For Phoenix suns guard Penny Hardaway, redemption and regret are a package deal. He has earned one but cannot shake the other, and in the Suns' Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Lakers, which began on Sunday with a 105-77 L.A. victory, he feels them in equal measure. His stellar play over the past six weeks in the absence of injured point guard Jason Kidd not only kept the Suns from sinking in the West but also helped him peel off the "fragile" and "overrated" labels that had been affixed to him in Orlando. But Hardaway, 28, would take more satisfaction in his rebirth if facing L.A.—especially former Magic teammate Shaquille O'Neal and Shaq's sidekick, Kobe Bryant—didn't remind him so clearly of what might have been.
It was only four years ago that Hardaway was O'Neal's multitalented partner, the flash to Shaq's bash. To Hardaway, watching Bryant complement O'Neal with spectacular slashes to the hoop and smothering defense in Game I was like seeing another actor excel in the role he himself originated. "The way they work together looks a lot like what Shaq and I used to do," Hardaway said after O'Neal scored 37 points and Bryant added 25 in Game I. " Shaq takes so much pressure off you. He opens things up for Kobe."
Although Hardaway is delighted to be in Phoenix, it's clear that he would love to turn back the clock to the days when he and O'Neal were as lethal a tandem as Bryant and O'Neal are now. "I've wondered what would have happened if he hadn't left," he says, referring to O'Neal's departure as a free agent in 1996. "That's when things started going downhill for everyone, including me."
After O'Neal moved on, Hardaway broke down, physically at least, with knee and hamstring injuries that limited him to 78 games over the next two seasons. The emotional toll was just as great. "There was too much pressure on me," he says. "It wore me down. Coach [Chuck] Daly didn't like me. The fans were fed up with me because I wasn't scoring 25 points a night. I felt like I was in a nightmare, coming to my home arena and feeling like the enemy."
The nightmare ended last summer when Orlando signed him to a seven-year, $86 million contract and traded him to Phoenix. He did sit out 21 games with foot injuries, but in the 15 games that Kidd missed down the stretch, Hardaway averaged 18.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.9 steals. His 19.0 points per game in the first round led the Suns past the San Antonio Spurs, three games to one. "Penny proved that he's still a great player and that he can carry a team," says Phoenix guard Todd Day. "He's not one to say, 'I told you so,' but it has to be satisfying for him."
Knocking off L.A. would be even more satisfying, and the Suns' slim chances rest heavily on Hardaway. If Bryant's Game I harassment of Kidd is any indication—Kidd, in his second game since returning from a broken left ankle, missed five of six shots and committed five turnovers—Phoenix will need Hardaway to make the Lakers' other guard, Ron Harper, look like the 36-year-old with creaky knees that he is. One of the few encouraging signs for the Suns on Sunday was that Hardaway seemed up to the challenge, leading Phoenix with 25 points. "I'm healthy," he says. "I can do the things I want to, without my body holding me back."
Hardaway can finally play without restrictions, if not without regrets.