- Penny Hardaway returned to his neighborhood to coach hoops
- Ex-NBA star wanted to help a friend battling stage IV colon cancer
- Penny's biggest lesson: Giving your time is more important than giving money
- CNN's Wayne Drash chronicles the season in "On These Courts"
The boys of Lester Middle dripped with sweat. They raced up and down the court, doing layup drills. The orange glow of the fluorescent gym lights flashed off the hardwoods. Coach Desmond Merriweather barked out signals.
"Y'all ain't hustling enough," said Merriweather, who was in the throes of battling stage IV colon cancer.
At the far end of the court, former NBA all-star Penny Hardaway peeked his head in the door. None of the kids noticed. He and Desmond decided that Penny would show up and surprise the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
As the players continued to run the court, Penny kept peeping his head in and out of the black metal doors until finally breaking into their practice.
Some of the boys instantly recognized him from a charity game two nights before and sprinted toward him.
But the two best players, Reggie Green and Robert Washington, trailed behind. They weren't sure who the 6-foot-7 guy with the trimmed goatee was.
Reggie was the team's affable star, outgoing, talkative and smooth. A 6-foot-3 power forward, the 14-year-old could outmuscle most teams with his sheer size. He could dominate in the post or use his finesse to pull up on a 15-foot jumper.
His grandfather was Antoine Richardson, who helped mentor Penny in his youth. Basketball served as Reggie's escape, his refuge away from street life and his mess of a home life. His father had been imprisoned 700 miles away in North Carolina months before. As with many serious offenses, the people of Binghampton -- the rough and dangerous neighborhood where Penny grew up -- have collective amnesia when it comes to specific charges: something about a high-speed chase, his car might've struck an officer, he might've resisted arrest -- you know, ordinary stuff. He also beat Reggie severely before being captured, hurting the boy as much mentally as physically.
His father had been a huge boost for him the previous season, a mainstay at basketball games, and now Reggie's world was shattered. Nicknamed Taz, his father turned into the Tasmanian Devil in the stands, so wild and crazy he spun around dancing with joy after each basket his son scored.
Taz would race from the stands and sprint alongside Reggie each trip up the court. In his view, Ji -- as he called his son -- could do no wrong. Taz would shout Ji's name so loud it would bounce off the hardwood floors and through the cavernous gym. "Give it to 'em, Ji!" Taz shouted. And Ji lapped it up. He'd pound his chest after a made basket, point to his heart and back at Taz. It was a way of showing his dad how much he loved him. Taz hadn't been there for most of Reggie's upbringing and had only returned to Binghampton because he was trying to avoid arrest. He lived the life of a gangsta and had never dreamed Ji could get his family out of the ghetto the clean way, by playing ball. But when Dez took his son under his wing, Taz saw big lights and an NBA future for his boy.
But the blue and red lights of the police caught up with him.
Reggie had been living with his aunt before his dad's arrest but was then forced to move into his grandmother's apartment in a different neighborhood, called Hollywood, a few miles away. The whole situation left him shaken, scared and confused. Guys hanging out in the stairwells of the building and others on the block jumped on the new kid. Turf wars are real, and he was coming from Binghampton, a rival hood. His grandmother, Sheila Harris, fortunately was a tough-as-nails 49-year-old and a worthy combatant, hell-bent on her grandson getting out of the projects.
"They were trying to fight him. Everything," his grandmother said. "They were really at Reggie, you know. They started surrounding him at the gym. They were over there double-teaming him because he don't want to be a gangbanger. He's not a follower. He's a leader.
"You got the gangbanging; you've got the ones trying to pull him in and get in his head because he's a young boy. We're surrounded by them. That's all they do. GDs, Vice Lords, all of them. Grapes, stay right next door. But they don't bother mine because I put it out there.
"The furthest Reggie's ass can go is right here to this curb. I may let him go to the park. But Coach will tell you, when them streetlights come on, his ass got to be right back here: Nine o'clock, he's got to be in the house."
She called the police; she called the gang unit. Whatever it took to keep the pants-on-the-ground, hat-turned-sideways gangbangers away. "I tell them don't mess with my kids!"
His grandmother is known around the neighborhood as the Freeze Cup Lady for hustling Popsicles at 50 cents a pop as a way to keep Reggie and her three other grandchildren under her roof. Reggie's mother is in and out of his life, living just up the street a few apartments away. But as his grandmother put it, the less time she spends with Reggie the better: "I'm grandmomma hard. But down the road, she's momma hard. She don't play with his ass. He can get away with things with me, but her -- oooh, baby -- she ain't nice."
Reggie was the team's leader, having played for Coach Dez since sixth grade. But with his father in prison and his downgraded and dangerous home environment, Reggie grew angry and resentful. Who could blame him?
He was once an honor roll student, but his grades began slipping in the fall of 2011 as basketball season approached. His blunt-spoken grandma gave him this advice: "You never know what's gonna happen. Just stay prayed up, ya know. Live from day to day. One day at a time."
