If you turned on a television set between 1994 and 1998, you’re probably familiar with former NBA star Penny Hardaway and his alter ego, L’il Penny, voiced by comedian Chris Rock.

Li’l Penny is not the reason why Penny Hardaway was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame this week. His 15 seasons in the NBA, four All-Star game appearances, and Olympic gold medal helped. But it was his work after retirement, coaching kids in his old neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn., that inspired the selection committee to choose him.

Hardaway’s fellow inductees included Chisholm, Minn. high school basketball coach Bob McDonald, who retired after 59 seasons without a single technical foul. When Hardaway heard that stat, he immediately stood up and applauded.

Hardaway spoke with Only A Game’s Karen Given.

KG: Did you ever think that you’d be inducted into something called the National High School Hall of Fame.

PH: Absolutely, not. I mean, I played the game of basketball just for the love of the game. It was definitely an outlet for me. It was my neighborhood’s No. 1 sport. We played all day and all night.

And never in a million years would I ever have thought that I would have been in the National High School Hall of Fame. I mean, I know I had a great career, but never once did I think, “Oh man, these numbers are going to get me into the Hall of Fame.” I never thought that at all.

KG: You told this group that your high school teammates were like your family. How was that?

PH: Well, you know I was an only child. And my mother wanted to pursue her singing career, so she left, pursued her singing career and left me with my grandmother. And I was an only child, my dad, I hadn’t met him. He left before I was born. So, when I went to school, the guys I played ball with, we bonded. They were like my brothers. The coach was like my father and my teammates were like my brothers and that was just a real, true family and that’s how we reacted around each other every day.

KG: So, I would assume that has something to do with the fact that after you made a reported $120 million in the NBA, you decided to go back to your neighborhood to your junior high school and coach. What was that decision? Why did you decide to do that?

PH: You know, it was weird how that happened, but a good childhood friend of mine was diagnosed with colon cancer. And he was the head coach of Lester Middle School at the time, and he asked me to help while he was going through chemotherapy. And he was so weak that he couldn’t sit on the bench. Of course, you know, going through chemo, there’s only so much you can do and you don’t have the energy to go on a daily basis. So, I took over the team. I was only supposed to take over for one year, and it ended up being three years. And it’s been a great time. He’s still having his battles with cancer, but he’s feeling much better. And I’m still at the school.

KG: Three years. Three city championships. Three state championships. Obviously, you have a lot of talent on the court, but what’s your biggest challenge off the court?

I’ve been retired now for five, six years, and Li’l Penny is stronger than ever, like it was 1996.
– Penny Hardaway
PH: I think the biggest challenge off the court is none of these kids have their fathers in their lives. And their mothers are working multiple jobs, so they have a lot of idle time. And they become the babysitters of their other siblings. A kid isn’t supposed to be babysitting his brothers and sisters his whole childhood. He’s supposed to be a kid.

I think the disadvantages of that is that they just never get out, never have any fun, never get the chance to dream, you’re always stuck at home. And the challenge is really to just continue to push these kids in the right direction and not think about the negative.

KG: Because there is a lot of negative in the community you grew up in, right?

PH: Well, yeah, I mean there’s a lot pride in our neighborhood, but there a lot of gang affiliation. There’s a lot of fighting. There’s a lot more negative things to see in that neighborhood than positive. But it’s what you make it. It’s what you see yourself as, it’s what you see yourself making it out, and I always challenge these kids to dream. Dream big. Dream what you want, and then go get it.

KG: So what is your goal for these kids, do you want them all to become NBA players?

PH: I want them to go to college. I think that would be my greatest effort toward what I’ve done for these kids is just to get them all to go to college, whether it be on an athletic scholarship or academic scholarship. The NBA, I don’t really worry about that.

KG: You stood for the coach up here who coached for all those years and never had a technical foul. I assume that’s not easy for you.

PH: No, you know, I’m such a competitor. I’m not saying that coach wasn’t. But there’s times during the game where you lose it. Maybe one game out of a year? And you might say something that you shouldn’t say and you get a technical. But I do applaud him. I thought that was amazing.

KG: I also want to talk to you about, you made it to the NBA Finals in 2005 with Orlando, but you were swept. Do you ever look back and say, “What if?”

Hardaway played in the NBA for 15 seasons, including two with the New York Knicks. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Hardaway played in the NBA for 15 seasons, including two with the New York Knicks. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

PH: There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that Finals with the Houston Rockets. Because I just felt like we were a play away. They were a veteran team, and we were a young team. Maybe that’s what took them over the hump, but I just felt like we had the better team and it didn’t happen that way. They swept us, but I do think about that every day.

KG: So I have just one more question and it’s because my editor told me today that he’s completely freaked out by Li’l Penny. So I want to know where Li’l Penny ranks in the list of your career accomplishments.

PH: You know, Li’l Penny might be first. Maybe a close second to being drafted into the NBA. But, you know, Li’l Penny thrusted me to another level because everybody loved that ad with Nike. Nike did an unbelievable job, and it’s still going to this day. I’ve been retired now for five, six years, and Li’l Penny is stronger than ever, like it was 1996. So Li’l Penny has done a lot for my career.