With Penny Hardaway suddenly back in the news after expressing his desire to return to the NBA in a veteran role, we figured we’d republish a portion of our exclusive interview from the fall of 2008, originally featured in Issue 25. That November also marked our 5th Year Anniversary, and for the Sole Collector team, there couldn’t have been a better interview to experience. Read along as Hardaway discusses how his legendary signature series began, and also what he loved most about each model. Today just also happens to be his birthday — Happy 39th Penny!
Originally published November, 2008 in Issue 25 of Sole Collector Magazine.
Long before the riches and fame of the NBA entered his life, Penny Hardaway came from humble beginnings, growing up just 10 minutes south of the University of Memphis, then known as Memphis State, where he always dreamed of one day playing basketball. It was at Memphis where he’d indeed go on to star during the early 1990s, after a high school career at nearby Treadwell High where he put up a ridiculous statline of 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 3.9 steals and 2.8 blocks per game. We’ll assume it wasn’t much of a race, as he was named the Parade Magazine National High School Player of The Year. Once a Tiger, he lead the team during his sophomore and junior seasons and was named an All-American in back-to-back years, coming into his own as he averaged 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game in his final season. It would be the only two years he would play for Memphis, as the lure of the NBA proved too strong to resist, and he was drafted third in the 1993 NBA Draft.
Since he last played in the league in 2007 for the Miami Heat, [Notice I won’t call it a retirement, so don’t rule out a comeback!] he’s returned to his roots in Memphis, where he’s currently enjoying his time away from the game. He still holds a deep love for his hometown school and can still be found at the Memphis training facility, where he plays in pick-up games and lifts weights at least four times a week. In August of 2008, Penny donated $1 million to help build a 30,000-square-foot athletic Hall of Fame building on campus that will bear his name. He’s also dedicated a bulk of his time to his love of golf, as he’ll hit the links almost every day at his neighborhood course, which happens to be the highly esteemed championship TPC Southwind.
For this interview, Penny welcomed us into his Memphis-area home, and in it we found not only a taste for fine art, sculptures and historic paintings, but also a great deal of memorabilia from throughout his career. Upstairs lies every guy’s dream room, as several flatscreen TVs as well as billiards, ping pong and card tables are arranged for a night of sports and entertainment. While rows of reclining chairs and a projection screen in the adjacent room are surely impressive, it was the jerseys of every member of the 1996 Olympic Basketball squad and his Atlanta-earned Gold Medal framed along the walls that truly caught our attention. It’s a moment in Penny’s life that he’ll forever cherish, alongside his First Team All-NBA selections, many All-Star game appearances and five Nike sneakers bearing his iconic 1 Cent logo. By captivating us with his on-court abilities, in commercials and through his iconic footwear, Penny has accomplished what few players have. It also gave us plenty to talk to him about.
Nick DePaula: When you were coming out of Memphis, you were highly touted, but were there a lot of sneaker companies coming after you before your rookie season?
Penny Hardaway: Oh yeah, Converse was coming real hard because that’s what we wore in college. It was really between Converse and Nike. Converse had really wanted me because I had played with their shoes throughout my college career, but I was really always a Nike guy. In my dorm, I had all Nike shoes, but then on the floor we’d wear Converse. [laughs]
NDP: Did you wear Nike during high school also?
Actually I wore Converse and Nike in high school as well. The Weapons were really hot with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson wearing them, and then I started wearing Flights in the 10th and 11th grade from Nike.
NDP: Once you got to the league, were there any players whose shoes you would find yourself looking at, or did you talk to any other players that had their own shoes like Michael, Shawn Kemp or Grant Hill?
I always was looking at Michael because Michael always had a really unique shoe, and everyone was always waiting for his shoe to come out. I always admired him and his shoes.
NDP: When Michael came out of retirement, there’s a famous game in the 1995 Playoffs where you both agreed to wear each others’ shoes, and you wore the Jordan IX, and he was wearing your shoe, the Flight One. How
did that come about?
I didn’t think he would do it, but when he first came back, just to see him in the shoes that I was wearing, I was like, “Wow!” I couldn’t ever believe that he had them on. He could’ve easily worn any Jordans that night, but it was just crazy that he really did wear my shoe, and I was just trippin’. I would wear Jordans anyways back then just because, but to see him in mine and the shoe that I was wearing was just crazy.
NDP: How much did it mean that you guys actually went on to win that series?
Oh it meant a lot! We were the only team to beat the Bulls with Michael Jordan in the Playoffs while they were winning championships. He won six rings [in the 90s] but no one beat him but us that one year. And as a team, we were the last team to ever beat him in a Playoff series, and that’s just a great part of history.
NDP: Did he ever give you any advice, or did you ever ask for any advice about how to have a successful shoe line or career?
No, we never really got into anything like that, but he was just a really nice guy to me because he respected my game, he respected how hard I went, and he respected that I didn’t bow down and that I looked at it as competition. He’s the greatest of all time, but I’m a competitor, so I was always trying to go after him.
NDP: Did you guys have any memorable exchanges that you can recall?
