Like any highly-touted college basketball prospect, Memphis’ Penny Hardaway had long dreamed about making it to the NBA. That dream came to reality in 1993 when the Golden State Warriors selected him as their 3rd overall pick and traded him to the Orlando Magic for Chris Webber on draft day.
Penny was elated, and he converted that energy to results. He never missed a game in his rookie season with the Magic and tallied a highly-efficient average of 16 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game. Ultimately, Hardaway was an instant NBA star. However, with Michael Jordan out that season (due to his Minor League Baseball spell with the Birmingham Barons), Penny felt dissatisfied with his accomplishments.
“With Michael Jordan being out of the league, I was a little disappointed because I wanted to compete against him, and I felt I wasn’t going to have that opportunity,” Hardaway told The Athletic in 2020.
Penny beat MJ
After having a spectacular maiden season with Orlando, Hardaway felt he was already equipped with the right tools to face Jordan. In the latter part of the 1994/95 season, Penny finally got what he was looking for. MJ made a herculean NBA return, and in his third game since his official comeback, he crossed paths with fierce young blood, who was taking the league by storm.
Penny and Jordan’s first duel took place in Chicago, inside the Bulls’ new arena, the Chicago Stadium. It was the first time MJ graced their new home, and Hardaway could tell that it got “His Airness” uneasy the entire game.
“All I can remember was that he was not comfortable inside of the new arena, the United Center,” Hardaway recounted. “He was more comfortable in Chicago Stadium. He knew the baskets really well in Chicago Stadium, obviously, and moving to a new arena really had him shaken up a little bit.”
What made Hardaway realize that Jordan was trying to adjust all night was the way he shot the ball. According to Penny, “he used to like to use the glass.”
In terms of individual performance, both players delivered as Penny racked up 22 points, five rebounds, and six assists. Jordan, on the other hand, finished with a decent 21 points, eight assists, four rebounds, and five steals. However, the Magic was just too much for the Bulls as Orlando edged Chicago 106-99.
The invincible Magic
That season, Hardaway and Jordan clashed once again. But this time, in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Having thumped Jordan and the Bulls in their first meeting, Hardaway and the Magic were brimming with confidence.
“Well, we were young. We felt like it was our show before he came back, and we weren’t ready to give that away,” he said of the Magic’s mentality against the Bulls. “We felt like we had earned it, and we were going to compete to show them that we were capable of beating them and competing against them every time we faced them.”
Penny reckoned that during that playoff series, MJ “had a lot of rust” and ultimately “wasn’t full-throttle Michael.” On top of that, nothing about Jordan’s legacy fazed Hardaway the entire series. All he knew at the time was that the Magic was the best team in the league.
“I wasn’t really worried about the Jordan rules and the Detroit wars and the wars with Boston or any of that. We were the group that was ready to win a championship, and he was coming back into our world. That’s how I thought, honestly, at the time, because we were the hottest team," Penny stressed.
Apparently, Hardaway was right. Orlando eliminated Jordan and the Bulls in six games and advanced to the conference finals.
MJ hits back
Needless to say, everybody knew that Jordan would have his revenge. So Hardaway was well aware that beating MJ in the semis “pissed Michael off.”
The following season, Hardaway said that “the Michael Jordan we know” had returned. In the regular season, Orlando managed to beat the Bulls once again. And Penny takes pride in that as it was the year Chicago pulled off its historic 72-10 campaign. However, Jordan hit back in the playoffs and swept the Magic in the conference finals.
While he acknowledged that MJ got his rhythm back, Hardaway likes to think that injuries also played a role in their downfall.
"I think it really shocked him [Jordan] how good we really were," Hardaway assessed."It drove them that next year to just go out and dominate even though we still beat them that next year in the regular season. We beat them at Orlando in their 72-10 season. But when the playoffs happened, we had too many injuries."
After the 1996 playoffs, Hardaway and Jordan never faced each other in the post-season again. Penny eventually succumbed to injuries, while MJ won two more titles.
Indeed, Jordan had a better career than Hardaway. But Penny sleeps soundly at night, knowing that he once got the better of the greatest of all time.