words & interview // Nick DePaula, Zac Dubasik & Steve Mullholand
photography // Steve Mullholand
as published in Issue 45 of Sole Collector Magazine, the 10th Anniversary Issue

Over the past five years, Sole Collector has developed a special relationship with Penny Hardaway. It’s included multiple collaborative shoes, being part of the Penny V from its very inception, and it culminated with one of our most successful events ever, where Penny himself appeared in Las Vegas.

But the relationship all started on a late fall day in Memphis in 2008, where we first met and interviewed Penny at his house for the cover story of Issue 25. You can read the full account of that trip in our behind-the-scenes look at one of our Top 10 Covers, and here are highlights from that first interview.

Nick DePaula: At the time, what was it like seeing a box for the first time that read “Air Penny” on the label?
PH: Amazing! It was just amazing. You could never even dream of anything like that. Your dream is always just to make it to the NBA, and not really to have your own shoe or anything outside of that. But to have my own shoe, that was just another dream that I had fulfilled.

NDP: What’d you think the first time you saw the 1 Cent logo?
PH: I thought it was sick! I thought it was crazy, and it was just this suped-up 1 Cent sign, and the 1 was highlighted in blue and it was just crazy. Right away I knew that they had done an amazing job with this logo, and it was just great.

NDP: You were pretty young when you got your first shoe. Did you ever get any jealousy from other players around that time?
PH: No, in fact everyone always kept asking me for ’em! [Laughs] Everybody loves this one [holds up Orlando Penny I] and always asked me, “Man how can I get those shoes?!” I’d just say, “I don’t know; call Nike.” [Laughs] It was just such a great shoe, and it was also just very comfortable to wear. You know, it’s funny, I just saw Corey Brewer wearing these two years ago when he won the championship at Florida, and I was like “Wow, that’s just great that people still wear this shoe.”

NDP: What did you first think about the Li’l Penny commercial idea? Was that something that you knew right away would be huge?
PH: You know what, I thought it was going to be really funny, but I didn’t really know how big it was going to get. Comedy just sits well with a lot of people when you add that humor into your commercials. When I was doing the commercials, I was actually laughing, so I knew that at least people would think they were funny. But I never expected it to get that big.

NDP: What did you think about the more serious commercials, like Michael always had a real serious commercial for his shoes?
PH: I really liked a lot of Michael’s commercials, but for me I just like having that humor. I loved “The LeBrons” that they just did. And people don’t want to see a serious commercial all the time; they want to laugh. But, Michael was a tough competitor, and that was just who he was. With mine, it was more of an alter ego of me, as I was just more quiet, and then there was the alter ego that was just more crazy.

Zac Dubasik: When you found out Li’l Penny would be voiced by Chris Rock, were you excited?
PH: I was! Back then we had Martin Lawrence, Damon Wayans and a couple of other comedians that really wanted to do it, but they were asking for a pretty substantial amount of money, and right away Chris Rock just said, “Ok, I’ll do it!” At the time, he had no idea that it was going to be that big. He just looked at it and thought, “This is going to be pretty sweet working for Nike,” but it just happened to turn out to be so much more than that, and it was great to have him on board. He wasn’t as huge then, either, as he is now.

NDP: How much fun was it doing those commercials? Was it a lot of work?
PH: Oh no, it was actually really easy, and I always wanted to do them because I knew how much everyone loved them.

NDP: How important do you think Li’l Penny is to pop culture?
PH: This little dude put a lot of laughter into a lot of people’s lives. Everywhere I go, people still talk to me about Li’l Penny. Those commercials were the funniest commercials I had ever seen. As far as me just being a basketball player, I’m not a comedian or an actor or anything, but this character brought so much to the table. The way Chris Rock’s voice sounded and the things they would have him doing in a commercial, like blowing a bubble or stepping on a rocket, were just so funny. All these things were just crazy, and you began to think he was actually real, just walking down the street with me. [Laughs]

In the commercial, I might call him and say, “Oh, are you having a party?” and he’d say “It sounds like you’re going through a tunnel, I can’t hear you, call me back!” [Laughs] Those were just too funny. And then with Tyra Banks in them, and he’d just say, “That’s Tyra Banks, fool!” Chris Rock was great because it was the comedy from Li’l Penny that made everyone love those commercials. I was also playing well at the time, which helped, but I never really had to even say a word in the commercials. Li’l Penny did everything.

NDP: Do you ever think about where your shoe line would be if you didn’t have that backing from Nike and the commercials with Li’l Penny?
PH: I still think they would have sold, but not like they did with Li’l Penny. There’s just no way it would’ve been close. Everyone will still stop me and just say, “Li’l Penny, Li’l Penny, Li’l Penny! Those were the funniest commercials!”

NDP: Did you ever talk with Shaq at all about his shoes, because he had some pretty crazy Reeboks at the time when you were on the Magic together?
PH: I didn’t really think any shoe out there, no matter who it was, could match Nike. I wouldn’t really even care what everyone else was wearing ’cause I knew these were so sweet that it didn’t even matter.

NDP: You were traded to Phoenix when the IVs had come out, and what was it like just leaving the Magic at that time?
PH: It was just a crazy time, man. It was definitely not what I wanted, but it was just a mutual decision that had happened between me and the team. Orlando was just a young town when it came to basketball. They never had an idea about having a basketball team that was winning, because in the early stages they were just terrible when they came in back in ’88. When I came in and Shaq came in, though, we came in and just blasted out and nobody really expected us to do what we did in such a short time. They really weren’t used to dealing with guys on my level and on Shaq’s level in terms of All-Star players and guys that were First Team All-NBA, and it really got out of hand.

They were starting to let the fans become more involved with decision making than the actual franchise doing what they had to do. I wish and think that we could’ve worked it out, but they had started doing radio shows that would vote on the players staying and newspaper ads having fans vote on if players should be staying, and that was why Shaq left. They had done a vote on whether or not they should be paying Shaq a Max deal or not, and come on, who wouldn’t pay Shaq the Max at that time? That’s why he left. It was the same thing with me. They didn’t want to give me the Max, and I was just coming off of being First Team All-NBA for two years in a row, and I was playing in All-Star games and everything. I don’t know, if we could have done it all over again, hindsight is 20/20, and I’m sure they would’ve reacted differently, and then Shaq and I would’ve reacted differently.

NDP: How’d Nike break it to you that they had decided to end your Air Penny line?
PH: Well, what happened was, when I went to Phoenix, they were trying to put me onto the Jordan Brand. I said, “I don’t want to be on the Jordan Brand if I just had my own shoe.” They were saying that the guys that were working on the Air Penny line had [moved to different divisions] and that they needed to go in a different direction, and I didn’t want to take another direction at all – especially to Jordan Brand, which was no disrespect to Michael, but my shoes were rivaling his! I was hurt, but that’s the business of it, and I understood and knew that wouldn’t hurt our relationship or respect.

Steve Mullholand: It seems like there’s really a great respect from Nike to you and you to Nike, and we don’t see that with every athlete all the time.
PH: Yeah, they still treat me extremely well. I’m not in the league anymore, but I still have a contract with Nike. They knew that in my prime that I did a lot for them, and I sold a bunch of tennis shoes for their company and am still selling a bunch of shoes for them, so they appreciate what I was able to do for them, and I definitely appreciate that they ever made shoes for me in my name. It’s just a mutual thing for sure.