The biggest thing I ever remember about Michael was at the ’97 All-Star when I was getting introduced, when he actually unsnapped my pants when I was getting introduced. This was at the All-Star game, and I always thought that was pretty funny. [laughs]
NDP: You first wore shoes like the Air Up and the Flight One, but when did Nike approach you and decide that you would be getting your very own signature shoe?
My second year in the league I had really come into my own, and I was doing some amazing things, definitely with the blessings of God, and I just took off! I had went from being just average, I would say during my rookie season, to being First Team All-NBA and helping to take our team to the Finals. After that, Nike was like, “You know what, it’s time to get your own shoe. You’ve become a big enough name, and you’ve really earned it, so it’s time for your own shoe.”
NDP: And at the time, what was it like seeing a box for the first time that read ‘Air Penny’ on the label?
Amazing! It was just amazing. You could never even dream of anything like that. Your dream is always just to make it to the NBA, and not really to have your own shoe or anything outside of that. But to have my own shoe, that was just another dream that I had fulfilled.
NDP: What’d you think the first time you saw the 1 Cent logo?
I thought it was sick! I thought it was crazy, and it was just this supped up 1 Cent sign, and the 1 was highlighted in blue, and it was just crazy. Right away I knew that they had done an amazing job with this logo, and it was just great.
NDP: You were pretty young when you got your first shoe. Did you ever get any jealousy from other players around that time?
No, in fact everyone always kept asking me for ’em! [laughs] Everybody loves this one [holds up Orlando Penny I] and always asked me, “Man how can I get those shoes!?” I’d just say, “I don’t know, call Nike.” [laughs] It was just such a great shoe, and it was also just very comfortable to wear. You know it’s funny, I just saw Corey Brewer wearing these [four] years ago when he won the championship at Florida, and I was like “Wow, that’s just great that people still wear this shoe.”
NDP: Do you have a favorite color yourself?
This one right here is my favorite color code. Even though it was made for the Orlando Magic colors then, there’s nothing too crazy about it, and it just looks great. I also really like the black, white and red that they did a bit later.
NDP: What did you first think about the Li’l Penny commercial idea? Was that something that you knew right away would be huge?
You know what, I thought it was going to be really funny, but I didn’t really know how big it was going to get. Comedy just sits well with a lot of people when you add that humor into your commercials. When I was doing the commercials, I was actually laughing, so I knew that at least people would think they were funny. But I never expected it to get that big.
NDP: What did you think about the more serious commercials, like Michael always had a real serious commercial for his shoes?
I really liked a lot of Michael’s commercials, but for me I just like having that humor. I loved “The LeBrons” that they just did, and people don’t want to see a serious commercial all the time; they want to laugh. But, Michael was a tough competitor, and that was just who he was. With mine, it was more of an alter-ego of me, as I was just more quiet, and then there was the alter-ego that was just more crazy.
Zac Dubasik: When you found out Li’l Penny would be voiced by Chris Rock, were you excited?
I was! Back then we had Martin Lawrence, Damon Wayans and a couple of other comedians that really wanted to do it, but they were asking for a pretty substantial amount of money, and right away Chris Rock just said, “Ok, I’ll do it!” At the time, he had no idea that it was going to be that big. He just looked at it and thought, “This is going to be pretty sweet working for Nike,” but it just happened to turn out to be so much more than that, and it was great to have him on board. He wasn’t as huge then, either, as he is now.
Steve Mullholand: Now, of course, he probably would command a pretty big paycheck.
Oh, yeah. [laughs]
NDP: Those other guys are probably wishing they would’ve just done it, too.
Oh, for sure.
NDP: Was there anything that you worked with Eric Avar on in terms of improving upon the Penny I for the next year with the Penny II?
No, I really liked that shoe. The II I also really liked because I had it in three great colors with the black and white, all-white and then white and blue. The II was my favorite one to wear because it was more comfortable to me, and it was just a tighter snug fit. The I was a little bit wider, and it was still a great shoe, but the II is a bit more narrow and becomes more snug around my arches and were probably my favorites.
NDP: The II also included Zoom Air for the first time. Was that something that you requested or were familiar with?
No, not really, it was something that they put in there, and when I just put them on, right away I knew that it just felt great. It was a great shoe, and they really did an unbelievable job with this shoe.
Zac: They just brought the II back out; what’d you think of that shoe returning?
They sold out here in Memphis immediately! When you don’t have something for a while, you really want to get them back, and I’ve been seeing everyone around here wearing them, and people at the gym playing ball in them, too. It’s just great seeing them again.
NDP: Was the black colorway with the white foam piece something that Nike created or a look that you liked?
It definitely reminded me of the I, and that’s why we kept it similar, but I loved the way it went up into the arch more. I just loved the color of it whenever we did all-black with a white piece wrapping around, and it always worked out really nice.
NDP: Was moving the logo from the heel to the tongue something that you wanted?
Yeah, I wanted that because that Jordan logo was always on the tongue, and I thought having the 1 Cent logo on the tongue would be really nice.
