From the Alleys to the Hall

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty

Basketball saved my life. 

It wasn’t a passion. It wasn’t a hobby. It was my refuge, man. 

Basketball saved my life

Coming up in this world on the South Side of Chicago in the ’70s? You can’t even imagine it, unless you lived it. It was gangs, gangs, gangs, drugs, drugs, drugs. We lived around South Shore Park, right smack in the middle of two of the biggest crews in the city — the El Rukns and the Black Gangster Disciples. You didn’t have anywhere to hide. They had recruiters on every corner, and they were gonna make you an offer you couldn’t refuse, you know what I mean? 

I tell people like this: On the South Side, the first thing your mom teaches you is not your ABCs. It’s your Ps and Qs. You had to know how to conduct yourself at all times, because you could get taken out any place, any time. 

From a very, very young age, you just learn to be in survival mode, head on a swivel. You learn to run to the bus stop. You get to your stop and you see four guys standing around on the corner? Oh, hell naw. You wait and get off at the next stop, because you already know what it’s gonna be: “Hey kid, who you with? What you stand for? Who’s your momma? Where you live at?” 

You can run, but you’re just delaying the inevitable, because they’re just gonna have six guys waiting for you the next day. Every moment, you’re playing mental chess. You’re strategically trying to figure out how to get to school and get back home. That bell used to ring sometimes at the end of the day, and you’d have that pit in your stomach. It was detrimental to your health. And I’m not just talking about your body. I’m talking about your soul. I remember when I made it to the NBA, my buddies always used to make fun of me for biting my nails like I was still a little kid. 

I used to go and get manicures, because I’d be biting them down to the nub. The truth is, man, I’d been on edge my whole life. I never felt at ease. The only safe place, the only place where I could really be at peace and just be a kid, was the park. 

The park was heaven, man. At the park, nobody messed with you. The old heads made sure that all problems got left at the door. It was sacred. 

I remember I had this bike with no seat on it, and I’d stuff a basketball inside the frame of the bike, and I’d take two nets with me and ride over to the park real early in the morning, before anybody was there. I’d shimmy up the pole and put the nets on the rims, and I’d play 1-on-1 against myself. I didn’t need no Metaverse, man. I had it all mapped out in my imagination. Isiah Thomas would be guarding me like a dog. Tenacious, relentless, sticking me. I used to be so hard on myself. If I went to the paint too aggressively, “Whistle. Nope. That’s a charge on Hardaway! Second team foul!”

In my mind, Isiah wasn’t falling for it. I had to be perfect to get a bucket. I would be out there for hours before anybody even showed up at the park, just whupping my own butt, in my imagination.

Tim Hardaway | Retired NBA | From the Alleys to The Hall | The Players’ Tribune
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty

I was so short that I always had this huge chip on my shoulder. I didn’t have to go on the Internet to find a hater. Everybody was my hater. “C’mon, short man. Get the hell outta here. You can’t hang with the big dogs.” 

I used all that as my fuel, and I started taking a basketball everywhere with me. Six o’clock in the morning, my momma needs some milk before work? I’m running to the corner store with a basketball. I got so smooth with it that I started doing this thing — we call it Walkin’ the ball. That’s when you put the ball between your legs with every step. So one day I’m walking to the park — Walkin’ it — and this older dude says, “Man, I’ll bet you a dollar a block. You pick up your dribble, you owe me a buck. You make it a block without stopping, I owe you a buck.”

You gotta understand, it’s seven blocks to the park, and there’s obstacles everywhere. There’s cars, buses, pebbles, garbage cans, gangsters, old ladies with walkers, cracks in the pavement, parking cones, all types of nonsense that can make you lose your dribble. But I was so hardheaded that I was like, “Alright then, a dollar a block. Let’s go.”

This became our thing every single day. Some days I was up two bucks. Some days I was down three bucks. I had Big Mac days and pork-and-beans days. It got to the point where I’d have a crowd following me down the block. I’d have cars beeping at me. Some people would be cheering me on, some people would be trying to distract me. “Bro, look at that girl over there!!!” 

I remember this old man sitting up on his porch, watching me Walkin’ it, shouting out, “Go ’head, short man! I see you! Show them boys! I see you, short man!”

Tim Hardaway | Retired NBA | From the Alleys to The Hall | The Players’ Tribune
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty

No matter what happened, you had to stay locked in. You couldn’t lose your concentration. You couldn’t get rattled. And it’s so funny to me now, when people come up to me and say, “Man, you really invented the killer crossover. Where’d you think of that? Where’d that come from?” 

