It had been a long time since Golden State Warrior point guard Tim Hardaway was in this kind of situation, with the game hanging in the balance. Would it all come back to him? Isaiah Rider of the Minnesota Timberwolves was ready to take the shot that could win it, and Hardaway had to stop him.
This time, however, it wasn't a jumper or a layup that Hardaway had to contest—it was the 9 ball, corner pocket. The arena was a charity pool tournament in suburban Oakland, in September, and all Rider had to do to beat Hardaway was make an easy tap-in. But the voluble Hardaway would not go down quietly. "You feeling any pressure?" he said, needling Rider as he lined up his shot. "Don't get tight, now. Don't get all tense." Rider, withering under the verbal full-court press, missed. Hardaway calmly sank a length-of-the-table shot for the win.
The competition proved that at least two of the qualities that had made Hardaway, 28, a three-time All-Star are still intact: the cocky attitude developed on the playgrounds of Chicago and the ability to be at once lighthearted and tough-minded in the clutch. What it didn't reveal, though, was the condition of Hardaway's surgically repaired knees. He missed all of last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a preseason practice. And during rehabilitation he developed bone spurs in his right knee, which required arthroscopic surgery in June. It was no surprise, then, that a bit of rust was evident in the preseason. Nonetheless, Hardaway's killer crossover dribble made an occasional appearance, and he expects to pick up where he left off before he went down—as one of the NBA's elite point guards. "I can do all the things I could do before the injury," says Hardaway, who averaged 21.5 points and 10.6 assists in 1992-93. "I can accelerate, jump quick, work the crossover, change direction. I can do it all again."
Golden State would love to see all those moves back in force, but almost as vital is what it will hear from Hardaway. The Warriors missed his voice in the locker room last season, when friction developed on the team, especially between coach Don Nelson and forwards Chris Webber and Billy Owens. "Everything was fine in the games, but off the court everybody went his separate way," says Hardaway. "That's fine and dandy, but you've also got to feel that this is your family. You've got to talk to each other. Hopefully, that will change. Let's put it this way: I'm going to try to make it change."
To that end Hardaway will do his share of talking, both trash and otherwise. "He's the guy you'll hear yelling if you make a good move or a tough shot," says Golden State forward Chris Mullin, "the guy who will get you going on those days you might feel a little sluggish."
Hardaway also speaks with his actions. Last fall he visited Mullin in New York, where Hardaway accompanied him to the hospital to see Mullin's mother, who was terminally ill with cancer. "That kind of thing brings you beyond close," Mullin says.
It also helped Hardaway keep some perspective on his own, lesser problems, such as missing his chance to play with Dream Team II last summer because he was still recovering from his injuries. Hardaway was selected for the squad, but he says, "I couldn't bring myself to go with them to Toronto [for the world championships] because I couldn't stand having to sit and watch. But it's not the end of the world. I'd rather miss the Dream Team than miss any more time with this team."
Golden State can't afford to have him miss any more time. On the basketball court—never mind the pool hall—Hardaway is the man from whom the Warriors take their cue.
Hardaway hopes to flash his multiple skills again.