This is what the father taught. "Always be tough," the father said to his son more than two dozen years ago as the two walked with a basketball to the courts of Chicago. "Be confident, be serious," he said, and Tim Hardaway treated the words like gospel. He was always so tough and confident and serious—when his knee blew apart, when the Golden State Warriors he loved cracked to pieces, when no one seemed to want him anymore—that his own mother never knew how bad he felt. "You're going to take some bruises, but get right up," the father said. "Show 'em you're not a punk or a crybaby. Show 'em you can take a hit."
So here Hardaway was last week at Miami Arena, showing 'em all. Here was Hardaway just before the start of the Heat's first-round playoff showdown with the Orlando Magic, hugging boyhood friend and rival Nick Anderson, then kicking past Anderson and the rest of the Magic to grab the opening tip-off. He came up with the ball, and as he pounded it on the floor, his face was a blank, cool mask. Hardaway zipped about the court in a whirl, whipping passes, driving the lane and spying the open man; scrambling back on defense and harassing Orlando forward Dennis Scott into irrelevance. His teammates began to churn, and soon panic pulled down on the Magic like gravity. Miami was up 35-10, the NBA's biggest first-quarter playoff lead in 27 years, and the game was all but over—except here came Hardaway again, looking to drive the knife down to the bone.
At the defensive end he grabbed the ball at half-court as the clock wound down toward zero and sent it flying about 45 feet. Everyone froze to watch, but Hardaway began racing downcourt. The buzzer sounded as the ball ricocheted off the back of the rim, and Hardaway landed in the lane just underneath. As he looked up into the stands, Hardaway found his father, locked eyes with him and bellowed. And Donald Hardaway, a recovering alcoholic whose drinking had very nearly destroyed his relationship with his son, pointed at Tim and screamed back.
"I think he's enjoying this more than I am," said the younger Hardaway after his team finished brutalizing Orlando 99-64. Then, reconsidering, he shook his head; no one could enjoy this more than Tim Hardaway. "I'm having too much fun," he said. "You hear me? Too. Much. Fun."
Believe it. Last summer Hardaway spent his free agency waiting as every NBA team in search of a point guard, including the Heat, went panting after Gary Payton, Chris Childs and Robert Pack. His reputation tattered by a scorched-earth exit from the Warriors at midseason, the then 29-year-old Hardaway was considered too old, too heavy and too mercurial for any franchise to build around. Now? After leading Miami to 61 wins, the Atlantic Division title and a 2-0 lead over Orlando in a best-of-five playoff series—all while taking hold of a team once considered the inalienable property of center Alonzo Mourning—Hardaway has completed an astonishing rehabilitation. His regular-season averages of 20.3 points and 8.6 assists only hint at the hop in his game. This season, under the guidance of coach Pat Riley, the man derisively called Tim Shootaway in Oakland has played the most controlled, unselfish ball of his eight-year career. When Riley awarded him the ultimate playmaking accolade—the moniker Little Magic—the transformation was complete.
"Tim has the same temperament, the same leadership, the same skills as Earvin," says Riley. "He just doesn't have the size. But he plays the game as much like him as anybody I've ever coached."
That high opinion didn't come immediately. Though Hardaway played well last season for Miami, Riley coveted Payton and other, younger guards. Confronted with the salary cap, he turned back to Hardaway, lowballed him with an incentive-laden, four-year, $2.5 million contract and insisted he drop 17 pounds and come to camp at 195. Hardaway did that and more. Buying into a defensive system for the first time in his career, Hardaway became a vocal partner with Mourning, calming the latter's frequent on-court rages, imploring him to play smart, pass more. It's no coincidence that Mourning has enjoyed his most satisfying season. He has worked with other point guards, "but we didn't bond like me and Timmy," Mourning says. "He's bettered my game."
Hardaway took charge of the Heat in the way players respect most: He demanded the ball when things got tight, and he produced. Against the Bulls in Chicago on Dec. 7, the game was tied 80-80 with 21 seconds left when Hardaway, in the huddle, said, "I don't care who's guarding me, give me the ball." He blew past Scottie Pippen, drove and, as Michael Jordan put it, "suckered me in," then fired a pass to a wide-open Dan Majerle for an easy three-pointer and the first home loss for the Bulls this season. "He's been in the fire every game," says Miami forward P.J. Brown. "He's been our go-to guy, our MVP."
"He's a very, very courageous player," Riley says. "He looks fear right in the eye, and says, 'Get the hell out of my way. I got something to do.' "
He is a man who thrives when he has a point to prove. This season, motivation came easy: If he wasn't trying to show up the teams who ignored him as a free agent last summer, the 6-foot Hardaway was gunning for elite point guards like Penny Hardaway and John Stockton or young guns Terrell Brandon, Damon Stoudamire and Allen Iverson. "I take it personal; they take it personal," Hardaway says. "Which makes it beautiful." He was out to show Golden State it should have treated him better. He was out to show the world it never should have doubted him. "A lot of people wrote me off," Hardaway says. "It feels good to see those guys who can't look me in the face now."