Book Reviews: Penny Hardaway ‘On These Courts’

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Last week on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Tony Kornheiser said about Derrick Rose and his most recent season-ending injury, “What if he’s Penny Hardaway?”

And while the connotation was negative — as in, what if we are robbed of Derrick Rose’s immense talent due to injuries in the same way we were robbed of Penny’s greatness due to botched surgeries and nagging injuries — I thought to myself, “Yeah, what if Derrick Rose is the next Penny Hardaway? There are far, far worse things in life.”

For starters, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway made hundreds of millions of dollars and is set financially for life. He played 14 seasons in the NBA, made four All-Star teams, two All-NBA first teams, and played in an NBA Finals. He won an Olympic gold medal. He helped put the Orlando Magic on the map along with Shaquille O’Neal. He was the basis for one of the most iconic commercial series of all time, and he’s still getting his signature sneakers made by Nike after all these years. Penny Hardaway has had himself a fine career.

Yet none of those reasons are even why I had that reaction. No, the reason I thought, you know, Derrick Rose would be lucky and should be honored if his life plays out like Penny Hardaway’s is because of what I learned about Anfernee Hardaway by reading “On These Courts: A Miracle Season That Changed a City, a Once-Future Star, and a Team Forever.”

Written by CNN’s Wayne B. Drash, who just so happened to play with and against Penny at a basketball camp in Lexington, Kentucky, as a youth — two Memphis kids, one from the good side of town, the other from the bad side of town, one destined to be a reporter, the other destined to be an NBA star — the book chronicles the story of Anfernee Hardaway returning to his old neighborhood of Binghampton to lift a community and change lives.

Well, first, let’s back up here. Things didn’t start out that way. No. Penny was simply supposed to get new uniforms for the Lester Lions, the junior high team his boyhood friend Desmond Merriweather coached in their hometown. But when Dez was diagnosed with colon cancer and struggling in the hospital, Penny went to see him. That’s when Dez told Hardaway about his team, a team he said Penny had to see. So Hardaway did, attending practice to the surprise of the adolescent boys — all from the rough neighborhood of Binghampton, the place where Penny grew up among gang-bangers, drug dealers and obscene amounts of violence, just like these kids.

Instantly, Penny fell in love with the team and decided to do more than just provide new uniforms — he was going to provide his full support, both financially and as an assistant coach.

Drash does a masterful job intertwining the stories of Penny himself — his upbringing without his father in Binghampton, his run-ins with violence, his rise to stardom, his eligibility struggles at Memphis State, his NBA career, everything — along with the story of the 2012 season for the Lester Lions and the lives of the kids on the team.

Binghampton is a rough place, a place where more people get sucked into a life of crime and the allure of gangs than not. But it is also a loving community, a tight-nit community — a place that quite frankly is a walking contradiction. The stars of the team, Reggie Green and Robert Washington, came from troubled homes. Green’s father was locked up, in part for beating Reggie, while Robert Washington quit the team numerous times and hid at his aunt’s house. As much as they respected and loved Dez, whose son Nick also started on the team, Penny came in and instilled the discipline he learned from the grandmother who raised him. And eventually, the kids all listened.

I won’t give away some of the shocking details and the way the season played out for the Lester Lions, but I will tell you that Anfernee Hardaway went back home, shared his experience coming from the same place with the same type of upbringing, and inspired a group of teens and one of the toughest sections of Memphis that they all can make a better life for themselves.

The Lester Lions, from Merriweather to Washington to Green to Kobe “Mayor” Freeman, Demarcus “Black” Martin, Andrew Murphy, Albert Zleh, Derrick Carnes, Courtney McLemore, George Bee, Xavier Young and Alex Lomax — along with Dez, Penny and coach LaMarcus Golden — shed insight into the lives people lead in the Binghampton section of Memphis.

Drash does a tremendous job chronicling the season, chronicling the team’s journey and Penny’s journey and Dez’s journey. It’s an excellent read about a star coming home and making good, giving back to his community — something Penny has done far beyond that season. He’s made it his life to give back to Binghampton, to help be a father-type figure to kids in need, helping the youth of Memphis keep contact with their parents — whether they be incarcerated or sometimes absent — to make the world a better place.

So what happens if Derrick Rose is the next Penny Hardaway? Then Derrick Rose should be so lucky. Because Penny Hardaway is doing important work, life-changing work for the youth of Memphis’s Binghampton section, and he’s doing it because he knows what it’s like to grow up around such gloom … and that there are greener pastures if you stay on the right path.

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