MEMPHIS – Basketball fans shuffled quickly into the gymnasium to escape an unseasonably cold winter night in Memphis earlier this month. Among them was Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, his head teetering above the crowd of middle schoolers.
Hardaway started out here in the neighborhood of Binghamton, where basketball isn't just practically a religion, it’s a ticket out. He went on to become a first-round NBA draft pick and four-time All-Star, with a 15-year career in the pros.
On this night, the 6-foot-7 point guard isn’t at the gym to play ball. He’s here to coach the Lester Lions in a premier holiday basketball tournament, and fulfill a friend’s dying wish.
In 2010, Lester Middle School basketball coach Desmond Merriweather was given 24 hours to live, while a staph infection ravaged his chemo-infused body.
When the father of three awoke from a medically-induced coma, he had one request: Would his childhood friend Penny help his beloved Lions?
“I was, like, ‘Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. You have it all wrong. We’re not worried about the team right now. We’re worried about you,’” recalled Hardaway, who’d hung up his jersey several years before. “I thought he was crazy.”
But the Olympic gold medalist decided to honor his friend’s request.
“I didn't never think that I would be a middle school coach,” Hardaway said. “It just happened, and I thank God for putting me in this situation, because I'm enjoyin' it.”
And it meant everything to Merriweather, whose own son played on the team.
“It brings tears to my eyes because I didn't envision this at first,” Merriweather said. “I knew the job was hard, but with the help of Penny and God, he's made it that much more easy.”
‘There are no fathers here’
When Hardaway returned to the rough and tumble of Binghamton, he saw little had changed from his days of playing on the hard courts. Those courts still drew a constant stream of players, the streets were still infested with gangs and the kids on the team were as vulnerable as he once was.
“That was me walkin' through those same halls. Didn't have a father. My mom was gone. I was raised by my grandmother,” he said. “I know exactly where they're comin' from.”
Hardaway put education first, walking the school’s halls to check on his players and demanding progress reports. He preached doing the right thing. He even personally appealed to gang leaders to stay away.
Starter on the Lester Lions
“Because there are no fathers there,” said Hardaway. “The moms are really workin’ hard to try to make ends meet, and the neighborhood is tough, very tough. And you could get lost into that neighborhood if you’re not careful.”
“And I wanted to stay there to try to change the culture, the mindset,” he continued. “To bring a winning attitude to the school.”
The team had little confidence when Hardaway first arrived. But his investment, on and off the courts, stirred something in the Lester Lions. Their grades jumped. Their play soared.
“He really is like a father figure to me, because my father really is not in my life,” said Starter Alex Lomax, nicknamed “A-Lo,” who has spent the last three years under Hardaway’s wingspan. “If Coach Penny wasn't around, I think Binghamton would be a whole different place right now and I don't think I would be right here in this seat right now.”
“I'm just thankin' God that he let me be around Coach Penny for how long I get to be around,” he said.
The heart of Binghamton
On the court, the mighty Lester Lions played with a vengeance. Parents, who had never been to games before, started showing up. The neighborhood rallied behind them. And the team gave Coach Penny -- who had had never won a professional championship of his own -- his first championship season the year he took over, and then a second.
“It was great, because it was a total team, coaching effort. Everybody played a part in it: the coaches, the players, the family, the principal,” Hardaway said. “It was a total team effort, and it was just gratifying.”
And the man who brought him here managed to stay alive to watch it all. Merriweather is still battling colon cancer, and the bi-weekly chemo treatments leave him physically drained. But he refuses to stay home.
“Once I see one of the boys' faces, I automatically just jump back into zone as bein' the coach. No more pity partyin,' I can leave that alone,” Merriweather said. “It puts so much in me to help the kids. Binghamton is my heart.”
At the Memphis Athletic Ministries basketball tournament, the Lions gave up their lead and lost the semi-final game, taking home third place.
The loss will take some getting used to, but the pride of the Lions is intact. They still have their eyes on another prize coming up -- a third state championship for their departing head coach.
This year marks the third and final season for Hardaway. But they are parting ways with something more valuable than a tournament title: for the players, hope; for Hardaway, a promise kept to the woman who raised him.
“I promised my grandmother that if I ever made it, I would never forget where I came from,” said Hardaway. “And I'm holdin' to that.”