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Ian Thomsen
December 17, 2001
Back the Hardaway After being sidelined last season, Penny Hardaway is sparking the Suns' attack
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December 17, 2001

The Nba

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Back the Hardaway
After being sidelined last season, Penny Hardaway is sparking the Suns' attack

The early favorite for the 2002 Comeback Player of the Year Award is Suns guard Penny Hardaway, who early last summer was contemplating retirement. "I was going to give myself until mid-August," says the 30-year-old Hardaway, who despite four operations on his left knee in four years, was averaging 18.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists at week's end.

Hardaway missed all but four games last season, and on occasion the rust still shows. He has spent extra hours in the gym with freelance shooting coach Buzz Braman to improve his touch; a career 47.2% shooter, he was hitting only 42.1% from the floor through Sunday. Last Friday in Boston he went 6 for 23 from the field, with nine turnovers. At the end of regulation Hardaway also failed to block out Antoine Walker, whose tip-in propelled the Celtics to a 109-102 overtime victory.

Two nights later in Toronto, though, Hardaway scored a team-high 27 points and hit a layup at the buzzer to beat the Raptors 91-90 and lift Phoenix to 13-9. The Suns have had to adjust not only to the return of Hardaway but also to the absence of Jason Kidd, who went to the Nets for Stephon Marbury in an off-season swap of point guards. While Marbury is a less willing and able passer than Kidd, the team's back-court could be more explosive than it was a year ago. Backup Tony Delk scored 53 points against the Kings last season, and like Hardaway, he can play the one or the two.

Hardaway predicts the guards won't gel until the second half of the season, in part because Marbury keeps dropping back to bring the ball upcourt instead of running out on the break. "He still hasn't gotten the rhythm down," says Hardaway. "He's not in New Jersey. He doesn't have to have the ball all the time."

Adds coach Scott Skiles, "Penny has a tendency not to run too. I want to see both of them running the floor better."

If the Suns do commit to the fast break, they could become one of the league's most exciting and dangerous clubs. No such sunny forecasts would be possible, however, without the reemergence of the 6'7" Hardaway, who twice underwent surgery in 2000 to clean out his knee. After a brief return ended in failure this past January, Phoenix began to ponder a future without him. According to the NBA's complex financial rules, the Suns could have cleared their salary cap of the remaining four years and $56.3 million of Hardaway's contract if he had retired after appearing in 11 or fewer games this year. "I was made aware of that, but I never cared," says Hardaway, who would have been paid regardless.

He proved he was serious about his comeback by playing in two summer leagues and spending a month in daily workouts with Michael Jordan and friends in Chicago. That hard work has given perspective to a player who used to take his athleticism for granted. "People dog you about not playing," he says, "but nobody ever understands how you feel or what you're going through to get yourself ready to play again."

End of an Era for the Knicks
Van Gundy Calls Abrupt Timeout

New York coach Jeff Van Gundy walked into an Atlanta hotel bar last month with a couple of his assistants and parked in front of a big-screen TV to watch the Celtics play the Heat. As the game approached its conclusion—a Boston victory at the buzzer—Van Gundy began to pace. When Miami failed to call a timeout at a critical juncture, Van Gundy frantically signaled for one, making at T with his hands. Realizing that what he'd done wasn't quite appropriate, he turned his palms inward, and lowered his fingertips to his shoulders to request a 20-second timeout instead.

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