Now pain-free, Penny Hardaway seeking revival with Miami Heat

Updated: October 2, 2007, 3:44 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- He doesn't play much golf these days, so his single-digit handicap is gone. He doesn't own a boat, doesn't go to the beach and isn't part of the posh South Florida party scene.

So why, exactly, did Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway move to Miami nearly 2½ years ago?

Maybe it was fate.

When Hardaway completed the purchase of a 7,500-square-foot home a few miles south of downtown Miami in July 2005, playing for the Heat wasn't in his plans. Knee pain was keeping him from basketball, and some believed his playing career was over.

But Hardaway never retired and kept seeking ways back on the floor. His doctors eventually found the cause of the ache, then operated to fix the problem. Now 36 and pain-free, Hardaway is set to begin a comeback with the Heat.

His competition for a spot in the rotation formally started Tuesday, when the Heat opened training camp.

"It's like you're a rookie all over again," Hardaway said. "I just want to win. I want the opportunity to play pain-free. I felt like I deserved to be back on the court, now that I'm not feeling pain that I was. Basketball wasn't fun these last five or six years."

It's fun again now.

Looking strong and trim at 212 pounds with minuscule levels of body fat, Hardaway acknowledges he isn't the high-flyer he was in earlier years. But he has been scrimmaging and impressing new teammates for several weeks. When he wasn't at the Heat practice facility or another gym for pickup games or workouts this summer, he was typically putting himself through sprinting drills at the University of Miami.

"The guy's committed with his heart to wanting to play," Heat coach Pat Riley said. "The guy can still play. I mean, he's a player. The only question is his physical capabilities. He's lost, obviously, a half-step or a full step. But that doesn't make any difference. He can play the game. As long as he can stay healthy and be on the court, I think he can help us."

Ah, the caveat: "As long as he can stay healthy."

It's a concern, considering Hardaway's major issues with injuries started more than a decade ago.

He was a rapid-rising star when he broke into the NBA in 1993-94, and he and Shaquille O'Neal brought an Eastern Conference championship to Orlando the following season. But knee problems kept Hardaway to 59 games in 1996-97, then surgery limited him to 19 games the following year. In the years that followed, he's battled plantar fasciitis, more knee surgery, thumb surgery, and even more knee surgery.

Since the start of the 2003-04 season, Hardaway has made nearly $44 million. He's played in 41 games.

"I don't have the wear-and-tear or the mileage of a normal 13-year veteran in this league, who plays every day and goes to the playoffs every year," Hardaway said. "That definitely saved my body, not being in too many games over the last five years."

He and O'Neal started their careers together in Orlando. They can end them in Miami, in a reunion that no one saw coming.

The Shaq-Penny relationship became strained toward the end of their time together in Orlando, and became practically nonexistent in recent years. O'Neal has made more than a few wisecracks about Hardaway, once saying that his "Blue Chips" co-star was "from the other side of the moon."

Mindful of that, the Heat asked O'Neal for his opinion before signing Hardaway. He approved of the deal.

"Penny was always a guy that could make you look better than you really were," O'Neal said. "He's a great passer. He's had two years off, he's in phenomenal shape and he still has it. A lot of people are going to be surprised."

That's true, but Hardaway -- still a career 15.4 point-per-game scorer -- isn't surprising himself.

He never retired for a reason. Deep down, he always believed he could still be a productive player in the NBA, and is still motivated by the lure of a championship. Miami got a title in 2006 and Hardaway believes the Heat will challenge for one again this season.

"It's been a long time since guys have seen me play the way I can play right now, because I was gone, out of sight, out of mind," Hardaway said. "To come back now and be on the court and holding my own and doing the things I can do, it feels great."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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