It came from the South Side of Chicago, for real.

Everybody knows Tim Hardaway came out the womb talking smack. But, deep down, I’m the biggest Momma’s boy you ever met. I’ll never forget when I got down to UTEP to play college ball, they used to let all the basketball players use the telephone in the athletics office once a week to call home. Back then, calling long distance was expensive. So every Sunday, the whole squad would line up to use the office phone. One day, I’m talking to my mom, and I got four or five guys sitting in the chairs, just listening in, waiting for their turn. 

We’re talking, she’s saying, “How you doing, baby? How you eating? How’s the coach? Are you studying? Oh, that’s good.” 

After 10 minutes, I’m like, “Alright, Momma, cool, I gotta go. I miss you. Bye, bye.” 

Real quick like that. 

I go to hang up the phone and she says, “No, no. Say it.” 

So now I’m mumbling, “Alright, momma, 𝑖𝑙𝑢ℎ𝑦𝑜𝑢, bye now.” 

She says, “No, no. I can’t hear you.” 

I said, “luhyouma.” 

She says, “Boy. Say it like you mean it.” 

I said, “Momma. I miss you. I LOVE you. Muah.” And I blew her a kiss. 

I hang up the phone and turn around, and all these coldhearted dudes are laughing their assess off. And me being me, I can’t help it. I don’t know how to be quiet. So I just flipped it right back around on them.

I said, “What the hell ya’ll laughing at? You don’t love your momma? Are you crazy?” 

They’re like, “What???” 

Now I’m getting animated. I’m right up in their faces. 

I said, “Yeah. Look at me. You don’t LOVE your MOMMA? Is that what you’re telling me? That woman brought you into this world. She protected you. What’s wrong with me? Naw. What the hell is wrong with y’all?

You could’ve heard a pin drop in there. 

They’re like, “Dang, Tim. Alright!!! You right. We’re sorry, man.” 

Listen, the very next Sunday, we get into that office, and every one of these guys is on the phone saying, “I miss you, Mom. I LOVE. you.” 

I’m like, “Hey, blow ‘em a kiss!!!” 

Muah. Bye, Momma.”

Hahahah. For real. I had the whole UTEP basketball team cherishing their mommas, man. Every Sunday was Mother’s Day down there.

The fact of the matter is, you can’t make it in this world without your people. And I’m not just talking about your blood. I had so many people boost me up. Names you don’t even know. Donald Pittman, taking me out of school to go watch Isiah in the city championship. Bob Walters, letting me stay at his house before big games so I could stay away from the negativity and the peer pressure. Old Man Moe, betting me five dollars to make my free throws. Vernardo Parker, my old nemesis at the park. All the guys on the corners who could’ve messed with me but said, “Hey, that’s Tim Hardaway. Leave him alone.”

The fact of the matter is, you can’t make it in this world without your people. And I’m not just talking about your blood. I had so many people boost me up. Names you don’t even know.

Tim Hardaway

Not to mention the security guard at the McDonalds on 87th and Dan Ryan who locked the door and saved me after I got caught running my mouth to the wrong guy. (I’ll never forget the guy going out to the parking lot to pop the trunk and the security guard looking down at his little can of mace and screaming, “Yoooo!!! HELP!!! Somebody call the cops!!!!”) 

To that security guard, if he’s out there reading this — I am sorry, brother. Thank you for locking that door. 

Stupid kids do stupid things, even ones who have their heads screwed on straight, like I did. And without your people, you can’t make it out. I’ll never forget the old guys at the park, always telling me, “If you get a chance, short man, don’t mess it up. Make us proud.” 

I can hear their voices in my head. “If you get a chance … if you get a chance.…”

I think when you take the hard road, the destination feels a lot sweeter. I remember when I got to the Warriors after my four years at UTEP, we had a game at the Great Western Forum against the Lakers. 

I’m in the locker room before the game, telling myself This Ain’t Nothing, because that’s just me. Man, we get out there for shootaround, and the fans start filing into the first rows, and I see a couple Jacksons rolling in. 

I see Jack Nicholson rolling in. 

Then I see Janet rolling in. 

I start losing my cool, man. I’m shooting jumpers and my legs are feeling shaky. Then they start playing the national anthem, and I’m looking across at Magic and Worthy and I’m like … Eww-weeee. 

Janet Jackson is about to watch me shoot a free throw.

