The possibilities for Memphis with Penny Hardaway and Larry Brown sound amazing | Giannotto
At his first practice in Memphis, Larry Brown initially couldn’t hear.
The music was blaring over the speakers at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center Monday morning, and it seemed even louder through the hearing aids worn by the Tigers’ new Hall of Fame assistant coach.
“It was like a fire drill today,” Brown said, because he’s trying to learn names and terminology, and NCAA rules only allowed the players to work out for one hour, and he’s 80 years old, for goodness sake.
But then Brown heard coach Penny Hardaway speak to the team. About goals and expectations. About being good teammates and playing hard. Brown said it made him smile because he believes Hardaway values what he values. And as you try to sift through what’s happening right now – how the greatest basketball product this city ever produced joined forces with one of the greatest basketball minds the game has ever produced – perhaps that’s all you need to hear through the noise.
“This can be anything we want it to be,” Brown said during his introductory press conference.
The possibilities sounded amazing in this setting, so much so that it was hard to remember why Hardaway had to fight so hard behind-the-scenes to make this hire.
The concerns about Brown’s age, or Brown’s checkered past with the NCAA, or Brown’s willingness to not be in charge, they washed away with each word he spoke, be it a self-deprecating joke or a compliment paid to Hardaway or a glimpse into his motives for taking a job usually reserved for those 40 and 50 years younger than him.
“I just want to be a resource for Penny and all the other staff,” Brown said. “I want to share all the things I was taught.”
It was, in this new era of name, image and likeness and roster turnover, so refreshing to hear because it sounded genuine coming from the deliberate and measured voice of a coach who just last week was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the NBA.
Forget how he can help Hardaway on the bench, and how much gravitas he adds to Hardaway’s NBA recruiting pitch for a second. His reasons for returning, for accepting a role he hasn’t held since working under Dean Smith at North Carolina in 1969, harkens back to some of the altruistic reasons the city fell in love with Tigers basketball in the first place.
Why did Brown want to do this? “Well,” he said to start, “Penny.”
“Penny wants me here and my role is going to evolve based on what he needs from me,” Brown added. “He’s the face of this program for all the right reasons … I’m not here to invent Memphis basketball. I’m here to share what Penny needs from me.”
“It’s almost like you need to have the recorder going every time you’re around him because he just knows so much and he’s been through so much,” Hardaway added, “and how can all of us not get better from having that?”
The dynamic will be fascinating to observe.
Brown coached Hardaway for all of one season in the NBA, and he got fired in June 2006 after the New York Knicks finished with a 23-59 record. Hardaway appeared in all of four games due to the injuries that tainted the end of his career.
But out of that wreckage, Brown became a mentor for Hardaway because “he never gave in,” Hardaway said. “When times are hard, you’re going to need guys that aren’t going to give in and aren’t going to give up.”
It was a telling comment from the pupil-turned-boss.
This isn’t as much about Hardaway adding a former head coach to his staff, as much as it’s about adding a former head coach he trusts enough to actually listen to. It’s why Hardaway tried to hire him the moment he was named the coach at Memphis. It’s why, Hardaway admitted, he worked “pretty hard” to convince the current administration to let him bring Brown into the program, despite a history of running afoul of the NCAA, more than three years later.
“There were people who talked against me getting him because they felt like he would get all of the credit,” Hardaway said. “But that doesn’t matter because I want to win. … I have no ego when it comes to this.”
It all sounds great, although a lot of the Hardaway era has sounded great only to fall a bit short of what was expected.
What actually happens the first time Brown disagrees with Hardaway? What will actually be the reaction when pundits, accurately or not, diminish Hardaway’s role in the Tigers’ success? What toll will the rigors of the college basketball calendar actually take on a soon-to-be 81-year-old?
These are questions that can only be answered in time. That, frankly, don’t seem important just yet. Not when you consider just how wonderful this could all turn out to be for a program and a fan base long overdue for the magical final chapter Brown could write with Hardaway for however long this arrangement lasts.
So consider the picture that surfaced over the weekend instead.
It was Brown, Hardaway, Memphis assistant Cody Toppert and Kentucky coach John Calipari smiling and sitting on the sideline in the Philadelphia area watching Jalen Duren, the No. 1 recruit in the country, play in a grassroots basketball event.
Behind them were a bevy of other recruits crowding in to be seen with Hardaway and an assistant coach who wears hearing aids.
It looked better than it sounded.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto