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Penny Hardaway is the popular but unlikely choice for Orlando Magic head coach

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Many Magic fans want Penny Hardaway to be the team’s next head coach. How realistic is it?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Magic fans spent the weekend lobbying for Penny Hardaway to become the next head coach of the Orlando Magic. Penny Hardaway spent the weekend meeting with top recruits as head coach of the Memphis Tigers.

Dreams and reality don’t always intersect.

Hardaway is the clear popular choice for Magic Twitter, but he is hardly the most realistic, and probably not the most ideal.

Many Magic fans, myself included, probably don’t care about the latter. Nostalgia is powerful, blurring the difference between what is wanted and what is needed, particularly during challenging stretches. When times are bad we cling to what was once good. And Penny is a symbol of the best of times in Orlando.

Members of the Magic front office might have legitimate interest in Penny as coach. Maybe they’ll even reach out for an interview. Maybe they’ll even be granted an interview, even as Penny operates under business as usual in Memphis.

Jeff Weltman neither confirmed nor denied anything when asked about Penny during his media session following Steve Clifford’s departure on Saturday.

But the real reason Penny as coach of the Orlando Magic is unlikely is because the decision is not entirely up to the Magic, it’s also up to Penny. And he may not - and probably doesn’t - want the job. At least not right now.

The link between Penny and the Magic is strong based on the six seasons he spent playing for the team. But his roots are much deeper in Memphis, where he grew up, where he played high school basketball, where he played college basketball, where he now coaches college basketball. Where he probably is more popular than any former or current Memphis resident not named Elvis Presley.

Perhaps if Penny led Memphis to a victory in the NCAA Tournament last season instead of in the NIT, the timing would have been perfect for a jump to the pros. Penny just completed his third season in Memphis, honoring the three-year contract he signed in 2018. He has yet to guide the team to the NCAA Tournament, despite assembling the top recruiting class during the 2019-2020 season that was derailed by a questionable James Wiseman recruiting violation and the cancelation of the tournament due to the pandemic.

Penny has unfinished business in Memphis. Oh, and last December he signed a five-year extension worth $12 million.

“Coaching at Memphis is my dream job,” Hardaway said in a statement at the time. “Memphis basketball is in the national spotlight, and we are continuing to get better and better every day. The future is bright for the Tigers.”

Would Penny leave a dream job for a rebuilding job? Unlikely, but maybe if he can rebuild as well as he recruits.

Would be turn his back on recruits that commit to Memphis based on his presence there? Probably not, but he wouldn’t be the first college coach to do so.

Would he leave his son, Jayden, in an uncertain situation as he entered his redshirt junior season on the Tigers? Doubt it, unless the Magic give him a spot on the G League roster.

Hardaway dunks Photo by Barry Gossage/ NBAE/ Getty Images

There are some very sensible and valid reasons why Penny would be a good fit as coach of the Magic. But for each there is a justifiable rebuttal:

He is a former point guard on a team that needs to develop players with comparable aspects of his skill set like Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton (and a 14 percent chance of Cade Cunningham). He has no NBA coaching experience and hasn’t yet proven that he can win at the college level, where his top skill is recruiting.

If Steve Nash and Steve Kerr can do it with no experience, so can Penny. Nash and Kerr were handed star-studded, win-now teams where they didn’t have to do much besides manage minutes and egos.

Penny is a legend who would bring excitement back to his former team. That’s exactly why Memphis hired him and probably would do whatever necessary to retain him. <Darrell Armstrong waives at Magic fans>

At this stage, Penny taking the Magic job would taint his legacy in Memphis. He may not be willing to pay that price, especially when there’s no need for him to rush to the NBA.

I say this as someone who would love nothing more than to see Penny back in the Magic organization, and see the Magic team wearing his famous Foamposite sneakers, and see Lil’ Penny making a dramatic comeback in Orlando. And I say that as someone who recognizes that Kenny Atkinson is pretty clearly a better fit for the Magic.

Dreams and reality don’t always intersect.