Hardaway's performance during O'Neal's absence was nothing short of spectacular, the kind of effort that should be remembered next spring when the Most Valuable Player ballots are filled out. "Asking Penny to take on this burden [of leading the team without O'Neal] two years ago would have been too much to ask," says Hill of his third-year star. "Right now he's playing veteran basketball. The emotional part of his game has caught up with the physical part."
Hardaway's averages in the 22 games before O'Neal's return were 26.4 points, 6.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds, but even those numbers don't measure his impact, nor do they describe the effortless grace with which he performs. Against Utah he caught an alley-oop pass going away from the basket, spun in the air and shot, and then, when his shot rolled off the rim, recovered quickly enough to be the first player back in the air for a tip-in. A remarkable play, but it happened so fast that it barely caused a ripple among the crowd.
This year the 6'7", 207-pound Hardaway has power to accompany the grace. An off-season weightlifting program added about 20 pounds, which makes him a more imposing figure around the basket. On one baseline drive last Friday against the Jazz, Karl Malone, Utah's 256-pound power forward with biceps the size of bowling balls, moved over to challenge him, then thought better of it and pulled his arm back as Hardaway dunked.
O'Neal's absence allowed Hardaway to move to an even higher station among the NBA's elite. He even got the better of the Bulls' Michael Jordan, outscoring him 36 points to 23, in Orlando's November win. When the Magic came to Chicago last week for the rematch, Jordan responded with 36 points—Hardaway had 26—in the Bulls' victory. It's hard to miss the signs that Hardaway is poised to assume Jordan's mantle. Nike's Air Penny basketball shoe is the first the company has named after an NBA player since, you guessed it, the Air Jordan. Even Hardaway's latest Nike commercial, in which he talks with a puppetlike character named Little Penny, seems like an updated version of Jordan's ads with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon.
As Hardaway's star continues to rise, a close watch is being kept on the egos of the two Magic superstars. But no one seemed happier to see O'Neal's return than Hardaway. "I can go out and play my normal game," he said.
As for the Magic's normal game, they haven't played it yet. That won't happen until O'Neal is less rusty. But his injury helped Orlando prove that it does not have to play its normal game to win. "I know," says O'Neal. "Scary, huh?"