This is Overlap. It’s a new series we’re doing focused on unusual, unexpected, and little-known interactions between the careers of iconic sports figures. Think of it visually: The legacy of a great athlete like Magic Johnson describes a circle. Magic’s circle shares a ton of space with the circles of important teammates like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, not to mention great rivals like Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. Those stories correspond. You can’t tell one without mentioning the others. They’re interesting, but they’re not Overlap.
Overlap is for the edge of a person’s circle, where it might graze the circle of someone you wouldn’t associate, which brings us to episode 1 of the series. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway comes from a whole different era than Magic Johnson. He’s a product of the ‘90s, with a legacy colored by those of his greatest teammate, Shaquille O’Neal, his greatest playoff rivals, Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan, and others who shared the court with him. Not so much Magic Johnson.
In fact, Penny entered the NBA billed as “the next Magic.” Johnson had spent the ‘80s defining an exceptional legacy: A big, powerful player who played point guard, the position traditionally reserved for the smallest player on the floor. As a 6’9” ball-handler and passer, Johnson won a stack of championships and individual accolades, and did so with panache.
By the early 1990s, when Hardaway came to the league, Johnson had retired to manage his stunning HIV diagnosis. So Penny — himself the size of a forward, but nimble and creative like a point guard — seemed poised as anyone to carry the torch for this positional anomaly. Getting drafted by the Orlando Magic, who already had Shaq to play Kareem to Penny’s Magic (and, yes, a fitting team name), gave Hardaway an even better chance of dazzling the ‘90s the way Johnson had his own, distinct era.
But then the eras overlapped! In 1996, Magic Johnson returned to play a handful of games with the Lakers, two of them against Orlando. Episode 1 is about the build-up that made those games fascinating, the mood in and around that intersection of legacies, and at least one extremely important product of the meeting.