One of my former co-workers used to give me a hard time, saying that I didn’t know anything about the NBA, pre-Penny Hardaway. While that was a bit of an exaggeration, Penny was one of my favorite players to watch in the mid-90s during his heyday with the Orlando Magic.

The “special edition” cover of Fastbreak

(NBAE Photos)

I loved his smooth and explosive, inside-outside game. I loved his pairing with Shaquille O’Neal; together the NBA’s version of peanut butter and jelly. And who didn’t love those Li’l Penny commercials? Those are still all-time classics.

If you happened to read my Citizen profile on PlanetOrange.net, you might have noticed that listed “Recruiting Penny” as one of my all-time favorite Suns moments. It was the first time I was ever asked to help our basketball operations staff attempt to lure a free-agent to Phoenix, which was a thrill in itself. But hearing my then-hoops hero acknowledge that the fake Suns magazine we put together with Penny and Jason Kidd (Backcourt 2000) on the cover really made him feel wanted by the Suns? That was a moment I won’t soon forget.

Unfortunately, Penny’s career in Phoenix wasn’t what we had all hoped. Or what he had hoped for that matter, after tattooing “Part 2, Heaven Cent” on his bicep. He had a great playoffs in 2000, leading the Suns in scoring, but was hampered by knee problems the rest of his time in purple and orange.

Injuries continued to follow him to New York, after the Suns traded him and Stephon Marbury to the Knicks in 2004, and had seemingly ended his career in 2006. Although I don’t even remember hearing about it, Hardaway was apparently traded back to Orlando in Feb ’06, only to be waived and find himself out of the league.

After playing just four games in 2005-06 and sitting out the entire ’06-2007 season, Hardaway is back at age 36 for one more go-around, having earned a roster spot with the Miami Heat. While it’s not the comeback story of his teammate Alonzo Mourning or the Suns’ Grant Hill, Penny has fought his way back into the Association and I, for one, am happy to see it.

I caught up with the Heat veteran, always a great interview and a class act, for a quick Q&A before tonight’s game.

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McPeek: How does it feel to be back in the league after a year away?
Hardaway: It feels good, man. It’s a blessing because so many people had given up on me. That’s always the easy thing to do, but I felt in my heart that I wasn’t finished yet, so that’s why I continued to proceed to go out there and work hard, and try to get back to the league.

McPeek: How did you spend the past year?
Hardaway: I was just working out. That’s all I did. I just focused on working out every day, because I was so hungry and really wanted to get back into the NBA. It was very hard to be away, because I felt like I deserved to be back.

My name was so big back in the day that I think it kind of came back to haunt me. When I wanted to get back in the league last year, I think a lot of teams just didn’t want to take that chance. But I’ve proven to teams that I’m healthy. Hopefully I’ll get that respect that I never gave up and I got back.

McPeek: Did you have any doubts yourself as to whether or not you would make it back?
Hardaway: Before I had surgery about a year and a half ago, I did have doubts, because I felt like, “If this is where my knee is, I’m not going to be able to play.” Luckily I found out that there was a bone spur lodged in the back of my leg and removing that allowed me to get back on the floor.

McPeek: Do you cherish this opportunity even more now?
Hardaway: I do. I’m enjoying it. It’s such a different league, man. There are so many great young guys. But it’s still an opportunity to be back out on the floor and to have as much fun as possible.

McPeek: How strange is it teaming up with Shaquille O’Neal again?
Hardaway: It’s strange and fun. It’s something that I didn’t think would ever happen again in our careers, but you never say never. This season started out really bad with our record, but it’s still been a pleasure playing with him again.

McPeek: How does it feel to come back and play another game in Phoenix, where you spent several years of your career?
Hardaway: It feels great. I still have lots of friends here and I still come back here during the summer time and play golf. I still love Phoenix. You know, it’s a spot that I really didn’t want to leave, but unfortunately I got included in a trade with Steph. I went to New York and that didn’t work out, but now like I said, I’m back.

McPeek: What are your thoughts on this Suns team?
Hardaway: A great team. I mean, Coach D’Antoni has done such a great job. I knew how smart he was when he was an assistant coach and then became head coach with us. I knew his mind was just unlike any coach that I had ever played for because he’s offensively amazing. He’s just a great coach.

McPeek: There are still several players on this Suns team that you played with, but how happy are you for Leandro Barbosa with the growth that he has made in the years since you were teammates.
Hardaway: That’s my boy. He’s a man now. He’s learned how to play the game. He had a lot of help with (assistant coaches) Phil Weber, Coach Grgurich when he was here, and I guess that Coach D’Antoni’s brother has really helped him. His natural-born talent was always good, but he just needed some help, and he listened well and learned well.

McPeek: Lastly, I’ve got to ask you about Amaré Stoudemire, who underwent a micro fracture procedure on his knee in 2004, a few months after you were traded to New York. Having gone through that surgery yourself, what was your reaction when you heard and did you share any advice with Amaré afterwards?
Hardaway: Yeah, I spoke to him a lot during that time as he was coming back from the micro fracture. I just told him to stay patient. It’s frustrating and you don’t understand the injury, and it’s just hard to come back from. But you have to be patient with it, and now he’s overcome it really well.

I’m happy to see it. Amaré is a good guy and he has become a great player, which we all knew he could be. He’s fought through his injuries and is playing well.

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