Now, in the gym, he looked at his shirt and at Penny. His shirt was from a summer basketball camp sponsored by former Memphis Grizzlies star O.J. Mayo and Penny. The images of both basketball players graced it.
"Is that really you?" Reggie asked.
"Yeah, that's me," Penny said with a smile.
"You look different," Reggie replied.
While Reggie was the veteran of the team, this was Robert Washington's first time playing for Lester. He had never played organized ball before this season. He knew the game from playing on the street, at rec centers and even on an Amateur Athletic Union travel team, but that was all about individual play. The concept of winning was wrapped around having the best move to the basket, not about the final score or playing together. At 6-foot-4, Robert Washington had a 7-foot wingspan. His bones ached from growing so fast, and at just 14, it was clear he wasn't done.
To older Memphis fans, he resembled a young Keith Lee, the dominant big man who took the Tigers to the Final Four in 1985. To the current generation, he resembled a different hoops star. His long limbs and faded haircut, along with his stellar play, earned him the nickname Little Durant, as in Oklahoma City All-Star Kevin Durant.
Robert lived in two neighboring homes a couple of blocks from the Lester school, one belonging to his aunt, the other his grandmother. Like Reggie's, Robert's dad also sat in prison. His dad had been locked up nearly all of Robert's life, mostly for drug offenses. The homes were a living testament to the saying that it takes a village to raise a child.
He was one of 20 kids being reared in the homes. Most days, his uncles sat in lawn chairs under the shade of an oak tree, telling tales and hustling. With so many kids running about and his father absent, similar to Penny's own adolescent experience, there just was no one to push Robert to achieve.
His auntie, Charity Washington, nicknamed Shree, did her best, but her presence wasn't like that of a male role model.
"The one thing I would hear Robert say a lot is 'All I want is my daddy to be at my games,' " she said. "He's never had that type of figure, never had a normal person in his life, like a dad.
"He's never had anyone motivating him. His father is a street father. His father never took him to the zoo or to the park or celebrated with him at his birthdays. It's all about quality time, because boys always want their dads with them. Robert can never say that, because his father was never there."
His aunt pointed up and down the street. "Robert didn't choose the streets. We weren't going to let him do that," she said.
At the Lester gym, Robert stood in front of Penny and looked down at his size-13 shoes instead of Penny's eyes when the two shook hands. Penny noticed Robert's hands were nearly as big as his. "Dude's got some mitts," he said later. Penny asked who the hype man was on the team.
"Me," said Kobe Freeman.
At 5-foot-6, Kobe served as the team's point guard. Reggie and Robert won the acclaim of superstars by pouring in tons of points. But for every big man, there's a little general who directs the floor, pushes the tempo and feeds the ball to them.
That was Kobe. He had an ebullient smile and polite manners. Nicknamed the Mayor, he always had something to say, usually positive words to encourage others to do better. He wore jersey No. 1, the same as Penny. A daunting assignment when the NBA star becomes your coach.
Penny could relate to Kobe in more ways than sharing a jersey number. Kobe met his father just three times by the time he was 10. He didn't remember much from those visits, tried not to dwell on the dad he hardly knew. Kobe lived with his five sisters and one brother at a home with his mother in Binghampton. She worked odd jobs to put food on the table. Kobe had met Coach Dez when he was about 8.
"Dez was there before my dad came. I've always claimed him as a father."
His biological dad made an attempt to be more active in his son's life, only after he heard Kobe was a good kid with promising athletic skills. "But it's still the same ol', same ol' from when I was younger."
Kobe wasn't shy like Robert and was able to meet Penny's handshake with a big grin.
Desmond's son, Nick, a seventh-grader, stood next to Penny. The two looked like the World's Tallest Man standing next to the World's Shortest. Nick's 4-foot-11 build barely came past Penny's waist. Nick possessed a toothy grin, and his tuft of hair stood straight up, like an Eraserhead.
Nick had told many of the players about Penny. After his father's battle with cancer, Nick and his dad had stayed at Penny's sprawling house, with its 12-foot-tall entryway, its waterfalls by the swimming pool and movie room with leather recliners and a screen the size of a small-town cinema.
It was a different world from what Nick was exposed to in Binghampton: lawns littered with trash and gold-teethed, jewelry-flaunting thugs manning corners.
Nick lived in a two-bedroom duplex with his father, stepmom Inga, sister and a stepbrother and cousin, both named J.R. Dez and Inga made it a tidy, peaceful home for what it was. But the neighbors smoked so much dope it came through the vents every time the air turned on; the stove leaked gas daily; the bathroom sink never fully drained. When they brushed their teeth, most of the time they spit in the toilet.
Nick was one of the few players with an active father in his life, yet he had watched as his father nearly died a year before and continued to battle colon cancer with chemo treatment every two weeks. His mother, who lives in Memphis but never had much of a relationship with Desmond, fought off her own battle, suffering from traumatic stomach surgery that nearly killed her.
