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Hardaway finds it hard to relinquish his dream

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 21, 2010

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The face remains youthful, and he still sports a full head of hair and has a lean build. He’s too young to be a legend, too old to be significant.

Anfernee Hardaway is caught in the middle and wants to get out. He should be completing a brilliant NBA career but bad knees robbed him of that opportunity. He sits courtside at FedEx Forum in Memphis Nov. 13, a local icon, watching former teammate Shaquille O’Neal dunk and bull his way to 14 first-half points for the Celtics against the overwhelmed Grizzlies.

And he wonders, “Why couldn’t I have finished my career in grace?’’

Hardaway wants a chance to do that. At 39, he still feels he can contribute to a winning team. He believes he has enough skills left to come off the bench for spurts and enough experience to serve as a leader.

“It’s not about money,’’ he said. “I saved my money, have all the money that I want. God has blessed me with that. It’s really just the love of the game.’’

He was a smooth, 6-foot-7-inch point guard with scoring ability, post-up size, and dazzling passing skills. The Warriors traded his rights to Orlando on draft night in 1993 for Chris Webber. He teamed with O’Neal for three wildly successful seasons in the 1990s, leading the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995. But O’Neal bolted for the Lakers in ’96, and Hardaway began experiencing knee problems shortly thereafter. Suddenly Orlando’s dynamic duo was split up, and their careers were headed in different directions.

O’Neal won three NBA titles for the Lakers; Hardaway was eventually dealt to Phoenix, was one of the first NBA players to undergo microfracture surgery, and never regained his athleticism. He spent four seasons in Phoenix and three forgettable years in New York.

After a short stint with the Heat in 2006, Hardaway has waited for a call from an NBA team. He is relegated to sitting courtside at Grizzlies games, longing for an opportunity to be an old man on a championship-caliber roster, but knowing it’s highly unlikely.

“I still love the game and I feel like I deserve that chance, but at 39, everybody’s looking at the age,’’ he said. “They’re not looking at it as if I can still play.

“I don’t have a lot of miles on my body because my knee was hurt for so long. But I feel like I can play a minimal role on anybody’s team and help out. Role players now are playing 10-12 minutes a night. That’s simple, man.

“My knowledge, my playmaking ability, I can still knock down an open shot. I watch the game and still see things out there I can do to help teams, but who knows if that will ever happen? I doubt it, but I’ll be ready if the situation did occur.’’

Hardaway plays in local leagues to stay in shape and still looks close to his playing weight. But aging point guards aren’t in demand in the NBA, especially with this generation of speedsters such as Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.

The vision of a hobbled Hardaway chasing Chris Paul or Deron Williams around screens could be nightmarish, but Hardaway is confident he can contribute to a winning team, just as O’Neal is with the Celtics.

“I think about how he can still help the Celtics and what they do,’’ Hardaway said. “Grant Hill is still helping the Suns. Jason Kidd is still helping the Mavericks. You got veteran guys who are still doing a great job.

“Small minutes, you can do it on a nightly basis easily. It has to be a veteran team, a team that understands basketball for me to play. It can’t just be a young team that’s just trying to play.’’

Hardaway realizes he forever will be linked with O’Neal. The Magic drafted O’Neal and acquired Hardaway a year later, forming a dominant point guard-center tandem that was expected to unseat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference. The Magic got close, losing to the Rockets in the Finals in 1995, but they were knocked off by Michael Jordan’s Bulls in ’96, and O’Neal then took his talents to Hollywood.

“Absolutely,’’ Hardaway said when asked if he cherishes those days. “You know I had six knee surgeries, so that took my athleticism away. That was my major component.

“When you win a championship, it definitely changes and molds you to a different spectrum because you’re a champion. Not winning [in Orlando] and also getting injured, it definitely put a lot of stress on my career and it made teams feel like I wasn’t who I was.’’

He keeps focusing on a comeback. He can’t watch games like a retired player because he doesn’t consider himself retired. Today’s NBA has a way of nudging aging players out of the game. Allen Iverson is playing in Turkey. Several players have accepted contracts in China. Former lottery pick Antonio Daniels is playing in the NBDL.

Hardaway isn’t alone, but his story may be the saddest because he had the skills to be an all-time great. Instead, his biggest claim to fame are those “Little Penny’’ commercials with Chris Rock. (If you aren’t sure what they are, check out YouTube.)

“It’s very frustrating because I still love this game,’’ said Hardaway, who insists his knees are healthy. “I still know I can play this game.

“Nobody wants to pay a veteran the $1 million exception or whatever, but still I would love to be in that situation one more time. That’s the problem with getting back in the league. I never thought it would have been this hard, but that’s just how it goes.’’

MEMPHIS BLUES
Grizzlies have disappointed This reporter predicted that the Grizzlies will make the playoffs — the Clippers, too (ouch!) — but the Griz are 4-9, having dropped five straight.

This was supposed to be one of those Oklahoma City-type breakthrough seasons for the Grizzlies, with their skilled young core coming together and competing against the league’s top teams. But after winning at Dallas Oct. 29, the Grizzlies have just one victory over a team with a winning record and hardly look as if they are going to make an impact.

