When Memphis hired Penny Hardaway to replace Tubby Smith, it made the best hire anybody has made in sports this year.
The Tigers aren’t going to be great this year. They’re 2-1 with a nine-point loss to No. 22 LSU. But Memphis wasn’t supposed to be great this year. The idea behind the hire was that Memphis is a unique program with a unique and special connection to the city of Memphis, which itself is a city like no other. And that a born-and-bred Memphian like Hardaway would be able to build something over the long term that an outsider wouldn’t have the inclination or the ability to build.
So far, so good.
Hardaway on Tuesday got a commitment from the No. 1 player in the 2019 class, James Wiseman, a 7-footer from Memphis. The last player of this level to sign with Memphis was Derrick Rose, who led the Tigers to the national championship game in 2008. Wiseman is Memphis’ third commitment in the class, following forward D.J. Jeffries, who is ranked 48th in the class, and big man Malcolm Dandridge, who ranks 114th. As things stand, that’s the No. 8 class in the country.
It helps that two of those guys are from Memphis and the other is from neighboring Mississippi, but it proves Hardaway can deliver on all those high hopes about locking down the city and bringing Memphis’ talent back up to the blueblood levels of the John Calipari years.
Making sure the best Memphis players don’t get away and supplementing with the kinds of players Calipari used to sign there will put the Tigers right back where they were a decade ago. And there has never been a man better suited to accomplish that over the long term than Hardaway.
Hardaway isn’t going to be leaving to take the Kentucky job once he gets this thing rolling. You could say those are famous last words, but we’re talking about a man who has already been a superstar. This is a guy who was in commercials with Chris Rock and Tyra Banks. He made $120 million in NBA contracts alone. We’re talking about a guy who, in 2011, was coaching a middle school team in Memphis. In 2012, he bought an ownership stake in the Memphis Grizzlies.
I don’t see this as a man whose ego yearns for the Indiana job.
So far, the Hardaway hire is a dream come true for Memphis. An ideal coach, who is 47 years old, coming along at the ideal time and signing the ideal player. From a certain perspective, it’s a lucky break that the No. 1 player in the country happened to be from Memphis the same year the school hired him (although that’s probably not a total coincidence).
But it’s just the beginning. Unless Hardaway is a total fool of a coach or runs the program into problems with the fuzz — which I doubt — there is no stopping this now.