Shaquille O’Neal is best known for his championship seasons with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, but many people never saw him play during his days in an Orlando Magic jersey.
O’Neal, who played his college ball at Louisiana State University, was a different player back then in several ways.
Slimmer and more focused, O’Neal’s athleticism and ability to get up and down the court made him one of the best centers in the league during a time when all-time greats like Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon also dominated.
O’Neal also has gone on record recently in noting that his Magic team was the last to knock a prime Michael Jordan-led Bulls team out of the playoffs, which they did in 1994-1995 before losing to them the next season.
O’Neal Shares: This is the Player Who Could Have Been ‘Kobe Before Kobe’
According to O’Neal, his former teammate Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway could have been ‘Kobe before Kobe.’
Hardaway was drafted with the number three overall pick in 1993 before showing off the talent that made him a once-in-a-lifetime caliber shooting guard.
Unfortunately, Hardaway suffered a left knee injury early in the 1997-1998 season that derailed his year, but he still made his fourth All-Star team that season, playing just 12 minutes in New York’s midseason classic.
O’Neal had the following to say about Hardaway’s incredible talent.
“I always tell people he was Kobe before Kobe. Penny Hardaway was a cold cat, he really was, he really was. If Penny didn’t get hurt, he would have been one of the top 3 players in the history of the game…
“Took Kobe two, maybe two and a half years to get to that level. Penny came in, he was already like that.
“First-year he came, we went to the finals. Penny was cold!… People give me flak like that and say he couldn’t have turned out, but if he wouldn’t have gotten injured, he would definitely be up there, definitely.”
Hardaway was also a budding celebrity off the court with a Nike endorsement including the classic commercial below with supermodel Tyra Banks.
Hardaway’s best stretch of basketball came during his sophomore season until his fourth season in the league — one season prior to his aforementioned knee injury, as shown in the stats bar from Basketball Reference below.
Unfortunately for Hardaway, who played his college ball at Memphis, things would never be the same again after his knee injury shortened 1997-1998 season that saw him play in just 19 games.
Much like fellow Orlando Magic star and former Detroit Pistons superstar Grant Hill, Hardaway’s stats suffered following his injury.
His shooting percentage plummeted from 44.7% to 37.7% in his knee injury year, and NBA fans were left to wonder “what if..”
Hardaway never averaged 20 points per game again after the three seasons shown above.
Below are the stats for his knee injury-shortened 1997-1998 season in Orlando.
48-Minute Hardaway Documentary on YouTube Seen Below
Hardaway is now the head coach at the University of Memphis, where he has served since March 2018.
Hardaway led Memphis to the 2022 NCAA Tournament’s second round, the program’s first tournament appearance since 2013-2014.
The outspoken Tigers head coach believes he should be considered as one of the NBA’s all-time greats, an assertion few who saw him play would disagree with on talent, early career success, and potential.
i sat down with Penny Hardaway in Memphis and asked him about some of the unfair narratives that exist about him.
not being considered one of the greats is a big one. he told me: “i’m one of the top players to ever play the game.” pic.twitter.com/ikxmvheNWJ
— Ashley Nicole Moss (@AshNicoleMoss) November 9, 2021
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An untitled 48-minute YouTube documentary on Hardaway can be seen below.
It has been viewed over 1.2 million times, and tells the story behind the career of one of the Magic’s all-time greatest players.