by Juan Martinez
Thirteen years ago, SLAM Magazine ran a cover story on an Orlando Magic guard that was set make a comeback. Hampered by injuries and bad luck, he claimed to be healthy and ready to lead the Magic back to the promised land. The interview was at times poignant, but also tinged with vengeance, as if to let the doubters know that rumors of his demise were unfounded. SLAM has done many memorable covers over the years, but this remains one of the most iconic because of the bold declaration and in the years to follow, the resulting irony.
The cover athlete? Penny Hardaway. The tagline? “The Revenge of Penny Hardaway.”
Needless to say, that cover basically became Hardaway’s equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, if the jinx had a sick and twisted sense of humor. After one more season in Orlando, Hardaway was traded to Phoenix to form the promising “Backcourt 2000” with Jason Kidd. While they posted an impressive 66% winning percentage, injuries would limit their time together on the court to 50 games over the span of two seasons. Before the 2001 season began, Kidd was on his way to New Jersey and Hardaway soon had a diminished role playing alongside Stephon Marbury, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and a young Amar’e Stoudemire. After a cup of tea with the New York Knicks, a trade back to Orlando – where he was subsequently waived for salary cap purposes – and a failed reboot in Miami, Hardaway’s days as an NBA player, let alone a superstar, were a thing of the past. And that SLAM Magazine cover became a running joke in NBA circles.
But in time, the memories of those tough times started to fade and people began to remember Penny in a different light. In October, a young Penny in his familiar Orlando road blue uniform was one of the featured legends in NBA 2K12, the best-selling basketball video game in the industry for several years running. Last month, he was the guest of honor at a Nike event in Las Vegas. Fans from all over the world came to see him and celebrate his signature shoe line while also debuting brand new Penny sneakers, 13 years after Nike last made a shoe for Hardaway. A few weeks ago, Hardaway was greeted by a standing ovation in Orlando during Dwight Howard’s charity exhibition game featuring current and former Magic players. Hardaway received the loudest cheers, even more than Howard. After the game, Howard went to bat for Hardaway, saying that his number should be retired in the rafters of the Amway Center.
And in all this time, the value and demand for Penny Hardaway cards never wavered. In the past month, Hardaway autograph cards (not including 1/1s) from the recently released 2011-12 All-Time Greats average $109.12 per card. Meanwhile, players with more accomplished resumes like Larry Bird ($93.99), Magic Johnson ($85.18) and David Robinson ($87.66) don’t command the same prices. Popular 1990's inserts and parallels like Precious Metal Gems and E-X Essential Credentials are even more amazing. The most recent sales of Hardaway’s top 90's cards often times trail only the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at pair of Precious Metal Gems cards that sold in the past year featuring Penny and Scottie Pippen, another superstar from the era who has a more accomplished body of work. Special thanks to Hupe Royalty for tracking these sales.
1998-99 Fleer Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems /50
Penny Hardaway (sold 1/31/2011): $499.88
Scottie Pippen (sold 2/9/2011): $300.00
1997-98 Fleer Metal Universe Championship Precious Metal Gems /50
Penny Hardaway (two sold): average price of $430
Scottie Pippen (sold last year): $329.97
Nostalgia is what is powering the strong sales of Hardaway cards, but why is Penny in particular such an extreme case? Many people forget now, but along with Grant Hill, he was the beneficiary of the NBA marketing machine during their search for a replacement to Michael Jordan. Between his spectacular plays that were made for Sportscenter, his clever Nike commercials with Chris Rock (aka Lil' Penny) and the fast success he experienced alongside another rising superstar in Shaquille O’Neal, it seemed like he was destined to take over the NBA. The league was growing in popularity across the world, and Penny was the one in all the highlight reels. Even when Jordan came back, Hardaway was still on track to headliner status. And those kids who grew up replaying his dunk on Patrick Ewing over and over and wore the iconic Nike Air Penny I instead of the Air Jordan XI? They grew up and never forgot (I should know, I’m one of them). Now those same kids have the disposable income to pick up Penny’s older issues along with anything new that comes along the pipeline.
Hardaway has only a handful of new NBA cards ever since he retired, appearing as a legend in Panini products. Unfortunately, they have all been in a Phoenix Suns uniform. It might just be a matter of time because maybe Panini hasn’t found a game-worn Orlando jersey, but once they start issuing cards from his Magic playing days, there will be a huge demand for them.
So this is a message to the younger people reading this post: the next time you pull a Penny Hardaway jersey card or autograph and decide to sell it on eBay, don’t be surprised when you see that closing bid. He’s worth way more than his name implies. So I guess he did get the last laugh after all.
Juan Martinez is a freelance writer based in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter.