March 20, 2018!
Mark it down. The first – and unofficial – “Penny Day.”
Sure, it was the first day of spring but it was cloudy and decidedly chilly outside. Inside the hearts and minds of many, the more real shift was from the “winter” of a dismal basketball period at the University of Memphis to the warmth of possibilities they see in the hiring of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway as head basketball coach.
Many in attendance Tuesday morning for the formal announcement for Hardaway waited patiently to take a picture or shake the hand of the new coach. Man of those same fans then flocked to social media, where they posted photos of the hometown basketball icon and excitedly expressed their hopes for what Hardaway could bring to the school.
None of this might have happened if not for Hardaway’s childhood friend, Desmond Merriweather, who encouraged Hardaway to go to Lester Middle School to assist him in coaching the team. Merriweather was later diagnosed with cancer and Hardaway helped to fulfill head coaching duties. Lester went on to win three consecutive State Middle School basketball championships.
In 2013, Merriweather took the head coaching position at East High but Hardaway did not follow him and decided to take a break from coaching. Merriweather passed away on February 8, 2014. Most of the players that played at Lester were playing for East during that season, but the Mustangs lost in the semi-finals of the state championship tournament. While Hardaway was not on the sidelines, he felt he should have been there.
Hardaway eventually joined East and was the coach for the next three seasons. During his time at East, the basketball team also won three consecutive state championships.
A success at working with the high school summer league teams, Hardaway wants to keep the best talent here in Memphis but will also recruit nationally. Considered a great golfer, he could have easily stuck to playing golf and making cameo appearances around the city, but Merriweather taught him how to love basketball again.
Randy Wade, a longtime friend and confidant of Hardaway, said, “I think it was good in order to reestablish the program and he will help do that and more. Penny is a well-disciplined person. He will listen to you and if you come up with a better idea, he will accept it.”
Leonard Draper, a former president of the Memphis Rebounders Basketball Club and good friend of former Memphis coach Larry Finch, was normally a fixture at all Tigers games, but has not been to many lately. That could change now.
“I think it is a great hire. This is what the university needs and the city of Memphis needs. This hiring is like a blood transfusion,” said Draper, who has been around the Tigers program since 1967.
Draper had vivid memories of how Hardaway landed at Memphis. Finch, while coaching at Colonial High School, worked with Hardaway’s grandmother, Louise Hardaway.
Although Hardaway was recruited by many major colleges, his grandmother said, “Penny is going to play for Coach Finch!” Draper knew that Hardaway could be a game-changer for the Memphis program – and he did not disappoint, going to two Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight appearance.
Harold Byrd, president of the Bank of Bartlett and avid Tiger supporter, said, “The hiring of Penny Hardaway as the University of Memphis head basketball coach has monumental and reverberating implications not only locally/regionally but as well nationally in improved image, perception and media coverage.”
Byrd continued, “Within minutes of the announcement, national media analysts, NBA and collegiate players and coaching legends, including LeBron James, were tweeting congratulations and hearty approval. Sage analysts – including me – predict an immediate increase in the number of wins (more) but as well in increased excitement, ticket sales, attendance and donations.”
Byrd, who serves as president of the Memphis Rebounders club, said the mood of the program over the past four to five years has been disappointing for the city and faithful Tigers fans, who miss the excitement, drama and NCAA tournament appearances. Recruitment of top-ranked players diminished as did attendance and interest leading to unrest among the fan base and university leaders.
“I believe the hiring of Coach Penny Hardaway will be successful even beyond the most optimistic predictions, including mine. Yes, more wins and NCAA appearances should soon follow along with a reaping of financial success and prestige by the Tigers program,” Byrd said. “However, a more fulfilling and enduring effect will be ‘the Penny Hardaway role model influence’ on all of Memphis, including our most valuable asset, our youth.
“Much like Penny Hardaway’s coach and mentor, the late and great Larry Finch, Anfernee Hardaway faced daunting challenges. And much like Larry Finch, Penny Hardaway demonstrated his love for his city, his university and his fellow Memphians by ‘staying home,’ spurning attractive offers from more affluent suitors, selflessly using his talents for the greater good of all. There’s scripture in Matthew chapter 25 verse 40 that is illustrative of Penny Hardaway’s journey since the conclusion of his NBA career, helping his lifelong friend Desmond – suffering from cancer – coach an eighth grade team, then as coach at East High School and now fulfilling Desmond’s prophecy as head coach at the University of Memphis.”
Former city councilman and current Memphis Shelby Crime Commission member Harold Collins is also excited by the hiring of Hardaway. Collins served as president of the Memphis Rebounders club under three head coaches.
“The mood was good until coach Price resigned and Coach Jones served as interim. Then when Cal (John Calipari) came in, the emotion and enthusiasm hit the roof,” Collins said. “I believe the program will be strong under Penny. He has a great group already in place and with the addition of Lomax (Alex) and a few others, Penny will have the program back within a few years.”
Lomax, who had committed and signed to play for Wichita State, was released from his letter of intent and most likely will join Hardaway to play for Memphis next season. Hardaway and Lomax have been attached at the hip for the last seven years as Lomax was a critical player on all three of the Lester Middle School championships and the three state championships at East High School.
Hardaway has a gift of uniting people and meshing talent and ego into a great functioning part. There is plenty of reason to believe that the University of Memphis will be back in the national spotlight soon not only for the hiring of Hardaway, but also for what the team does on the court.