“Obviously they didn’t see me play, but when we start talking, they start looking me up on YouTube and they start to give me more respect about what I do and what I’ve done,” said Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway of his team. For those who grew up on Hardaway’s iconic Lil Penny commercials, that unawareness of his cultural impact is another sign of aging and a symbol for a generational gap. Top-recruit James Wiseman sidestepped Hardaway entirely in namechecking another Memphis guard as his inspiration for choosing the school, saying his goal was to bring the program back to where it was “when Derrick Rose was here in ‘08.” First-year Michigan coach and Hardaway’s former NBA peer Juwan Howard seemed to give into time, saying that kids today are much more athletic than they were back when he was in college.
On the recent launch of the Disney+ streaming platform, a film critic from the Washington Post wrote that nostalgia is currently the “most powerful force in American culture.” Though the article wondered how focusing only on the tried and true of past stories could potentially affect future creativity, there is an inherent difference between film and sports. There is always another game, with sports fans often accused of living too much in the present moment when debating the merits of current versus past players. Then again, the ephemeral, disappearing nature of the way we consume content on social media taps directly into the nostalgic muscle. In lieu of physical objects, we only have memories.
It’s only been 12 years since Hardaway played his last NBA game. A thought experiment appears every now and then of how differently we would perceive the careers of certain players had social media been around during their era. These discussions are shaped in real time, with last week recalling the anniversary of the Malice at the Palace and Jason Williams’ 44th birthday. Hardaway and Howard have a unique connection with this question as they each crossed over from sports to pop culture in their own way. Lil Penny went viral in the 90s before the marketing term was even coined. Howard’s Fab Five were influencers before it became a contemporary lifestyle.
From a sporting perspective, YouTube highlights are more than entertainment or digital engagements, but a collective, cultural memory bank.
“We brought the jersey back,” said Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel in presenting Howard with a replica of his Fab Five-era jersey during his introductory press conference last summer. More than nostalgia, it was a symbolic gesture representing a potential healing of a generational fracture between the university and its most influential basketball past. Howard and his teammates transcended sports into pop culture in the early 90s, after which their on-court accomplishments were deleted from university history as part of NCAA sanctions. The events led to a public break between former teammates Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. In novelistic terms, neither the team nor the players would be able to fully move on until the generational fracture was amended. Howard was adamant of the program re-embracing his colleagues under his watch.
“Look at all of the top programs. You see their former players on the coaching staff, calling the games on radio, calling the games on TV, sitting courtside at games. That’s what the best programs do,” explained Rose about putting their differences aside under Howard and repairing generational relationships.
Rose’s sentiment is poignant with Howard replacing John Beilein, who was the most successful coach in Michigan basketball history. The underlying tension despite the two national title appearances under Beilein shows the limits of a final score and that winning actually isn’t everything. Nostalgia, in this case, represents a tangible, personal healing of eras. To echo a famous sentiment, the past is never dead, and it’s never even the past.
“Aw shucks, that’s (one of) the NCAA rules that I have to really get to understand and learn throughout this process,” admitted Howard after accidentally unveiling that he was recruiting a prospect.
Both Hardaway and Howard, with their experience in the free-wheeling NBA, are learning about NCAA regulations on the fly. Hardaway is dealing with this first-hand following the suspension of Wiseman due to their relationship stemming from before the university (“what do I need to look at the rule book for?” asked Hardaway in a 2018 disposition after Wiseman was suspended from playing Tennessee high school basketball). Hardaway’s philanthropic nature to his hometown’s basketball scene displays his wayward journey into coaching. Post-NBA retirement, Hardaway hovered around the city without an official title, but with a personal memory of watching the Tigers go to the Final Four in 1985 at a young age and understanding the generational significance of the game.
“The history of the school with the fans goes back generations, from great-grandpa, to grandpa, to father, to children. Memphis basketball is all they know,” observed Hardaway.
Thus, the challenge for any player, team, or brand becomes in maintaining relevance between generations. It’s been 21 years since Michael Jordan sunk his iconic jumper in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. We’re already in an era where sneakerheads obsessed with his shoes never saw him play. Does this current generation - or future generations - even care that he was considered one of the greatest players of all time? After all, Chuck Taylor played semi-professional basketball. How many points did he average? How many titles did he win?
In attempting to create a brand outside of basketball, a player counterintuitively risks their playing legacy by potentially co-opting the memory of why they were originally famous. And as Hardaway and Howard are finding out on the recruiting trail, there are other factors for a teenager to commit to a college other than their coach’s moment in pop culture history. Through coaching, Hardaway and Howard can extend their basketball stories within the game. They’ve each overcome nostalgia by stepping back into the living, growing, breathing ups and downs of the real world. They can even use the present to rewrite the past.