Hoops Rumors Retro: Penny Hardaway To The Suns

The mandate at Hoops Rumors is to consolidate news from throughout the professional basketball world, but nobody ever specified from which decade. Join us as Austin Kent, a grown man with a binder of 1996/97 NBA trading cards beside his desk, cannonballs down the rabbit hole of nostalgia to give significant trades of yesteryear the modern media treatment.

It’s early August 1999 and the world is racing to prepare for the turn of the millennium. Jerry Colangelo, owner and president of the Phoenix Suns, has other plans.

Sure, the 59-year-old Godfather of Phoenix Basketball reads the papers, he watches the news – but while rest of the country braces for the pandemonium of Y2K, Colangelo and the executive team with whom he manages the organization decide to take the offensive.

The wheels are in motion for a scheme so grand and so bold that it will get the Suns to the top of a mountain they’ve longed to climb since the franchise – and Colangelo along with it – first hit the scene in 1969.

They call it: Backcourt 2000.

The Penny Hardaway that takes a seat at the press conference announcing his arrival in Arizona isn’t the one that you might remember – the last Lil Penny TV spot aired several years prior – but he isn’t the tragic hero that you’ve grown to mourn either.

Not yet at least.

In 1999, Hardaway is coming off a decent lockout-shortened 1998/99 campaign, an abbreviated season in which he suited up for every game. That bold 50 you see in the ‘G’ column of his Basketball Reference profile means more than just league leader – it means hope.

To recap, Hardaway was named to the All-NBA 1st team two times before his 25th birthday. Put another way it’s even more impressive; after winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1994, he finished 1995 and 1996 as one of the top two guards in the NBA. Not bad, young blood1.

What came after the early accolades but before his exit from Orlando is all too familiar. In the first year after Shaquille O’Neal’s departure, Hardaway would miss 23 games to injury. The following season a pair of knee surgeries would limit him to just 19 total.

At the time of the injuries, few knew what to make of the All-Star’s frequent stints on the sidelines. Doctors barely knew what the future would hold for NBA players with degraded knee cartilage, never mind teammates or fans.

Nobody bonded with me at that time,” Hardaway has since told SLAM. “No support. It was weird. Nobody would say, ‘Hey man, are you OK?’ Nothing. It was more that people thought I was faking.”

Suffice it to say, Hardaway’s once meteoric star faded as quickly as it appeared on the NBA horizon. In its wake, a once beloved superstar with an elite ceiling but mysteriously compromised body.

The Arizona summer heat builds in the indoor conference room. Watching above from a balcony is 26-year-old Jason Kidd, a reigning All-NBA 1st-teamer in his own right. Together, the plan goes, Hardaway and Kidd will make the best backcourt in the league, together they’ll push the perpetually good-but-not-great franchise to new heights.

In each of the past 11 seasons – and 19 of the past 22 – the Suns have made the playoffs. Still, something needs to be done. First-round exits may build character, but only for so long. Coming off their fourth straight premature exit, the Suns are in desperate need of a home run swing in the awkward, post-Charles Barkley transition years.

Pairing two of the most iconic guards of the decade in one backcourt is such a home run swing

Never mind that even in 1999 Hardaway’s injury history was a potential red flag, the idea of combining two superstar playmakers under 30 years old, was an impossible one to ignore. That Hardaway would ply his trade in Phoenix was the biggest headline of the offseason2.

“[This] ranks right up there with any acquisition we’ve ever made,” Colangelo said of the deal. “He’s a marquee guy.”

Considering the Suns had little cap space to sign the then-free agent, Colangelo and company would have to facilitate a sign-and-trade deal with a Magic franchise that had begrudgingly accepted that their once prized All-Star was outbound.

To Orlando went rookie Pat Garrity, 33-year-old Danny Manning, and a pair of first-round picks. Though it was the shedding of Manning’s $6.8MM deal that allowed Phoenix to sign Hardaway to the max allowable under the cap3, the veteran’s tenure in Florida lasted just two weeks.

