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How Penny Hardaway Dominated Nike Like Mike

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I grew up close to Chicago and MJ was my hero—not Mike, the one running point on the left coast. I was a huge Bulls fan but I wanted to drop dimes more than I wanted to get buckets. Fast-forward a few years and there was a unknown 6’7” guard coming out of Memphis, named Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, who was being compared to Magic Johnson for his passing skills and was about to be compared to Mike for his ability to posterize all foes standing between him and the basket.

After shooting Blue Chips with Shaq right before the ’93 NDA Draft, the big fella pleaded with Orlando’s front office to choose Penny over The Fab Five’s leader, Chris Webber. You know the rest, Orlando picked C. Webb for Golden State and swapped him for Penny on draft day—setting up what most people thought was going to be the most dangerous franchise for the next decade.

Before Penny even played one game in the league, I was already a huge fan because of the Magic comparisons. I remember convincing my dad to buy me the black road jersey and shorts for my 10th birthday. A few month’s later, Michael Jordan announced his abrupt retirement from hoops. Even though the Magic’s roster was young, they were already being talked about as a challenger in the East.

So now the biggest and most marketable athlete in the world has stepped away—it was only right for the NBA and Nike to fret a little bit. Every sports publication was talking about who would be “Heir Jordan” and even though Nike’s basketball roster was healthy, it was going to be tough to keep pace without Air Jordan as the face. There were a handful of young superstars showing out nightly on the hardwood and Nike already had some future hall of famers but they needed something new, something fresh and half way through his rookie campaign, Penny was just that.

Before he was even a starter and before his signature line even took off, he already had sneakers flying off the shelf just by the strength of his 1 cent logo on the heel, and his All-NBA game was helping the Magic take over the league. His personal success was apparent and even though Webber left with Rookie of the Year honors, it was Penny that the brand decided to pump all its marketing dollars behind.

The Lil Penny commercials, Tyra Banks cameos, the Penny I and II as well as those crisp blue alternate jerseys—it wasn’t hard to tell that the NBA and Nike was putting some muscle behind the next league superstar. Nike still dropped the Jordan IX and X without Michael in the league at the time and we saw our first Jordan I retro release, but it was Penny’s name ringing out in the streets.

Even when Mike came back, Penny still had his feet up on the throne and Nike building one of the greatest campaigns in sneaker history. In Jordan’s first playoff series back, Penny took it to him and the iconic Bulls knocking them out in the second round featuring a game that Jordan wore a pair of Penny’s shoes after he forgot his own. A nod to how legit Hardaway was in the league.

It’s not like Nike would have crumbled if Penny never surprised us all and stepped it up for the short time Mike was shagging fly balls in Birmingham, but for a minute Hardaway kept the brand from missing a step at all.