Back the Hardaway
After being sidelined last season, Penny Hardaway is sparking the
The early favorite for the 2002 Comeback Player of the Year
Award is Suns guard Penny Hardaway, who early last summer was
contemplating retirement. "I was going to give myself until
mid-August," says the 30-year-old Hardaway, who despite four
operations on his left knee in four years, was averaging 18.6
points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists at week's end.
Hardaway missed all but four games last season, and on occasion
the rust still shows. He has spent extra hours in the gym with
freelance shooting coach Buzz Braman to improve his touch; a
career 47.2% shooter, he was hitting only 42.1% from the floor
through Sunday. Last Friday in Boston he went 6 for 23 from the
field, with nine turnovers. At the end of regulation Hardaway
also failed to block out Antoine Walker, whose tip-in propelled
the Celtics to a 109-102 overtime victory.
Two nights later in Toronto, though, Hardaway scored a team-high
27 points and hit a layup at the buzzer to beat the Raptors
91-90 and lift Phoenix to 13-9. The Suns have had to adjust not
only to the return of Hardaway but also to the absence of Jason
Kidd, who went to the Nets for Stephon Marbury in an off-season
swap of point guards. While Marbury is a less willing and able
passer than Kidd, the team's backcourt could be more explosive
than it was a year ago. Backup Tony Delk scored 53 points
against the Kings last season, and like Hardaway, he can play
the one or the two.
Hardaway predicts the guards won't gel until the second half of
the season, in part because Marbury keeps dropping back to bring
the ball upcourt instead of running out on the break. "He still
hasn't gotten the rhythm down," says Hardaway. "He's not in New
Jersey. He doesn't have to have the ball all the time."
Adds coach Scott Skiles, "Penny has a tendency not to run too. I
want to see both of them running the floor better."
If the Suns do commit to the fast break, they could become one
of the league's most exciting and dangerous clubs. No such sunny
forecasts would be possible, however, without the reemergence of
the 6'7" Hardaway, who twice underwent surgery in 2000 to clean
out his knee. After a brief return ended in failure this past
January, Phoenix began to ponder a future without him. According
to the NBA's complex financial rules, the Suns could have
cleared their salary cap of the remaining four years and $56.3
million of Hardaway's contract if he had retired after appearing
in 11 or fewer games this year. "I was made aware of that, but I
never cared," says Hardaway, who would have been paid regardless.
He proved he was serious about his comeback by playing in two
summer leagues and spending a month in daily workouts with
Michael Jordan and friends in Chicago. That hard work has given
perspective to a player who used to take his athleticism for
granted. "People dog you about not playing," he says, "but
nobody ever understands how you feel or what you're going
through to get yourself ready to play again."
End of an Era for the Knicks
Van Gundy Calls Abrupt Timeout
New York coach Jeff Van Gundy walked into an Atlanta hotel bar
last month with a couple of his assistants and parked in front
of a big-screen TV to watch the Celtics play the Heat. As the
game approached its conclusion--a Boston victory at the
buzzer--Van Gundy began to pace. When Miami failed to call a
timeout at a critical juncture, Van Gundy frantically signaled
for one, making at T with his hands. Realizing that what he'd
done wasn't quite appropriate, he turned his palms inward, and
lowered his fingertips to his shoulders to request a 20-second
It was an impulsive, hilarious and revealing display by one of
the league's most intense coaches. Van Gundy was on his way back
to his room to prepare for New York's game the following night
against the Hawks when an acquaintance stopped him at the door
and made a crack about the refs' failure to award him the
timeout. "What do you mean?" Van Gundy asked. You called for
time, he was told. "I did?" he said.
Last Saturday, with the Knicks 10-9, the 39-year-old Van Gundy
abruptly signaled for timeout again, walking away from the
remaining two years of his contract, worth $8 million. Whether
he resigned for "family reasons" (which is what he told his
players) or because he had lost his "laserlike focus" (which is
what he said at his press conference), it's hard to imagine that
the driven Van Gundy will be gone for long. With a .594 winning
percentage in six-plus seasons with the Knicks, he will have no
shortage of suitors when he's ready to return.
Assistant coach Don Chaney, who on Monday was given the head job
for the rest of the season, promises to run more than Van Gundy
did, a strategy co-captain Latrell Sprewell endorsed. "He's more
laid-back, more open to suggestion, a little less uptight,"
Sprewell said of Chaney.
A new voice in the huddle is only the beginning. For a decade
New York has rallied around the principles espoused by Pat Riley
and reinforced by his former assistant and successor. Last
Saturday, Van Gundy identified those principles: "Preparation,
intensity, will to win." They helped the undersized, overpaid,
mismatched Knicks remain competitive.
The grinding, physical style favored by Van Gundy--which is also
the hallmark of Riley's struggling Heat--is no longer in vogue,
but it at least provided the franchise with an identity. Now
it's up to general manager Scott Layden to change the direction
of the Knicks. In his 27 months on the job, however, Layden has
yet to show that he can pull a rabbit (much less a talented big
man) out of his hat.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A healthy Hardaway, along with Delk and newcomer Marbury, give the Suns a potent backcourt.
around the Rim
Don't believe the rumors that Michael Jordan will retire again
or demand a trade to a better team when he's eligible to be
dealt on Dec. 25. In either case he would go down as a quitter,
which would be a blow to his image and send a terrible message
to the young team he put together....Last season, their sixth in
Vancouver, the Grizzlies drew an average of 13,737 fans. This
season, their first in Memphis, they were drawing 13,497 at
week's end....Just when slimmed-down Vin Baker looked as if he
was coming around, he backslid last week into shaky play that
led to a pair of SuperSonics losses. "The inconsistency we are
seeing should not happen to professional athletes," said coach
Nate McMillian....Nick Van Exel demanded to be traded last
weekend, but it wasn't the first time he had done so this year.
In October, after the Nuggets had unloaded Kevin Willis, Van
Exel made his demand and G.M. Kiki Vandeweghe explored a
possible deal with the Warriors....Hawks point guard Jacque
Vaughn became a national laughingstock by going 0 for 22 from
the floor in his first four games, but he made 44 of 65 shots
over the next 15....Not only did Miami wobble to a 2-13 start,
but also 10 of those games were at home. Now Pat Riley has to
make up ground while playing 18 of his next 28 on the
road....Amid reports that the league will take a pay cut when it
signs a new TV contract, Shaquille O'Neal had this programming
note to offer: The NBA is so lame, says Shaq, that he lets his
kids watch only seven players: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin
Garnett, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber and, of
course, their dad.