By Wayne Drash, CNN
Editor's note: This is an edited excerpt from Wayne Drash's upcoming book "On These Courts," which documents former NBA all-star Penny Hardaway's return to his Memphis roots to help a friend with cancer coach at-risk youth. The book, which is released Tuesday by Simon and Schuster, started as a story on CNN.com.
(CNN) -- 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.