Basketball: The heir Jordan

Ian Whittell in Cleveland meets two players forever linked to a legend
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The Independent Online
Anfernee Hardaway and Scottie Pippen - "Penny" and "Pipp" to basketball's cognoscenti - are at different ends of the experience scale, but they have more in common than merely appearing together on the US Olympic team who swept all before them in Atlanta last year.

Hardaway and Pippen are both inexorably linked by their relationship to and with Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous sportsman on the planet. Tonight the trio are team-mates in the Eastern Conference team in the National Basketball Association All-Star Game.

Hardaway is clearly being groomed to succeed Jordan as the figurehead of the NBA in their bid to continue a global merchandising business that would put a small country's budget to shame. For Pippen, Jordan's team- mate on the Chicago Bulls for the last 10 years, there is the realisation that his own genius may be destined to be forever dwarfed by Jordan's unprecedented achievements.

Now 31 and showing some signs of the wear and tear of nearly 900 games for the Bulls, Pippen was once regarded as the second greatest talent in the game. He had only one misfortune - playing on the same team as talent No 1. If there is any bitterness, though, Pippen disguises it well. He describes partnering Jordan as a "privilege". Jordan, for his part, wanted assurances that Pippen was part of Chicago's long-term plans before coming out of his 18-month retirement two years ago.

But if Pippen has a distinguished past, the future belongs to Hardaway. The 25-year-old from the Orlando Magic, whose life reads like a screenplay, was brought up by his grandmother and mother in a deprived, crime-ridden area of Memphis, and was christened "Penny" by his family.

The nickname could not now be more ironic. Try several billion pennies, and you may be getting closer to Hardaway's present worth, both personally and to the NBA in general. "I take it as an honour," says Hardaway when asked about the comparisons with Jordan. "I don't think they're talking about as a player, I think they're talking about representing the NBA on and off the floor.

"Michael is an ambassador of the league, he's the spokesman for all the players who are here now. I really look up to him. He handles himself and does a great job. So, when they say that, it makes me proud."

For all the hype, it has helped that Hardaway has also emulated Jordan where it matters, on the court. Orlando were written off as contenders when Shaquille O'Neal moved to the Lakers in the summer and completely ignored when Hardaway was ruled out for 24 games after knee surgery. But the Hardaway-inspired Magic have won 12 out of 15 games since his return, and are serious challengers once more to Chicago's - and Jordan's - crown.

Hardaway is a natural successor to Jordan, sharing the same line in spectacular plays, and modest demeanour as well as, more significantly, the same shoe company in Nike. Never slow in recognising their "assets", Nike have already decided that Hardaway is the next Jordan. Last December, they even launched a series of his adverts in cinemas in Britain. In the ads, Hardaway is partnered with "Li'l Penny", a puppet who is an arrogant party animal who wrecks the home and cruises the streets while the real deal is hard at practice.

"That's the fun part of it," says Hardaway. "As serious as basketball gets, you have to have fun sometimes. The fun part is the endorsements and 'Li'l Penny' has done so much for me in terms of publicity."

Perhaps it is significant that the shoe company have never seen fit to promote another of their assets, Scottie Pippen, the same way. He will just have to be satisfied with what looks like being his fifth successive championship this year. It is something for which, for all the hype, Hardaway will still have to wait.