The last thing Desmond Merriweather told Penny Hardaway was “I love you, too.” With those words, Merriweather took two deep breaths that would be the last of his life.
Merriweather and Hardaway were childhood friends from Binghampton, the poor and violence-afflicted neighborhood on the east side of Memphis where both were born and raised. Though Hardaway was a few years older, the two bonded on the concrete basketball courts nearby. Merriweather went on to play Division II ball at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. Hardaway earned a scholarship from hometown Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) and eventually became one of the defining athletes of his generation. The two maintained a casual friendship during Hardaway’s rise to fame until Merriweather’s illness brought them closer than ever.
When Merriweather was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in 2012, his mind immediately turned to the Lester Middle School basketball team he was coaching that featured his son Nick. Merriweather only had one person in mind to help him with the team. Hardaway was there the next day at practice, walking the halls of his old grade school.
With Hardaway and Merriweather on the bench, Lester won three straight state championships. As their initial group of sixth-graders moved into high school at Memphis East, Hardaway and Merriweather followed. Hardaway would win three state titles there, too.
Merriweather died in February 2015 in the midst of the school’s first title run. His legacy is found in the lives of the kids he coached who grew up on the same troubled streets. His spirit endures through Hardaway as the man who jump-started a coaching career that has taken him from middle school to high school to the Memphis Tigers.
“I was with him the last two months of his life as it kind of dwindled down,” Hardaway told SB Nation. “Where he went from trying to defeat cancer to being sent into hospice care to taking his last breaths right in front of me. It was really weird to just see him deteriorate right in front of me because I had never experienced anything like that in my life.”
Hardaway’s coaching career was born out of empathy for a friend and for his community. Out of the pain came a path not even he could have imagined at the time: shouldering the vivid hopes and civic pride that come with leading the most beloved team in the city.
As he starts his second season with the Tigers armed with the country’s No. 1 recruiting class, Hardaway has Memphis on the brink of something special. Only a hometown hero this magnetic could have made it happen.
Tigers basketball wasn’t just the biggest thing in town for an entire generation of Memphis sports fans. It was the only thing. Before the Grizzlies relocated from Vancouver in 2001, Memphis basketball captured the city. It remains true to this day, even after the Grizzlies forever endeared themselves to the community with their iconic ‘Grit N Grind’ era.
“We don’t agree on much here,” said Gary Parrish, a daily ESPN Radio host in Memphis. “Rich, poor, black, white, intercity or suburbs, everyone loves Tiger basketball.”
Hardaway felt the city’s passion for its college basketball program firsthand as he was becoming a star at Treadwell High School. He averaged 36 points per game as a senior and was named Parade Magazine’s National High School Player of the Year. He could have gotten a scholarship from any school in the country, but he always knew he wanted to stay at home.
“During the ages when I was most influenced, between 10-15, the team was really, really good,” Hardaway said. “I fell in love with the ‘84-85 team with Andre Turner, William Bedford, Vincent Askew, when they went to the Final Four. I never lost love for that team or the school.”
Memphis basketball hysteria hit its local apex when it hired John Calipari in 2000 following his failed tenure with the New Jersey Nets. It took a few years for Calipari to get the program rolling to his standards, but once it happened, the Tigers became one of the most successful programs in the country.
It was at Memphis where Calipari turned into an elite recruiter, nabbing superstars from all over America like Dajuan Wagner and Tyreke Evans. His greatest pull came when he went into Chicago to land Derrick Rose. Rose was the super freshman Calipari needed to take a veteran-laden 2007-08 team to the next level. In his lone season, the Tigers finished 38-2 and ran all the way to the national title game before losing a heartbreaker to Kansas.
Memphis didn’t have a national championship, but it did have the city in the palm of its hand, a sentiment that remained true even after all the victories from that season were vacated amid an NCAA investigation centered on Rose’s SAT score. Under Calipari, you couldn’t go anywhere in Memphis without hearing about the university’s basketball program. That’s part of why it hurt so much when he left.
