U of M basketball coach drew applause and cheers at Agape Memphis Heartlight 2022 as he credited his faith for sustaining him through a difficult childhood and opening doors. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

U of M head coach Penny Hardaway talked in personal terms at the Agape Memphis gala held in support of the service outreach programs it offers for children and families.

Agape Memphis Heartlight 2022 highlighted the work of Agape Child and Family Services, which was founded in 1970 with a focus on foster care and adoption services.

In more recent years, Agape has expanded, providing support and services to Memphis-area children and families to provide healing before foster care comes into the picture.

Held Downtown (Nov. 4) at the Orpheum, Heartlight 2022 was a thrilling night of live musical performances and provocative, dramatic sketches.

“Agape” (ah-gop-ay) is a Greek word that describes the highest form of love, unconditional – the kind of love God has for humanity.

Founded in 1970, Agape Memphis has expanded, providing support and services to Memphis-area children and families to provide healing before foster care comes into the picture. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Hardaway, one of Memphis’ highest profile beloved sons, echoed the life story he first shared publicly at this year’s Southern Heritage Classic’s Coaches Luncheon.

He regaled the gathering with his rise to national prominence in the NBA and triumphant return to the city as head basketball coach at the U of M.

“I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my mom, my aunt, and her five children,” said Hardaway. “I came to live with my grandmother because my mother decided she wanted to chase her dream and travel the country.

“My mother was a senior in high school when she had me. My grandmother told my mother to go ahead and travel but leave me here with her.”

Hardaway drew frequent applause and cheers as he credited his faith for sustaining him through a difficult childhood and opening doors.

“My grandmother’s house was a very modest, shotgun house,” said Hardaway. “When I first came to live there, I noticed that there was only one bed. I slept on the floor for nine years. It was at my grandmother’s house where I learned to love God.”

Hardaway said the absence of both his mom and dad had him asking God, “What did I do wrong?”

His grandmother was strict because she was determined to keep him off the streets. When he was about 7 or 8, he used a grocery cart to shoot baskets from 10 feet away. 

“That’s when I started to dream,” Hardaway said. 

Agape Memphis President/CEO David Jordan shows his appreciation for Penny Hardaway’s message. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Hardaway talked about being on the movie set of “Blue Chips” with Shaquille O’Neal, an Orlando Magic star at the time and Hardaway’s teammate.

“Shaq and I did some phenomenal things together,” said Hardaway. 

When O’Neal signed with the Los Angeles Lakers without talking to Hardaway, it was devastating at the time. 

Trouble for Hardaway began with a serious knee injury, which he had surgery on six times. His play was affected, he was traded three times, and was finally cut before Christmas one year.

“That’s when Desmond (Merriweather) called me,” said Hardaway. “He needed help coaching basketball at Lester Middle School.

“Five or six of the guys were in gangs. They had no fathers. He said they needed to win the state championship to bring some joy back into the neighborhood.”

So, Hardaway returned home to Memphis to help Coach Merriweather. They won the state championship three consecutive years. 

Both coaches followed their boys to East High School, where they won three more championships.

“I understand now that God closed doors at the NBA so I would return home,” Hardaway said.

Hardaway choked back tears when he talked about Merriweather’s years-long cancer battle, finally losing the fight in 2015.

“I was called to the hospital, and I rushed to Des’ side,” said Hardaway. “Des was dying. He told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him. And he went out…”

Hardaway’s emotionally charged story was topped off with a finale featuring a soulful, get-on-your-feet, mini-concert by the iconic Bar-Kays.

Garry Goin, Karen Brown, Danny Cosby, and Stax Music Academy, along with house band, Tim Mason and the Crew, rounded out the evening’s musical performances.

To donate to the work of Agape Child and Family Services, or for volunteer opportunities, call the office at 901-323-3600. Or, visit agapemeanslove.org.