All of it was enough to crush a child, but Nick witnessed his father's miracle -- and gained strength from it. Nick was a soldier, much in the way his father had described himself in high school. The point guard with a lethal three-point shot didn't show any cracks, and his teammates rarely knew much about the struggle he and his father faced.
Rounding out the team's eighth-graders were guard Courtney McLemore, a science wiz in the classroom and defensive specialist on the court; guard Demarcus "Black" Martin; and utility players Derrick "Ferb" Carnes, Xavier Young and Albert Zleh. The Zleh family fled war-torn Sudan and wound its way -- 6,500 miles -- to the war-torn streets of Binghampton. There are about nine brothers and sisters living in the Zlehs' nondescript three-bedroom apartment. But the boys are all exceptional athletes and extremely smart. Albert is fluent in several languages.
Aside from Nick, there was one other seventh-grader. Andrew Murphy, who struggled with his mother's recent death and fought often with his 22-year-old sister, who was now raising him. His mom was his idol, his rock, his foundation. He lashed out against the world with his mom gone. Hit girls in class, spoke all kinds of nasty to the teachers.
The final roster slots included two sixth-graders, Alex Lomax and George Bee. The two cut up in class, but it was easy to get them to listen. It was the older boys who would prove most difficult as the season progressed.
Coach Dez quieted the team so he could formally introduce Penny. He told the team of Penny's NBA career with the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns, of the millions he made on the court and from his own Nike shoe line. Dez also told the players that Penny was just like them -- that he hailed from Binghampton and had even lived in the dangerous Red Oak and Tillman Cove projects.
"He's traveled the whole world, so don't never let nobody tell you that you're not good enough. He's living proof that you can achieve greatness in life," Coach Dez said.
This didn't seem to have much impact on the kids, so Desmond added: "Y'all realize he once scored 38 points on Michael Jordan?"
That got their attention. Penny said he had heard the team was struggling to score against zone defenses. He had instant feedback. When you're a middle school team with two guys who are 6-4 and 6-3, feed it to them.
"I might start coming by more often to see how y'all are doing," Penny said.
Penny glanced at each of the players. In them he saw a reflection of himself from 25 years ago: struggling teens in need of positive male role models. He had walked the same streets, lived in the same projects. Every one of them had a story that echoed his.
"I came over and saw the team and just instantly fell in love with them," Penny recalled. "I wanted to let these kids know that I care. I come from the same situation, and I let them know that they can make it, too. When you have an example who's lived in the same neighborhood, lived in the same apartments, walked the same hallways, that is motivating, and it drives them. Their attitudes change. They think, If he can do it, I can do it."
One of Penny's high school coaches, Michael Toney, had talked with Penny throughout his NBA career. Coach Toney told him the younger generation could benefit from his guidance -- that the Memphis ghetto eats up so many youngsters that it sometimes feels, as mentors, as if they're bailing the ocean, that they need guys of Penny's stature to return home.
"He said, 'I haven't been home in 14 years,' " Coach Toney recalled.
"He could've said 'I'm a multimillionaire' " and never returned, Coach Toney said. "But he came back."
Penny now knew what his old coach meant. He could see how engaged the boys were. They clung to his every word. Robert and Reggie especially caught his eye. He could see they had major basketball talent but more than anything needed proper guidance in life.
He called for the starting five to take the court. Reggie, Robert, Kobe, Black and Nick rushed the floor. Coach Dez had said the team needed help scoring against zone defenses. Penny observed them and walked them through a couple of plays.
With a former NBA star in their midst, the team played with an intensity Coach Dez had never seen. Reggie rushed to the basket, sailed through the air and laid the ball high off the glass.
He glanced back at Penny and smiled. Black played lockdown defense, as did Mayor Freeman. If Penny was there to help the team score against zone defenses, it was his mere presence that made the team better this day.
Kobe, Black and Nick -- the smallest player on the team -- nailed three-pointer after three-pointer.
Before practice ended, Penny asked the team one more question: "Who wants to win the state?"
Every single player, from Nick to Kobe to Reggie and Robert, raised his hand. "That's good to know," Penny said, trying to contain the giddiness he felt inside.
Penny had wild eyes and a huge smile after the players were dismissed. "You didn't tell me how good they were," he said to Dez. "This team is amazing!"
"I didn't want to tell you everything, but they're real good," Dez said. "They're a special group of players."
"I'm gonna be here every day," Penny said, his heart instantly committing him to more than just being a booster. "We're gonna win state with Reggie and Robert. Oh man, what time you want me here tomorrow?"
"School gets out around 2:15 p.m."
Penny showed up early the next day. The first to the gym, with a whistle around his neck. Coach Penny -- the face of Nike after Michael Jordan, the player immortalized by his trash-talking alter ego Lil Penny -- had arrived in Binghampton. He was all in.
It was the start of a season that would transform 12 young men, a neighborhood and a former hoops star.
A portion of the proceeds from this book will be donated to Penny Hardaway's FastBreak Courts, part of Penny's ongoing efforts to help at-risk youth in the Memphis community.