After leading Memphis to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in four consecutive seasons, Calipari accepted a godfather offer to become the head coach at Kentucky in 2009.
“It felt like a death,” Parrish said. “It felt like he didn’t subscribe to what he was preaching when he said anything you wanted could happen at Memphis.”
The Tigers spent weeks looking for Calipari’s replacement and ultimately settled on Josh Pastner, a young and hungry assistant at Arizona who was known as a tireless recruiter. Pastner was able to get top high school talent, but team success rarely followed. Despite four straight trips to the NCAA tournament starting with his second season in charge, Pastner’s teams never made it past the opening weekend.
Pastner’s ultimate downfall was caused by a myriad of issues. There was the recruiting saga that led to the program putting the father of star local prospects Dedric and K.J. Lawson on staff. There were transfers from marquee players like Nick King and Austin Nichols. Above all, Pastner lost his job when he lost the enthusiasm of the city. During his last two years as head coach, attendance started to dip, the program began bleeding money, and one of the most passionate fanbases in all of college basketball was defined by apathy.
“A lot of hope, a lot of enthusiasm — That’s what the Pastner era was,” said John Martin, an on-air host at ESPN Memphis 92.9. “But I think it was quickly dashed when people realized on the court he wasn’t the coach they thought he was.”
When Georgia Tech mercifully hired Pastner away, Memphis decided to go in the opposite direction by tabbing a veteran coach with national championship credentials. Tubby Smith won 19 games in his first year with the Lawson twins leading the way, and 21 games the next year after they transferred to Kansas. But it wasn’t enough to bring excitement back to the program.
At the same time, Hardaway was winning championship after championship at East High after importing the No. 1 player in the country, James Wiseman, from nearby Nashville. Memphis fans were clamoring for the Tigers to hire Hardaway and Hardaway wanted the job. After just two seasons, Memphis leadership had no choice but to eat $10 million in salary to fire Smith.
There was the only one candidate for the job.
“Memphis did not fire Tubby Smith to conduct a coaching search,” Parrish said. “They fired Tubby Smith to hire Penny Hardaway.”
Hardaway’s credentials went beyond his reputation as a beloved former player and winner at the high school level. His biggest allure might have been his connections within the national recruiting scene.
When he was working with Merriweather at Lester, Hardaway decided to takeover the local YMCA team and turn it into a legitimate “AAU” powerhouse. Hardaway called his program Team Penny (later renamed the Bluff City Legends) and got them a spot on Nike’s upstart EYBL circuit. Suddenly, Hardaway had access to all of the best players in the region and the ability to be around the best players in the country during league sessions every spring and summer.
Hardaway’s first recruit didn’t need any convincing. After playing under Hardaway’s tutelage at Lester and Memphis East, Alex Lomax had grown into a four-star prospect with offers that included Florida, LSU, and Cal. He signed a letter of intent with Wichita State with hopes of becoming the next Fred VanVleet. Things changed when Memphis hired Hardaway. Just weeks after Hardaway’s introductory press conference, Lomax ditched the Shockers and accepted a scholarship from Memphis.
“When I committed and signed with Wichita, no one knew Penny was going to get the Memphis job,” Lomax said. “I called Coach (Gregg) Marshall and told him I wanted my release. I’m still thankful for Coach Marshall for giving me the opportunity.”
A week later, Hardaway nabbed another local four-star guard in Tyler Harris. It was a nice start to building out his roster before he ever coached a college game, but Hardaway’s deepest roots lied within the next year’s class.
D.J. Jeffries was the first big fish. Jeffries had played for Hardaway on Team Penny during AAU season and had blossomed into a five-star recruit and top-25 prospect. Jeffries committed to Kentucky a week before Hardaway was hired. A few months later, he became the first recruit to ever decommit from the Wildcats during the Calipari era. Hardaway had himself an athletic 6’7 wing to start off his first true class. His connections paid off again when Malcolm Dandridge, a four-star big man who played for him at Memphis East and on Team Penny, committed too.
