The Hall of Fame case for Tim Hardaway is complicated.
Three times Hardaway was named a finalist for enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Three times the committee evaluated a career that included five NBA all-star appearances, five all-NBA selections and a gold medal with Team USA in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And three times the committee found Hardaway’s résumé lacking, despite a career in which he averaged over 17 points and eight assists per game, all the while flaunting an iconic crossover dribble with the Golden State Warriors of the early 1990s and the hard-nosed Miami Heat of the latter part of the decade.
It’s a career that compares closely to those of Hall of Famers Tiny Archibald and Isiah Thomas. But unlike Archibald and Thomas, after overlapping with Michael Jordan’s reign of the league, Hardaway lacks an NBA championship. There is also the matter of comments made 10 years ago this month during a radio interview when responding to a question about former NBA center John Amaechi’s decision to come out publicly as a gay man.
“Well, you know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known,” Hardaway said on the Miami show, hosted by ESPN personality Dan Le Batard. “I don’t like gay people, and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States. So, yeah, I don’t like it.”
They are words that, Hardaway says now, will haunt him until the day he dies.
“When I said what I said . . . I still cringe at it when I think about it, and [it] still hurts me deep inside that I said something like that because I gave people an opportunity to hurt people,” Hardaway said in a recent phone interview. “That wasn’t right . . . each and every day when I talk to kids today and they bring it up to me or somebody brings it up to me, I say that was a very big mistake on my part.
“It hurts me to this day, what I said, and you know what? It’s going to hurt me for the rest of my life, because I’m not that type of person. I feel bad about it, and I’m always going to feel bad about it.”
After the NBA’s leadership heard the Le Batard interview, it banned Hardaway from its 2007 all-star festivities, where he was serving as an ambassador of the league. To this day, his words are what many people remember most about his legacy. But it is a part of his story he has actively worked to change.
In the years following the radio interview, Hardaway has become an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, including working with The Trevor Project, a nonprofit group that focuses on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. He also became the first signer of a petition to legalize same-sex marriage in the state of Florida. In 2011, Hardaway attended a rally in El Paso — where he had been a college star at UTEP years earlier — to support the city’s mayor, John Cook, who was facing an attempted recall vote (which later failed) after allowing domestic partnership rights for gay and unmarried couples.
“I was humbled to have him be there,” Cook said. “It was something I never really expected. He basically didn’t have a dog in the fight, and he was willing to step up and go out of his way to stand up for what was the right thing to do, which is what I was doing, I think. And I think it did make a difference to the people who were supporting me to see Tim come all the way down here just to show his support for what we were trying to do.”
In April of 2013, Jason Collins penned an open letter in Sports Illustrated, coming out and setting the stage for him to become the first openly gay active player in one of the four major American sports leagues the following spring when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets. After the letter’s publication, he received a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize, bearing South Florida’s 305 area code. It was Hardaway, calling to offer his support.
“I remember seeing or hearing what he said,” Collins said in a phone interview Wednesday. “As a closeted athlete, that’s your biggest fear, coming out and being met with rejection openly.
“I have to say, I get asked what was the most surprising [call] after making my announcement, and, yes, getting the call from the president and Oprah and all of that was surprising. But getting a call from Tim Hardaway is right up there, because I didn’t know he had changed as a human being, as far as being what happened with his comments when Jon came out, and now becoming an ally.
“It shows the power of the coming-out story. It shows the power of John Amaechi’s story. Tim obviously said what he said and was met with a lot of criticism and was forced to look at himself in the mirror and has changed a lot. . . . I’m glad I answered the call and heard his words.”
Hardaway’s change was also observed by Detroit Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy, an outspoken and progressive voice in the NBA who publicly decried the election of President Trump in November, noting his concern for minorities and women. Van Gundy then hired Hardaway to his staff as an assistant coach in 2014.
“I think what Tim had was a genuine change of heart,” Van Gundy said. “That is what he meant when he said it, and the incident made him stop and think about it and why he had the feelings he did.
“He had those feelings, he was forced to think about it, he changed his mind, he changed his heart, and there’s been nothing like that since. As a matter of fact, he’s gone out of his way to be supportive of the LGBTQ community. But the way he handled it to me speaks better of his character.”
It is unclear how, or whether, those comments will affect the discussion of his Hall of Fame status, but Collins hopes the upcoming decision will focus on Hardaway’s distinguished career.
“With regards to the Hall of Fame, coming from an athlete, it’s about basketball, and first and foremost it’s about your contributions to the game,” Collins said. “And he was one heck of a basketball player.”
Van Gundy, who also coached Hardaway as an assistant with the Heat, believes he was the best player on the team during his time with Golden State and Miami, teams that included four players already enshrined.
“To me, I don’t understand why it’s taken this long,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, if Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin and Alonzo Mourning are all Hall of Famers, Tim Hardaway has got to be.”
Not everyone, though, feels the same way about Hardaway’s conversion — most notably Amaechi himself. After this article was published online Thursday, Amaechi tweeted, “It’s strange with all that rehabilitation and angst – Tim never had time to talk to me. Must have been an oversight.”
The backdrop of this year’s Hall of Fame announcement during All-Star Weekend will be particularly poignant. In a new era in which coaches, players and the league itself have openly championed social issues, this year’s all-star festivities were relocated to New Orleans from Charlotte in protest of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, a law regulating transgender people’s use of public restrooms that opponents call discriminatory. Collins is in New Orleans this week to take part in an inclusion event.
In the meantime, Hardaway will be in a familiar position, waiting to see whether this is the year he gets the call to the Hall of Fame.
“You’re on pins and needles,” Hardaway said. “You don’t know what the process is, who is voting, how they vote. You’re just on pins and needles, and you hope and you wish you get in. That’s all you can do.
“I can’t change nobody’s mind. I can’t do anything more than I have done. . . . The only thing I can do is be Tim Hardaway and be as positive as I can be, as I normally am, and let the cards fall where they fall.”
Note: This story was updated Friday morning to reflect John Amaechi’s reaction.