When I was in eighth grade, pretty much everyone I knew had a Shaquille O’Neal Magic jersey; even in his second year, Shaq was the only NBA player that even approached the iconic status of Michael Jordan. Noticing my growing interest in hoops â€“ before Shaq, I had primarily been a baseball fan â€“ my father took me to the store to get my first jersey.
A funny thing happened: I came home with a Magic jersey, but it wasn’t No. 32. As much as I loved young Shaq, there was just something about Anfernee Hardaway. The rookie had the cool name, the cooler nickname, the sleek frame, the smooth game, the perfect No. 1 on the back. Not to mention, I liked the exclusivity; in a sea of Shaqs, I had the only Penny jersey in school.
Over time, I watched Penny’s stock soar to where the sky seemed the limit, and then come crashing down as his knees went to Hell. But every once in a while, I go back and watch some film of him tormenting the Heat as ostensibly a one-man team in the 1997 Playoffs and think not about what could have been, but about the supernova he was for just a short period of time.
Next to Jordan and Shaq, Penny was, for a time, arguably the most marketable guy in the entire league â€“ this, despite being relatively soft spoken and unassuming. The Nike Lil’ Penny ads, featuring a miniature Hardaway puppet voiced by Chris Rock, were a sensation.
“I didn’t know until we probably got about four commercials in, and everywhere I went, everyone was talking like Chris Rock,” Penny told me a couple years ago in an interview for Dime. “I was like, ‘Wow, this thing has really gone to the next level.’ I thought it was funny, but I didn’t think it would hit like this.”
The spots worked because of how different the doll was from the player it represented. Penny was not a comedic guy, but he was assuredly an excellent straight man, much the way MJ himself was to great effect with Mars Blackmon. It also didn’t hurt that Penny had the best and most innovative sneakers this side of Air Jordans, so much so that he remains a major Foot Locker factor all this time later.
With Penny turning 42 today, Dime decided to go down memory lane and check out 10 of his best commercials. Believe me, you didn’t have to twist my arm.
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As a bonus/warmup, this intro to the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals is worth watching if only to hear the tremendous NBA on NBC theme song, which made every playoff game back then seem epic. I’m not quite sure what else John Tesh has done of value, if anything, but the fact that he composed the ridiculously titled “Roundball Rock” makes him aces in my book.
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As for the spot itself, Lil’ Penny tried everything to vicariously figure out how to stop the Bulls, even sawing open an Air Jordan in a cringe-worthy visual for most sneaker collectors. He then settled in with two women and a bunch of snacks to watch what many expected to be a competitive series, given that the Magic had ended Chicago’s run during Jordan’s return season a year prior. But despite Penny’s best efforts â€“ he averaged over 25 points per game â€“ the Magic were swept.