Something seems wrong in Memphis. There was a players-only meeting called following an 89-72 loss at Orlando last Monday, and the Grizzlies promptly went out and lost to the shorthanded Trail Blazers the next night.

This is a team with several issues, particularly what to do with former lottery pick O.J. Mayo, who is completely out of place at shooting guard and hasn’t recorded a 20-point game in two weeks.

The bench is also suffering. Tony Allen hasn’t worked out. Coach Lionel Hollins has benched Sam Young, and former No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet is averaging 1 point per game.

General manager Chris Wallace has assembled a roster full of youngsters, but many have been slow to develop, and the question is whether his anointed leaders — Rudy Gay and Mike Conley — can lead this crew to success.

“We’re still trying to find our bench,’’ Gay said. “It’s a process. It will take a little time. We’re not close to getting where we want to go. We’re getting there.’’

Wallace’s financial commitment to Gay and Conley — a combined $127 million over the next five years — is a signal that Memphis is relying on the duo to thrive under the scrutiny. Through 13 games, Gay is living up to the contract — his numbers are improved across the board — but the Grizzlies are struggling badly.

“They didn’t sign me not to win,’’ said Gay. “You see it all around the league where some teams aren’t really getting it right now. It’s a long season and we need more than just the three teams in the league that are actually playing good to be in the playoffs. So it’s going to take time.’’

It’s premature to judge teams through three weeks, but the Grizzlies are in a division with some of the Western Conference’s best teams (the Hornets, Spurs, and Mavericks). They are 11th in the West, and it may be difficult for them to improve on their 40-win 2009-10 season.

“I think everybody, when they come in here, they want to progress on what we did last season,’’ Gay said. “That’s one of the reasons we got re-signed.

“It’s a long season. Most of the players that have played one year or two years know it’s a long season. Last year was a long season. But the rookies have to follow our lead. That’s the natural progression.’’

Gay said his experience with Team USA at the World Championships this summer helped him with the leadership part of his game.

“The best thing I got out of this summer was the mental aspect, getting smart as a player, and I learned a lot being around a lot of great players,’’ he said. “Definitely, that’s something I’m shooting for. I’m going to continue my progress for USA Basketball and whatever happens, happens.’’

Gay has always been considered a talent, but the question remains whether he can help a team win. And whatever happens in Memphis this season, he is sure to get most of the adulation or blame. Contracts for $80 million bring with them that type of responsibility.

TRANSITION GAME
Arenas trying to find his legs Soaking his right ankle in ice and lamenting an embarrassing loss to the Celtics, Gilbert Arenas had no complaints. After missing the Wizards’ first three games with a sprained ankle, Arenas was beginning to make an impact, scoring a combined 50 points in two games before a 9-point effort in Wednesday’s loss.

He is the graybeard on a young team. His role has changed. He acknowledges that this is John Wall’s team and he is just trying to carve out a role.

“I’ve missed so much basketball, I haven’t played consistent basketball since 2006-07,’’ he said. “So that tested my patience and I went through struggles through the last four years, and right now, I’m just happy to be out there again.’’

Arenas served his 50-game suspension for gun charges last season and came back to a completely retooled roster. Wall is a top Rookie of the Year candidate, while veterans Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were shipped out. The Wizards are very young and inexperienced, and Arenas is one of the lone links to any past success.

The ankle injury denied him an opportunity to return in full stride, and his game is coming back slowly.

“It’s bugging me, because right before training camp, I was really explosive getting to the basket, doing everything,’’ he said. “But I had to sit three weeks and it seemed like forever.

“The game has remained the same, and when I haven’t been playing, I’ve been watching it. In my old days, I would have taken 20 shots to try to get back into the game, but I just have to play the right way. And we’re a young team, so it’s going to take time for us to come along.’’

Bad omen for Oden Another tough break for the Trail Blazers, as Greg Oden had to have a second microfracture surgery, this one on his left knee. Oden is a restricted free agent after the season, meaning his future is in serious doubt. He will have little on his résumé to show interested teams looking for a young center — except for major operations on both knees. While it is easy to say Kevin Durant would have been the right choice for the No. 1 overall pick three years ago, most NBA teams would have taken Oden, including the Sonics (now the Thunder), who ended up taking Durant at No. 2.

Layups Nancy Lieberman deserves kudos for being the first woman to coach an NBA-sponsored team, leading the NBDL Texas Legends this season. But she’s not the first woman to coach a professional men’s team. That honor belongs to Stephanie Ready, now the sideline reporter for the Bobcats. Ready was an assistant coach of the Greenville Groove of the NBDL from 2001-03 . . . Perhaps the Clippers should rethink their decision to hire Vinny Del Negro, because something is seriously wrong in Los Angeles — as usual. The Clippers were blown out by Indiana Thursday, dropping them to 1-12, meaning Los Angeles is likely headed for another rebuilding plan, with Baron Davis and Chris Kaman as trade bait. Davis has missed most of the early season with a sore knee, and the Clippers are paying for the decision to bring Davis back to his LA roots, where he appears more interested in movie-making and running with celebrities than playing point guard . . . The NBA and the Players Association met Thursday to discuss the expiring collective bargaining agreement. No progress was made but the sides did agree to meet again next month. Most NBA insiders expect a lockout to wipe out at least the first two months of next season.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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