I imagine Anfernee Hardaway was nervous before taking the court at Dwight Howard's Celebrity Game on Sunday night at UCF Arena. Hardaway, after all, had a bitter break up with the franchise and has tended to stay away from the City Beautiful since then. His injuries took away the athleticism that had made him famous in the mid-1990s and helped spawn the first run into the glory years for the Magic.
When Dwight Howard extended the invitation to return to Orlando for his Celebrity All-Star Game -- a new school vs. old school showdown of current and former Magic players -- I imagine Hardaway had the same trepidations. How would the Magic fans receive him after such a long absence?
All that must have subsided when Hardaway, by all accounts, received the loudest and warmest reception of all the players in the building. Howard had done the impossible, he had built a bridge to the past and brough Penny Hardaway back to his second home. And the fans totally loved it.
Hardaway showed glimpses of what he once was. There were some dazzling passes and some saavy low post moves. Obviously at 40, he can no longer make some of the spectacular finishes that made him one of the best point guards in the mid-90s and one of the most dynamic guards of the last 15 or so years.
There also was not much defense played as The Old School beat the New School 114-102. There were not any stats kept and you could hardly figure out what some of the current players looked like. Zach McCann and Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel both noted that it looked like Gilbert Arenas had lost weight, but did not move extremely well on the floor -- whether that was a product of effort or wanting to protect the injury for the eventual season only Gilbert perhaps knows. Daniel Orton also played and showed some athleticism and skill. But, again, no defense.
"I think that this is the best way that, for me, you can express how you feel about a group of people," Howard said. "Doing an event like that was actually something that me and a couple of guys thought about. We sat down with guys like Gilbert (Arenas) and Chris Duhon and other Magic players and also my staff and just talked about ways we could really better our city."
Howard declined to take questions during his pregame media availability on his contract status or the lockout. For one night it was going to be about basketball and having a good time. He admonished the crowd for booing Floyd Mayweather, one of the celebrity coaches, and said this was a time to celebrate everyone who chose to participate. Nobody jeered from then on as they were treated to this exhibition and blast from the past.
It was one night. Today we head back to the reality that there is no basketball and seems little hope that there will be any -- although Chris Duhon tweeted before the NBPA meeting this morning that he would accept this latest proposal from the league even though he personally does not like the deal.
But that is not what this day was about. Not at all. For a moment, reality could be forgotten and we could be treated to play like this (h/t to Magic Max):
You really cannot complain to be seeing basketball even if it is clear the effort is not completely there. Stan Van Gundy would not have been happy with shot selection or defensive effort in this one. But even if he could have been there to watch, I would think even he could find the fun in all this.
The winners were really the city of Orlando, the D12 Foundation and basketball fans in Orlando. For one day, all that mattered was playing hoops and having a good time. Hardaway might truly be back in the fold in Orlando -- Howard said he hopes the Magic would consider retiring Hardaway's number one some day. And Hardaway, thanks to the warm reception said he would love to work with the Magic in some way.
The fans had an incredibly good time. And that was the big goal for the evening.
The response of the crowd and the delight of the players showed though that basketball is much bigger than the dollars and cents the league is making it out to be right now. If only the real thing would start so we can get more nights like this.