James Wiseman was always the crown jewel. Once considered a strong Kentucky lean, Memphis immediately re-entered the picture when Hardaway took the job. Wiseman had already followed Hardaway from Nashville in high school and was the centerpiece of his EYBL team, too. The recruiting battle vs. Calipari felt even bigger than a race to land the No. 1 prospect in America: this was the ruling king of the one-and-done being challenged by a man who could be his heir.
When Wiseman sat down to make his announcement live on SportsCenter, he pulled a stuffed unicorn out of his bag with a Memphis logo on the center. Hardaway had beaten Calipari at his own game.
With three recruits in or around the top-100 in the bag before the turn of the new year, Hardaway could have rested on his laurels. Instead, he hit the ground harder than ever to eventually pull in a seven-man class that graded out as the best in the country.
On March 6, Memphis got a commitment from Damion Baugh, a defensive-minded 6’4 guard just outside the top-100 rankings who Hardaway believes can become a major under-the-radar success story. Lester Quinones, a 6’5 wing who profiles as one of the best shooters in the class, gave his commitment to the Tigers on May 10. Three days after that, Rejean “Boogie” Ellis gave his pledge to Hardaway shortly after decommitting from Duke as a top-40 recruit following Tre Jones’ announcement that he would return for his sophomore year.
Memphis had one blue chipper left to land. Precious Achiuwa, a 6’9 combo forward ranked as a census top-20 recruit and projected as a one-and-done, gave Hardaway his third commitment of May. The Tigers’ top-ranked recruiting class now featured seven players ranked in the top-115 of their class, with the talent spread across every position.
Hardaway didn’t do it all himself. He carefully curated his staff to align with his own community values and the NBA dreams he wanted to sell. In that sense, Mike Miller might have been Hardaway’s most important recruit. Miller signed on to join Memphis as an assistant coach just a year after his long and successful pro career ended. Miller wasn’t just a big name with NBA Finals rings and a friendship with LeBron James. He also had ties to the city from his playing days with the Grizzlies and with his cousin Ernie Kuyper’s involvement in the local youth basketball scene.
Together, Hardaway and Miller are forming one of the truly elite recruiting tandems in college basketball.
“These kids want to win, but at the end of the day it’s about the NBA,” said Corey Evans, a national recruiting analyst with Rivals. “Maybe 20 years ago it was about the national title. There’s a reason why pretty much the entire staff in Memphis has NBA ties. Other programs try to sell it, but there’s actually some legitimacy there with Memphis.
“Penny has built the foundation for a great staff. Mike Miller is one of the most unheralded guys out there. I think his relationship-building ability to connect with these kids is tremendous. It’s Penny’s job to close, which he’s great at. His name still reverberates.”
Hardaway’s first year in Memphis felt like a welcome party. With a roster largely devoid of his fingerprints, the Tigers went 22-14, finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, and narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament. The Tigers played ultra-fast (finishing No. 7 out of 353 DI teams in tempo), forced turnovers on defense, and preached sharing the basketball. These are the core tenets Hardaway took from Mike D’Antoni and Larry Brown, two of the most influential coaches he played under. Now his goal is taking those philosophies and applying them to a younger but more talented team this season.
With the country’s No. 1 recruit leading the country’s No. 1 recruiting class, Hardaway and Memphis are considered the favorite in their conference and a threat to make a deep run in March. With that comes the burden of expectations but Hardaway isn’t backing down from the hype.
“My goal is a championship mindset,” he said. “When you get a class that we got, even though we’re young, we’re very talented. So this year, realistically, we can say that we want to win the national championship. We want to win the conference, win our conference championship, and give ourselves the opportunity to get the highest seed we can get to start our journey towards our goal.”
In so many ways, this team feels particularly suited for Memphis. The roster has seven players native to Tennessee, and one each from neighboring Georgia and Mississippi. The deep roots in the region only could have come from Hardaway, a local legend who has spent his entire life personifying and championing his hometown.
“This is a basketball town,” Hardaway said. “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.”
This is the season Memphis fans have been waiting for. No one else could deliver it but Penny Hardaway.