The 46-year-old, who teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to lead the Orlando Magic to great success in the ’90s, including an NBA Finals appearance, won his third straight state title over the weekend with Memphis East High. His squad’s top player, 6-foot-11 forward James Wiseman, is a coveted recruit ranked No. 1 overall by ESPN, which also has another of Hardaway’s players, 6-8 forward Chandler Lawson, ranked 26th.
The possibility that Hardaway could use his connections in the high school and AAU circuits to land top recruits is a major part of his appeal. But he is also uniquely positioned to generate excitement among Memphis fans, as a local product who made very good, then returned to help a friend coach middle school basketball in his rugged childhood neighborhood before deciding that he wanted to make a career of it.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the university might not have fired Smith had it not been for the intriguing possibility of replacing him with Hardaway. However, although the 66-year-old Smith went 40-26 in his two seasons with the Tigers, the team failed to reach the NCAA tournament, and its attendance plunged to around 6,000 per game, compared to around 16,000 under previous coach Josh Pastner.
The cost to buy out the rest of Smith’s contract was reportedly close to $10 million, but if there ever were a first-year college coach who might be worth it, Hardaway fits the bill. As far as his ability to get the most out of his players, he pointed last month to his “experience in the NBA.”
“If you played on the highest level, you understand how to run practices, you understand how to run a team, you understand how to get kids to know what they need to do,” Hardaway said. “And basketball isn’t rocket science, man. It’s not like somebody can reinvent the wheel. You’re not going to reinvent it.
“It is what it is, and that’s playing hard on both ends of the floor, playing together on both ends of the floor, and if you can get your kids to do that — I’m confident I can do that on any level.”
Replying to a tweet about Hardaway’s hiring, LeBron James offered his congratulations on Monday. The Cavaliers star referred to Hardaway’s signature Nike shoe, the Air Foamposite, reflecting the latter’s statute in the basketball world.
The No. 3 pick in the 1993 draft after being a two-time all-American at Memphis, Hardaway was a four-time all-star and twice made the all-NBA first team while in Orlando. He began suffering major injuries and wasn’t the same force in subsequent stints with the Suns, Knicks and Heat, but he remained in the league for nearly a decade and a half and made over $120 million in salary.
Hardaway had been reported to be considering bringing aboard longtime head coach Larry Brown as an assistant, but ESPN’s Jeff Goodman claimed Monday that Brown was “unlikely” to join the staff at Memphis. Other reports have Hardaway possibly interested in hiring former Memphis Grizzlies player Mike Miller as an assistant.