway. He began the season playing most of his minutes at off-guard beside point guard Scott Skiles; Brian Hill's plan was for Hardaway to gradually take over Skiles's position. There's nothing gradual about the process anymore. Hardaway runs the show most of the time now, and the sight of him driving the lane and dishing to O'Neal for a dunk is destined to become one of the league's most familiar images. "Once we get a few years under our belt," says O'Neal, "Penny and I will be the Magic and Kareem of the'90s."
And the rest of us might have the debate of the decade on our hands, the kind of argument that threads its way through two players' careers and binds them together whether they like it or not. Don't we sometimes wonder what would have happened if Magic had been a Celtic and Larry a Laker? It's too early to place Webber and Hardaway on that grand a scale, but if the two rookies become the spectacular players that their first half season in the league promises, we might find ourselves talking about them deep into the night, asking questions like, Which team got the better of the trade? If you were starting a team, who would you take, Chris or Penny? Wouldn't that be fun to kick around for the next, oh, dozen years?
"Nope," says Hardaway. "I mean, it might be fun for some people, but I hope it won't come to that. If people want to compare us a few years down the line, I hope they'll be able to just count up our championship rings."
SAM FORENCICH/NBA PHOTOS
Hardaway (left) and Webber are already rising toward NBA stardom.
BARRY GOSSAGE (OPPOSITE)
[See caption above.]
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
The blockbuster trade put Webber (right) in Warrior garb and fulfilled Hardaway's yearnings for Orlando.
BARRY GOSSAGE (LEFT)
Webber (above, right) wound up playing against, not with, Shaq, who is happily making magic with Hardaway (left).
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
[See caption above.]