On August 19, 1999 – exactly 14 days after the Hardaway deal – Manning was flipped to the Bucks alongside Dale Ellis for Chris Gatling and Armen Gilliam. Garrity, by contrast, would stay with the Magic, playing nine seasons before retiring from the NBA in 2008.

The draft picks sent east would prove to be the most valuable aspect of the sign-and-trade package, though even that part of the deal would prove to be a dark spot in Orlando history. With the 2001 first-round pick the Magic acquired, they drafted Jason Collins. The 2002 pick involved would go on to net… Amar’e Stoudemire4.

It’s hard to criticize a team’s haul in a sign-and-trade scenario, but there’s no denying that the ripple effects of the Hardaway deal didn’t help the culture in Orlando. The Magic toiled in irrelevance for eight years after the trade, a run of lost seasons and first-round exits ending only when Dwight Howard came of age under Stan Van Gundy.

In Phoenix, too, the forecast would eventually dim, though not without initial glimmers of hope. Limited to just 45 games together in that initial season, Backcourt 2000 didn’t quite make the splash Colangelo and the Suns expected it to. Nonetheless, a reasonably healthy Hardaway showed signs of promise, averaging modestly better numbers than the ones he was posting at the end of his tenure in Orlando.

As Kidd recovered from an ankle injury in the 2000 postseason, Hardaway led his new Suns squad to a first-round victory over the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs, the 28-year-old’s 20.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game as positive a sign that things were turning around as anybody had seen in years.

Alas, as history would have it, the cartilage issues that plagued Hardaway in Orlando would resurface in Phoenix. In the 2000/01 campaign, the guard would play just four games — depressingly, that’s the same number of subsequent knee surgeries he would undergo before his time with the Suns officially came to an end during the 2003/04 season.

I was one of the first guys to get microfracture surgery,” Hardaway told SLAM in the same interview. “It wasn’t even heard of in the NBA yet.”

Nowadays the procedure is more commonplace, but don’t let the medical advances of the past 20 years normalize what the guard went through at the time. Microfracture surgery involves a surgeon scratching small perforations in the bone surface of an athlete’s knee, allowing otherwise stationary stem cells to seep out and eventually form new cartilage to supplement the existing stuff.

Some athletes, like the aforementioned Stoudemire, would end up undergoing the procedure with some success much later, but Hardaway never quite recovered as well as he or the Suns hoped.

To the man’s credit, he would bounce back and play 80 games at a less dominant level the following season, but Backcourt 2000 just wasn’t meant to be. Due to, or at least partly influenced by, domestic abuse allegations that surfaced in January 2001, Kidd was promptly shipped off to New Jersey for disgruntled Nets guard Stephon Marbury.

Not surprisingly, as only hindsight can reveal, sometimes headlines break that don’t end up bearing the significance they’re presumed to; sometimes reality just doesn’t quite live up to the narrative and we find ourselves prying the last of Walmart’s canned goods from the desperate fingers of a stranger in hopes of stocking our underground Y2K bunker with enough non-perishables to make it through the impending apocalypse.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a crafty NBA executive’s grand scheme to assemble talent and storm triumphantly into the 21st century on the backs of an unprecedented superstar backcourt proves to be little more than an underwhelming miscalculation.


  1. Kyrie Irving’s Uncle Drew campaign is the empirical best NBA advertising campaign to run in the years since those Lil Penny, according to Austin’s Fluid List of Preferred NBA Advertising Campaigns.
  2. Come at me, fans of the Antonio Davis/Jonathan Bender deal.
  3. $9MM, with raises over the course of the next seven years (maxing out at $15.8MM). Yes, really.
  4. Two years later the Magic would trade that same 2002 first-round pick back to the Suns along with Bo Outlaw in exchange for Jud Buechler (and, essentially, cap space).

Hoops Rumors Retro is a weekly feature. Be sure to follow and get at Austin Kent (@AustinKent) with suggestions for future pieces.

Jan. 7, 2017 – Gary Payton to the Bucks.

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