Good-natured coach, recruit are victims of NCAA’s war on benevolence
When the NCAA ruled Memphis center James Wiseman ineligible because of the kindness of his coach, Penny Hardaway, two words came to mind — Blue Chips.
Not because Hardaway is anything like Pete Bell — the role that Nick Nolte played in the 25-year-old movie. In fact, Penny is the opposite.
The former NBA entered the coaching ranks with inspiration from a childhood friend — Desmond Merriweather, who died at the age of 41 in 2015 after a long battle with colon cancer. Penny and Dez’s relationship was chronicled by a number of outlets, to include ESPN’s E:60 series.
The honorable, yet humble beginnings to Penny’s coaching career began at a middle school and grew organically into a high school prep powerhouse.
The very notion that a former NBA player would, at the request of his dying friend, take on a coaching job and father figure role to hundreds of kids, only to throw it all away as a seedy recruiter is as disingenuous as the NCAA’s war on benevolence.
Suggesting that Penny is a “booster” is the stuff of conjecture. It’s the legacy — unintentional or not — of movies like Blue Chips, which determines heroes and villains based on who plays the game “the right way.”
But it’s still a game — and the NCAA chiefly profits off of it at the expense of unpaid players, and by extension, the families they leave behind. Rarely do we consider the optics of that dynamic — the NCAA, with money for “facilities,” juxtaposed with young people and their families struggling to make ends meet.
Those problems aren’t just unique to college athletes, but prep players as well. In the case of Wiseman — and others, I can imagine — Penny related to their struggle. What’s more telling is that Hardaway’s relationship with Wiseman held up under scrutiny from both the Shelby County Board of Education (back in 2017) and just as recently as May by the NCAA.
More than dope kicks and a talking doll, Penny’s good-natured personality and benevolence are his legacy. I’ve had the good fortune, at the Nike Peach Jam tournament in North Augusta, S.C., to watch Penny interact with players, fans and basketball celebrities alike. He’s treated them in virtually the same fashion — as if they were the most important person in the room.
When Hardaway became the coach at Memphis, his former players at East said it was “weird” that he wasn’t able to impart wisdom, but instead settled in at the coaches section. In all accounts, Penny is a man that treats the people around him with dignity.
If only the same thing could be said about the NCAA.
Whether it’s Wiseman, or in a different circumstance, Chase Young, the NCAA cares more about its hypocritical application of rules than it does about the young men and women it deems as “student-athletes.”
Blue Chips made villains out of nearly all parties involved — players, coaches and boosters. Twenty-five years later, folks are wising up and fighting back against the real villain — the NCAA itself.