NEW YORK — Jay-Z blared inside the Michigan locker room as the team celebrated its NIT Season Tip-Off championship in the depths of Madison Square Garden.
The Most Outstanding Player of the tournament walked in with confidence. He who an hour earlier writhed on the floor clutching his noggin and had to be taken for a medical examination was feeling good again. A bump on his head, nothing serious. A mere flesh wound.
The lyrics continued to pump. From the mouth of the man who rules the city to another just visiting for the first time.
“For real, it don’t get no bigger, man,” Jay-Z rapped.
That was Tim Hardaway Jr.’s performance this week.
For a player who feeds on energy, Hardaway was in the right place. It was the venue where his father was booed, but he found himself cheered by the throngs of Michigan fans that overwhelmed the Garden.
Friday wasn’t a 3-point shooting night for Hardaway, but something much more convincing. The Miami native pounded the ball onto the floor and sprinted to the basket. He soared over defenders, always got where he wanted to go on the floor. He glided past overmatched Kansas State players for rebounds.
Hardaway scored a game high 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting and pulled down seven rebounds, a shoo-in as the tournament’s top player.
He roared and barked after big shots, doled out chest bumps and spirited high-fives — the energy of the city having invigorated him from a season ago.
“Once he gets going, we’ve got to feed him,” said sophomore point guard Trey Burke.
A season ago, you wouldn’t recognize the player from Friday. Last year’s iteration of Tim Hardaway involved moping and bad body language. Head shaking and impulsive shooting.
Had he peaked as a freshman?
The lights may have been on in the gym, but not upstairs. In New York, both were on, brighter than ever.
“I don’t know if the pressure or what happened last year,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who was at Illinois last year. “But he’s a different player.”
For Hardaway it’s always been about seizing control of his life. First he had to emerge from the overbearing influence of his hyper-competitive father, a former NBA star. He had to figure out how to play not to please everyone else, but to please himself.
Once considered to be an NBA talent, Hardaway fell out of favor after last season’s struggles. This year was about regaining control of his basketball future. He wasn’t about to become a mere complement to an offense centered on the freshmen and Burke. He regained control by his own volition.
“The biggest thing is his work ethic,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That doesn’t just happen. He’s got great DNA, but DNA doesn’t get you there alone. The young man is in the gym all the time.”
He continued to seize control this weekend. Not about to put the fate of his tournament, and the team’s, in the fickle nature of the long jump shot, he attacked. He pursued the rim relentlessly and was never satisfied. With the 3-pointer, a too-strong flick of the wrist could mean a miss off the heel of the rim. When he takes it to the basket, it’s all in his control.
So, he made two of 10 3-pointers this week, no matter. He made 14 of 18 shots from within the arc. He grabbed the reins and made sure things worked out how he wanted.
He scored 11 points down the stretch on Wednesday as the Wolverines came back to take down Pittsburgh, 67-62, in the semifinals and he remained relentless in Michigan’s 71-57 pounding of the Wildcats on Friday.
Hardaway leaves The Empire State and the self-proclaimed World’s Most Famous Arena with a few things. He has a trophy for the tournament title, and another for being the week’s top player. Also, most likely, a headache.
But more importantly, he also leaves with control — over his game, his team, and his future.
— Rothschild can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nrothschild3.