NDP: And then when the Foamposite hit …
Stupid! [laughs] These are stupid right here. [holds up the Foamposite One] When I first started wearing them, the league told me I had to put black [in the ridges] with a Sharpie because it wasn’t a road shoe under the rules. So all through the ridges they had put black markings, but this shoe was still just stupid. It was just ridiculous, just crazy.
NDP: Was the NBA close to fining you?
Yeah, they right away said, “If you don’t get more black on those shoes, then we’re going to have to fine you.” I just figured we should go ahead and get more black on the stripes of the shoe and not get fined. The funny thing was the stripes would peel off and wear off by the middle of every game anyways, but at least at the start of the game it looked like the shoe was more black and the league was happy. [laughs]
NDP: Do you remember the first time Nike showed them to you?
Yeah! I was just like, “Oh my god! What is that?” I think I saw the white one first actually, but I just loved the clear bottom right away along with the black along the top. It was just a crazy shoe, and I had never seen anything like it in my life.
Zac: What was your reaction to the price?
They were close to $200, and that was just crazy. One hundred eighty dollars for a pair of shoes was quite a lot.
NDP: When you were growing up, could you imagine asking your mom for a $180 shoe?
No! There was no way I would’ve gotten them growing up, but hey, a ton of people got them, and they sold a ton. And even now, people always want to see these re-dropped as many times as possible. This [original] color in particular, everyone just loved, though. It was perfect. The logo on the heel, the little Swoosh here on the toe and the color was just crazy.
NDP: Was there anything different in the feel of the shoe because it was a Foamposite?
It was just a different feel overall because of the material that was on the entire shoe. It was a more snug fit, and it was also a bit more narrow. It didn’t even really matter at that time, though. No matter what, I was going to wear it because they were just so different and crazy.
NDP: Did you ever play against Michael at the time in those and stop to remind him, “Hey, my shoes cost more than yours now!” [laughs]
Nah, cause what he would say was, “Yeah, OK, but I have a building.” He had a building at Nike already, so I knew better than to say that. [laughs]
NDP: Did you ever talk with Shaq at all about his shoes, because he had some pretty crazy Reeboks at the time when you were on the Magic together?
I didn’t really think any shoe out there, no matter who it was, could match Nike. I wouldn’t really even care what everyone else was wearing ’cause I knew these were so sweet that it didn’t even matter.
NDP: With the Penny III, they went back to a mostly leather shoe, but how important was it to keep the Foam along the sides of the shoe?
Oh it was very important, because when they made these, it was different than anything I had ever had in terms of the style of it, but I also knew right away that it was a rugged shoe that I felt like I could do a lot in. They were comfortable as always, and I really enjoyed this shoe for sure.
NDP: All of your shoes had the internal bootie; was that something you always asked for?
Exactly. That was something I always liked to have as it fit better and gave you that nice snug fit. I also really liked [the elastic bands] because it was unique how the lacing was set up, but it worked for the fit of the shoe, too.
NDP: What do you remember about the Frozen Moment commercial for this shoe?
Oh that was the best. It was in slow motion at the park and Li’l Penny was blowing a bubble, and then setting off the rocket. Those were all just too funny.
Steve: How much fun was it doing those commercials? Was it a lot of work?
Oh no, it was actually really easy, and I always wanted to do them because I knew how much everyone loved them.
NDP: Would you just do them in one day?
Well, it depends, because sometimes we would just shoot all of the commercials in about a week. Sometimes I would just go to L.A. for the whole week, and we’d do all of the commercials at once. Those commercials were just great, and everyone loved them.
NDP: When you went onto the Penny IV, there was no longer any Foamposite, but did you still like how this shoe turned out?
I actually really loved this shoe a lot. Everything was done well, and I liked how you got in it and just were strapped in. The 1 Cent logo was on the middle of the tongue, a bit bigger, and that was the best, though. I loved that. They also had “Penny” written on the tongue for the first time. These were crazy, too, like all my other ones.
NDP: How involved would you get with Eric, and at what point would he show you the next shoe?
Well, they would come to me always with a base shoe already done, and then we’d work together to make changes based on what I liked and didn’t like. But really, there was never anything that I ever had to change because every one of them they truly did a great job. There might be some people’s shoes out there where you are just left kind of feeling, “Ugh, they just look OK I guess,” but with my shoes, I never felt that way about any of the shoes they ever made for me. I also really loved the suede on the shoes that wrapped over. And something else I always wanted to have was the little itty bitty Nike swooshes on the shoe instead of a bigger in-your-face Swoosh.
NDP: Were you pretty vocal about keeping the Penny logo always the same size as the Swoosh, if not bigger?
Well, that’s just what it was all about: Me. [laughs] So I always felt it had to show that it was me and it was my shoe. I would rather have that always. It’s kind of like a Tiger Woods golf shirt, how you’ll always see the TW logo as big as the Swoosh, so you know it’s his shirt. They did a great job with branding my shoe, though. I never had to complain and say, “Hey man, this needs another 1 Cent logo on it,” or anything like that, because they had already done a great job with each shoe.