Written by Peter Walsh (@Peter_M_Walsh)
Though he hasn’t suited up for an NBA game since 2007, Penny Hardaway remains a key figure in the sneaker community. Thanks to one of the greatest signature sneaker lines of all-time, Penny’s name is still synonymous with greatness. While most people who wear his sneakers now weren’t even born when he was at the peak of his career, Nike continues to churn out his immensely popular Foamposite Ones in different colorways and designs and Penny’s sneakers have become the rare breed that have been a hit both on-court and in the fashion community. These days, Penny keeps himself busy by coaching a middle school basketball team in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee and working as an executive producer on SiriusXM NBA Radio’s Bottom Line Sports Show. Here, Penny chops it up about his signature sneaker line, Foamposites, Lil’ Penny, and continuing the Penny sneaker franchise.
What’s it like to see current NBA players playing in your sneakers now?
It’s amazing to see these young guys come into the league and want to wear my shoes. Everywhere I go, these guys ask me for shoes like I’m in control of the warehouse. I wish I did have control. There’d be a lot more people around the country wearing my shoes. I think it’s a huge compliment from the younger guys understanding what I did for the game and wanting to represent me by wearing my shoes.
What do you think of today’s signature sneaker lines?
Well I’m a fan of the Nike lines—and that’s not to try and tag Nike or anything, but those are the sneakers I wear. The KDs, the LeBrons, and the Kobes, I’m really a big fan of those. I think they look great and they’re comfortable—especially the Kobes and the KDs. I love the design of the new Kobe 9 with the high-high top. I don’t know if I can play ball in them but they’re a good looking shoe. The kids have also fallen in love with the new KDs, so I’m definitely a fan of those shoes.
The Foamposite was originally released in 1997 but still so popular today. Why do you think they’ve held up so well?
It’s a shoe you can wear to play basketball and one that you can wear everyday when you’re wearing jeans. I think what makes a really good shoe is something that you can play ball in but also something that you can wear off the court as well. It also helps the kids understand who I was and why I was good enough to have a sneaker named after me. It leads to the discovery of my legacy as a basketball player for kids who didn’t get to see me play.
Did you expect the Foamposite to make a crossover and become that popular both on the court and in the streets?
Not really, I didn’t expect the sneakers to do that. When Nike first brought it to me, I knew that it was something that hadn’t been done before. I wanted to be the first person to be rocking the shoes and I couldn’t wait to get on the court and see the response from other players. My teammates were looking at me like ‘What is that?’. All the other players were looking at it the same way.
I wanted to be the first person to be rocking the shoes and I couldn’t wait to get on the court and see the response from other players.
Recently there’s been a ton of different printed designs on Foamposites. What are your thoughts on those?
I’m an all-white or all-black, basic type of guy, but I can get into the different types of colorways. The kids love the red, blue and black Spiderman look, it’s almost like having a superhero shoe on. I can identify with why they are doing that.
How much input do you have on the sneaker and the colorway designs nowadays?
I have a lot of input. [NSW Designer] Marc Dolce calls me all the time to get the smallest to the largest thing when it comes to what I like to wear, what other shoes I buy, what backpacks or watches I have, and the clothing, cars, and houses I own. He asks, ‘What did I buy lately that was unique?’ We try and put all of that into the sneaker and into the colorways.
During your playing days, what were your favorite sneakers to hoop in?
My favorite sneaker is the Penny 1. The Penny 1 is an original, man and I loved them from the beginning and other people loved them, too. It was a comfortable shoe and the Penny 1 was definitely my favorite to play in. The Penny II was a close second, though.
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How did the Lil’ Penny character come alive? And how did Chris Rock get involved?
I remember them calling on a lot of comedians who were hot at the time like Damon Wayans, Martin Lawrence, a lot of different comedians who were at the top of their game. They were such big names, so the prices they were asking for were either out of Nike’s budget or they didn’t want to pay that much for the commercial. Chris Rock, who wasn’t as well known at that point, jumped at the opportunity and it turned out to be a big thing for him.
I just remember that every time Tyra Banks was on set, a lot more people were at the shoot that day.
Did you and Chris get to hang out during the commercial shoots?
It was funny because Chris and I never did a shoot together at the same time. He would do his part and by the time I would shoot, all they would do is play voice-overs and playback. We were never on set at the same time doing a commercial.
Lil’ Penny even got his own signature sneaker, did you ever expect that to happen?
Of course not. Looking at it now, you can see the way the economy is going, the way the world is going, and the way the shoe game is going, there would definitely be a spinoff of Lil’ Penny having his own shoe. People appreciate Lil’ Penny now and appreciated Lil’ Penny in the commercials so it doesn’t surprise me now that they’re making signature shoes for him.
The whole commercial series took off and became as popular as the sneakers themselves. Once stars like Tyra Banks came into the fold, did you realize how big the campaign was getting?
Oh yeah, it was amazing. The Super Bowl Party ad we had with all the top Nike athletes, and Tyra Banks getting involved, I knew then that Lil’ Penny had really taken off.
Do you have a favorite commercial that you did for the series?
I like the detective one when I saved Lil’ Penny from the burning office. It was a Penny II commercial and the ABA commercial when we were playing basketball and Lil’ Penny said, “I know my spot, fool!” and he was making baskets from everywhere, it was pretty cool.
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As far as behind-the-scenes, did you get to interact with everyone who appeared on the commercials? Do you have any good stories from any of the shoots?
I just remember that every time Tyra Banks was on-set, a lot more people were at the shoot that day.
What’s your relationship with Nike like now?
I have a great relationship. We’re still doing contracts and we’re working on the Air Penny 6. I’m in a great place, man. Being retired and having not played the game in five or six years and still have shoes coming out in my likeness is a true blessing.