For Phoenix Suns guard Penny Hardaway, redemption and regret are
a package deal. He has earned one but cannot shake the other, and
in the Suns' Western Conference semifinal series against the Los
Angeles Lakers, which began on Sunday with a 105-77 L.A. victory,
he feels them in equal measure. His stellar play over the past
six weeks in the absence of injured point guard Jason Kidd not
only kept the Suns from sinking in the West but also helped him
peel off the "fragile" and "overrated" labels that had been
affixed to him in Orlando. But Hardaway, 28, would take more
satisfaction in his rebirth if facing L.A.--especially former
Magic teammate Shaquille O'Neal and Shaq's sidekick, Kobe
Bryant--didn't remind him so clearly of what might have been.
It was only four years ago that Hardaway was O'Neal's
multitalented partner, the flash to Shaq's bash. To Hardaway,
watching Bryant complement O'Neal with spectacular slashes to the
hoop and smothering defense in Game 1 was like seeing another
actor excel in the role he himself originated. "The way they work
together looks a lot like what Shaq and I used to do," Hardaway
said after O'Neal scored 37 points and Bryant added 25 in Game 1.
"Shaq takes so much pressure off you. He opens things up for
Although Hardaway is delighted to be in Phoenix, it's clear that
he would love to turn back the clock to the days when he and
O'Neal were as lethal a tandem as Bryant and O'Neal are now.
"I've wondered what would have happened if he hadn't left," he
says, referring to O'Neal's departure as a free agent in 1996.
"That's when things started going downhill for everyone,
After O'Neal moved on, Hardaway broke down, physically at least,
with knee and hamstring injuries that limited him to 78 games
over the next two seasons. The emotional toll was just as great.
"There was too much pressure on me," he says. "It wore me down.
Coach [Chuck] Daly didn't like me. The fans were fed up with me
because I wasn't scoring 25 points a night. I felt like I was in
a nightmare, coming to my home arena and feeling like the enemy."
The nightmare ended last summer when Orlando signed him to a
seven-year, $86 million contract and traded him to Phoenix. He
did sit out 21 games with foot injuries, but in the 15 games that
Kidd missed down the stretch, Hardaway averaged 18.3 points, 7.0
rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.9 steals. His 19.0 points per game in
the first round led the Suns past the San Antonio Spurs, three
games to one. "Penny proved that he's still a great player and
that he can carry a team," says Phoenix guard Todd Day. "He's not
one to say, 'I told you so,' but it has to be satisfying for
Knocking off L.A. would be even more satisfying, and the Suns'
slim chances rest heavily on Hardaway. If Bryant's Game 1
harassment of Kidd is any indication--Kidd, in his second game
since returning from a broken left ankle, missed five of six
shots and committed five turnovers--Phoenix will need Hardaway to
make the Lakers' other guard, Ron Harper, look like the
36-year-old with creaky knees that he is. One of the few
encouraging signs for the Suns on Sunday was that Hardaway seemed
up to the challenge, leading Phoenix with 25 points. "I'm
healthy," he says. "I can do the things I want to, without my
body holding me back."
Hardaway can finally play without restrictions, if not without
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH