When retired NBA player Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway decided to help out and old friend, he never knew that it would lead to one of the most rewarding years of his life. That year is detailed in his new book “On These Courts: A Miracle Season that Changed a City, a Once-Future Star, and a Team Forever.” The Memphis, Tennessee native was raised by his grandmother in the city’s rough Binghampton neighborhood. When one of his oldest friends, Desmond Merriweather, the coach at Lester Middle School in Binghamton, was stricken with colon cancer, he asked Hardaway to take over his team.
Hardaway said yes, beginning the start of an incredible journey for him and the group of players who went on to win an improbable championship. After 15 years in the league, injuries retired him four years ago. He was trying to figure out his life after pro basketball when the opportunity arose.
“Lester Middle was an elementary school and high school that I went to years ago. They closed it down and reopened it as a middle school and I went back a couple years ago. One of my good friends was diagnosed with colon cancer and he was the coach. They gave him about 24 hours to live. He survived the cancer and started coaching again at Lester, and when he went back to coaching, he was still doing chemo and wasn’t strong enough to continue the head coaching job and he asked me to come over and help. The very first practice I went to, I kind of fell in love with the team and just stayed there from that point on.”
Hardaway didn’t just improve the basketball team standings, he also helped motivate the young men to do better in school and become more motivated overall.
“This is my old neighborhood which makes it even sweeter. I went back to my old school, where my mother went to school, where my whole family went to school. I’m coaching the kids of the people I grew up with and really trying to inspire and motivate them to do what they want to do in life.”
Hardaway credits the Boys and Girl’s Clubs and coaches there from keeping him from the drugs and gangs that menaced his neighborhood. Obviously, it paid off with his NBA career. Though his success with Lester might make him more attractive to college and even pro coaching opportunities, Hardaway says he enjoys working with elementary school kids.
“I really want to stay in the grass roots,” Hardaway says. “I really want to stay with middle school and elementary age kids because that’s where it all starts. I’m going to try to instill thiings in them when they’re younger. They are easier to teach when they are younger as well, because older guys they kind of think they know it all. I’d rather stay with the kids.”