Anfernee Hardaway crashed the NBA party in the mid-1990s and was going to be part of the literal changing of the guard in the NBA. In Hardaway there was a point guard with size (6-foot-7), speed and athleticism but also the control to run the point. He was not quite Magic Johnson as a point guard, but he was unquestionably one of the best players in the NBA for a solid four or five year stretch.
Then, his body betrayed him. Or maybe the basketball culture of the 1990s and his era betrayed him.
Whatever it was, knee and ankle injuries plagued Hardaway and zapped him of his athleticism in those post-Shaquille O'Neal years. He was never the same player and he never returned to his All Star form.
What happened to Hardaway? That is hard to tell if you are not a doctor. I certainly am not. But Dr. James Andrews is.
Dr. Andrews is probably the foremost sports surgeon in the world, having performed ACL surgeries on several athletes and is the go-to guy for sports injuries. He was the one who performed the ACL surgery on Adrian Peterson that had Peterson back on the field in less than a year.
So what did he think about Hardaway's injury and whether modern science could help? He answered that "what if" for Mike Philbrick of Grantland:
"It was very difficult to explain what was wrong with Penny Hardaway. He was a great guy, a competitive guy, but he had an articular cartilage injury, an injury to the smooth lining of the joint that allows the gliding of the joint. Back then we didn't really have MRIs to make the diagnosis. Today? Now you would see that on an MRI. It's still a nemesis and the hardest thing in treatment because the body doesn't have a way to regenerate it. Mother Nature can't just fix that. That's the next step, the biologics, where we determine how to jump-start the healing process and let the body, not the procedure, do the work."
One (uneducated person like me) could easily say that Hardaway would have been perfectly fine if his injuries had happened a year or two later when advances in medical science available to athletes would have helped him prolong his career. Microfracture surgery might have helped alleviate some of the pain Hardaway described he played through (Philbrick links to this SLAM article where Hardaway discusses his injury). Maybe it would not.
It seemed that Hardaway was doomed from the beginning because of "Mother Nature."
That does not take away from what Hardaway did on the floor. He averaged 20.9 points and 7.2 assists per game in Orlando's fabled 1995 season and 21.7 points and 7.1 assists the following year. He was a four-time NBA All Star (all with the Magic) and a two-time All-NBA First Team selection, all before he turned 27.
Only an injury like this can derail a career like that.
With so much with Penny Hardaway, all we can do is wonder "what if?"