Last Thursday at a University Club luncheon, the Memphis Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America commemorated Penny Hardaway with its 43rd “Communicator of the Year,” award, given to a visible Memphian who uniquely invests in the community.
Although national title aspirations for this year may be on hold, Hardaway, who originally attended Treadwell High, is again celebrated for continued impact beyond basketball in his hometown of Memphis. WMC-TV Sports Director Jarvis Greer, an institution of Memphis sports journalism, served as special keynote speaker, while first-year University of Memphis Athletics Director Laird Veatch stood in personally to receive the award.
An away game kept the second-year head coach from attending in person, but Hardaway, generally regarded as the greatest all-time Memphis Tiger basketball alum, sent a formal video tribute which was presented at the awards ceremony, in which the native-Memphian and four-time NBA All-Star called the award “a great honor.”
With the future on court still looking bright, Hardaway has not only revamped in-game attendance and rallied the community together in signing the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation, but also thrived in new public communication roles for Memphis International Airport (replacing the immensely popular “Grindfather,” former Memphis Grizzly Tony Allen), the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s anti-litter campaign, and Corky’s BBQ.
Nobody was better qualified to speak on Hardaway’s impact in the community than the PRSA’s featured guest speaker and WMC-TV Sports director Jarvis Greer, who along with Hardaway was born in the Binghamton neighborhood. An institution in Memphis sports and journalism, Greer grew up around Tiger basketball legend Larry Finch, played football for the UofM, and has been covering Tiger athletics over the Memphis airwaves for over forty years.
In a D.H. exclusive interview, the former Tiger linebacker and CBHS alum said Hardaway is motivated by genuine loyalty to his hometown.
“He cut his teeth on the concrete courts in Binghampton,” Greer said, recalling the story of Penny’s early years.
According to Greer, Hardway’s loyalty to the community speaks for itself, having both coached in a middle school and founded the Penny AAU to not only find recruits, but also to teach kids life lessons about opportunities and to not be defined by basketball alone.
Accepting the award in person on Hardaway’s behalf was first year Athletics Director Laird Veatch, who began his tenure at the UofM last August by presiding over a both a Cotton Bowl Appearance, the most historic season in Tiger football history, and a young but promising men’s basketball program, also ranked in the nation’s top 25 when healthy.
The Manhattan, Kansas native and two-time All-American linebacker from Kansas St, who has held various high-powered administrative positions in college athletics across the country, said he believes deeply in the unifying power of college athletics and knows that the basketball program in particular has historically had a powerful, unifying impact on the community.
“He [Hardaway] is the prime example of what college athletics can bring to an institution and a city in a world where so much gets made to be about just the games themselves, or the score," Veatch said.
“While we may be going through a rough stretch right now with injuries and other challenges, in the end, if you take a step back and look at where we’re headed, the opportunities with Penny leading the charge are going to be special,” Veatch said.
Last year’s PRSA Communicator of the Year, Otis Sanford, stated in his acceptance speech that the outstanding list of communicators’ contributions to the community are “widely known, even legendary.”
Hardaway joins a list of notable Memphians across broad fields. A few previous recipients include John Calipari, Police Director Toney Armstrong, Church Health founder Dr. Scott Morris, Cecil Humphreys, former mayor Willie Herenton, developer and philanthropist Bob Loeb, activist D’army Bailey and Greater Memphis Chamber CEO Beverly Robertson.