Penny from Heaven
03/28/1994 at 01:00 AM EST
ANFERNEE "PENNY" HARDAWAY IS IN the game room of his sprawling lakeside home in Orlando, studying his TV screen and punching the remote on his Sega Genesis football game. Seated next to him, childhood buddy turned aide-de-camp Greg Moore is absorbing a terrible beating. "The worst he's ever beat me was 84-0," says Greg. "With basketball, it would be different."
Unlikely—if Hardaway's performance on the hardwood is any gauge. Penny Hardaway of the Orlando Magic—his nickname is a corruption of Pretty, which his grandmother used to call him—is one of the NBA's fledgling stars, a potential Rookie of the Year. At 6'7" and armed with a deft passing and shooting touch, Hardaway teams with part-time rapper and full-time backboard basher Shaquille O'Neal to give Orlando the most formidable guard-center combination since Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had their way with the NBA.
"It's great playing with Shaquille," says Anfernee, 22, who will earn $68 million over 13 years. "I think it's a combination that could rule the '90s. But I'm still a hometown boy—that's my style."
Home for Hardaway is Memphis, where he was reared by his grandmother, Louise, in a clapboard shanty in a drug-ridden neighborhood. Louise, now 77, and her late husband, Sylvester—former Mississippi Delta sharecroppers—came to Tennessee in 1949. Two years later, Fae, their fourth child, was born, and in 1972, at 19, Fae gave birth to Anfernee. Because Fae was "young and running wild," according to her mother, Louise largely look over Anfernee's upbringing.
Louise, a school cafeteria cook, kept a tight rein on Penny, who became a regular at the Early Grove Baptist Church. "She had me home before the sun went down," says Hardawav. "My friends were all out there playing, and I was in the house saying, 'Man, I can't wait to get old enough to get out of here.' My teachers used to say, 'You're going to thank her one day.' And I do now."
But his appreciation was slow to develop. An all-American at Treadwell High School, Hardawav was too cocky to bother to study. "When I graduated, my grade point was 2.2 and I couldn't pass the ACT," a college entrance exam.
In 1990, Hardawav entered Memphis State University, but his low ACT score kept him off the team freshman year. By his junior year—motivated by missing a season of basketball—he had become a regular on the dean's list, even as he emerged as one of the nation's premier college players—and one of his college's most popular. "I'm like the biggest thing that ever came out of Memphis—besides Elvis," says Hardaway. "I've been loved everywhere I've ever played."
Except in Orlando—at least, not when he first arrived. The Orlando fans expected the Magic to use their first pick in the 1993 draft to take Michigan's Chris Webber. Early this season, they seemed to jeer whenever Hardawav missed a shot. Yet after a short NBA adjustment period, Hardawav has raised his stats to about 16 points and six assists a game. "I compare him to Magic Johnson," says basketball maven Pete Vecsey, "only Magic wishes he had this kid's quickness and jumping ability."
Off the court, Hardaway has used his newfound wealth to purchase a few toys—notably his white BMW. But he is also looking after his family. He has moved his mother—who came back into Anfernee's life when he was a teenager—and grandmother into a $150,000 Memphis home, not far from Graceland.
The family matriarch, however, was not willing to unload her shack but instead moved one of her 15 grandchildren into it. Money may have changed Louise and her grandson's circumstances, but it has not altered who or what they are. "I'm never afraid I'll change," says Hardawav. "My grandmother—and my mom, both—will always keep me from getting a big head. Like I said, I'm just a hometown boy."
MEG GRANT in Orlando