Tim Hardaway | Retired NBA | From the Alleys to The Hall | The Players’ Tribune
Jon Soohoo/NBAE via Getty Images

Man, halfway through the first quarter, Don Nelson calls a timeout and pulls me. 

“Tim!!!! What’s wrong with you???”

I’m looking at him like: Coach, do you know where the hell we at???? You see Magic over there, man????

But I didn’t say anything. 

I just put my head down, like, You right, Coach. I’m messing up. 

Don put me back in the next quarter, Thank God, and I pulled myself together. But I still get goosebumps thinking about carrying the ball down the floor at the Forum and seeing Magic Johnson waiting for the punk rookie to cross half court with a big smile on his face. 

Magic is guarding Tim Hardaway. 

And it ain’t in my imagination. 

That’s a little piece of heaven, man.

Legacy. When you go into the Hall of Fame, you always get asked about your legacy. People want you to sum up 20, 30 years in a sentence. 

Sorry, but I can’t do it. 

When people see my picture in the Hall of Fame, maybe they’ll think about me dropping a fat 38 on the Knicks in Game 7. Sending all you salty New Yorkers home crying in ’97. Maybe they’ll think about the killer crossover, the UTEP two-step.

Maybe they will remember one of those 7,000 dimes. 

I don’t know, man. 

But if the kid from the South Side of Chicago can be remembered for anything, I hope it’s that I’ve grown as a human being. 

Back in 2007, I said something that was deeply hurtful to a lot of people. I was doing a radio interview, and John Amaechi had just come out publicly, and I was asked about it. 

I said, “I hate gay people. I don’t like being around them.”

The worst part was that I meant those words. 

It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. The thing about hatred is that it comes from ignorance. When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything, man. Anyone who I didn’t know, or who was different, I looked at as a threat. I was raised to view gay people as dangerous, and I never questioned it. When I got to be an adult, I should have opened up my mind and grown with the times, but I didn’t, and that’s on me. 

I love my community to death — the South Side community, the basketball community — but if there’s one thing I could change, it would be how we teach our young people to view the LGBTQ+ community. And I’ll put my hand up and say that I was a guy who was filled with a lot of fear and bigotry. Even when I started trying to put in the work to learn and be a better man, it was a long road for me.

If the kid from the South Side of Chicago can be remembered for anything, I hope it’s that I’ve grown as a human being.

Tim Hardaway

The thing that really changed my life was when I started going to the YES Institute in Miami and getting to know the kids there. They work with a lot of transgender kids and their parents, trying to bring them closer together when there’s tension and conflict. A lot of the parents were from my generation, and they were closed off to their kids’ truth. I just remember hearing these kids saying stuff like, “We just want to live without being in fear.” 

And, man, I started getting choked up, because it broke down some wall inside me. If there was one thing I could relate to growing up, it was being in constant fear all the time. 

I started going there three hours every day, listening to these kids’ stories, and the thing that really resonated with me was when this one kid said, “I can deal with the bullying of my peers. I can handle that. But I need my parents to have my back. I need them to love me.”

Man, if you can listen to that kid and still have hate in your heart, then there is something wrong with you. I realized that my voice is a really heavy voice, and the things I said caused a lot of unnecessary pain. I am still working off my debt to those kids, and to that community. I don’t want to rewrite the past or to make excuses for myself. I just want to be a little bit better, every day.

Tim Hardaway | Retired NBA | From the Alleys to The Hall | The Players’ Tribune
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty

So in closing, I just want to say one final thing, while the spotlight is shining for a brief minute on the kid from the South Side….

I was blessed that the game of basketball saved my life. It got me out of poverty and took me around the world. For that, I am forever thankful. For a long, long time, I kept my world really small. I did it on purpose — out of fear. But there’s a bigger picture out there. There’s a bigger purpose.

What is Tim Hardaway’s legacy? How will he be remembered?

He came out the womb talking smack. He snuck through gang alleys. He kept his head on a swivel. He climbed up poles and put nets on rims. He whupped his own butt, every day, in his imagination. 

He made it out of the South Side. Played against Magic. Played against Mike. Sent the Knicks fans home crying. 

Short Man dropped 7,000 dimes in the NBA. He showed them boys, like the old man on the porch said. 

But at the end of the day, that’s all a part of the smaller picture. In the bigger picture, hopefully Tim Hardaway’s legacy is that he did one of the hardest things a man can do. 

He grew.