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The Shadow of a Name: How Tim Hardaway Jr. has formed his basketball identity

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 30, 2011

The doors on the all-white BMW 645Ci slammed shut, beginning the short journey home that would feel like an eternity.

The father, who had all the glory any man could hope for, was in the driver’s seat, casually turning the wheel in rhythm with the Miami streets. The son, a 16-year-old child trying to forge his own story in the shadow of his very name, leaned against the door of the passenger’s seat, with nothing to say.

It was like after any other of the son’s high school basketball games. He won or he lost, and he and his father climbed into the luxury car without saying a word, draped in an oppressive silence.

And it wasn’t just after games — going to or from practice, school, a workout, anything over the last couple years. Every drive short. Every one of them quiet.

There should’ve been no reason for the iciness. This was Miami — beaches, celebrities, glitz. How could anyone be upset driving around such a place, one whose very essence lifts a person’s spirits? Waiting at the end of the drive was a beautiful home, complete with an outdoor pool, a picturesque patio and a basketball court; there, too, was an otherwise happy family, a mother and sister who were always ready to support and love.

It was balmy outside, but inside the car was a Michigan winter.

Looking back at it three years later, the son couldn’t even remember whether he had won or lost the game that night. He didn’t know how many points he scored, how many rebounds he grabbed or how he played defensively. All that stuck with him was what the father said to his 16-year-old on that trip — that trip that began so disappointingly similar to all the ones before it.

It seemed like nothing was going to change. The problems of the past and present seemed bound to the future.

The father began to speak.

***

Tim Hardaway Sr. was mostly known for his killer crossover dribble.

They called it the “UTEP two-step” when he played for the Miners from 1985-89. With the NBA's Golden State Warriors, he formed the famous “Run TMC” trio with Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin.

Hardaway was traded to the Heat in the middle of the 1995-96 season, prompting him to settle down in Miami. He was First Team All-NBA the next season and was a five-time All-Star, the last appearance coming in 1997-98 when Tim Jr. was five years old.

Tim Jr. played other sports as a kid, but basketball always loomed. It was his best game, and Tim Sr. certainly didn't mind having him play it. After a freshman year football experiment, Tim Jr. began to concentrate exclusively on his father’s sport.

From the beginning, Tim Sr.’s career loomed over his son. Other kids at school would tease him about his father, saying he was nowhere near as good as his dad. At times it got to him, but his parents told him to ignore it — the other kids were just jealous.

By the time he reached Palmetto High School, though, the taunts of his classmates turned into the barbs of his own father.

Tim Sr. knew how to play and knew what Tim Jr. needed to do to be successful. He had the answers, and he didn’t hesitate to criticize his son when he felt like he wasn’t playing as well as he should have been — as well as he played at that age. Unfortunately for Tim Jr., that was all the time.

His father was the ultimate obnoxious little league parent, except his angst wasn’t directed at referees or coaches — it was directed at Tim Jr.

That’s why, on that fateful night during Tim Jr.’s junior year, when Tim Sr. finally opened his mouth, it was to apologize.

“I wasn’t being a parent, point blank,” Tim Sr. said “I was being a coach more than a parent. And it was tearing my home apart.”

The disparagement was constant and everywhere.

Tim Sr. would criticize his son on the way to practice, at practice and on the way home from practice. He’d do it on the way to games, during games while he sat close to Palmetto’s bench and on the way home from games.

He’d do it at home, upsetting his wife, Yolanda, and his young daughter, Nia, who would cry sometimes while the two men in the family had it out.

“You’re not trying hard enough,” he’d tell Tim Jr. “Quit taking so many bad shots. Stop forgetting your technique. Start making the extra pass.”

At times, it got so bad that father and son wouldn’t speak for three or four days. The car rides became so bad that finally Tim Jr. told him he didn’t want to talk at all, beginning the string of silent trips that wouldn’t end until that night a couple of years later.

“It was very frustrating,” Tim Jr. said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, he got on my nerve. … Just having that and my mom coming in trying to settle everything, it was hard for our family.”

Tim Jr. didn’t understand why his father was doing it. He was still trying to develop as a basketball player and as a man. He was still just a kid, the same one who his father joked had too big of a head for his body, before he finally had his growth spurt.

After the summer AAU season preceding his junior year — the time in which Tim Jr. realized the type of player he was capable of becoming after lighting it up for the 16U Florida Rams — he became steadfast. His dad's criticism was more hollow than ever.

Finally, Tim Sr. decided that, for one game, he was just going to watch his son. No coaching, no yelling, no criticizing. He sat alone high up in the stands and just watched.

He realized something — his son was already doing exactly what he should’ve been. Everything he had been asking for, Hardaway Jr. was already answering.

“I was talking to him more about the game instead of talking to him about life, school, instead of patting him on the back and telling him good job,” Tim Sr. said. “I had to step back and get out of wanting him to be like me, and start having him be Tim Hardaway Jr. and making him happy, and making him comfortable.

“When I started being a parent, that’s when everything came together, and our relationship turned for the better.”

***

John Mahoney told his boss that he had a recruit they should look at.

It was the summer of 2007 when Tim Jr. was just a rising sophomore. Michigan coach John Beilein told Mahoney, then a Michigan assistant, to go down to Florida to check out the 6-foot-3 skinny kid with the NBA dad.

Beilein eventually saw him play once that summer. He was impressed — Tim Jr. was the perfect example of the type of recruit Beilein loves. The player who clearly still has much to develop, but who also has an enormous ceiling — and having seen the habits Tim Sr. instilled in his son, Beilein thought Tim Jr. had a good shot of hitting that ceiling.

Michigan was the first team to recruit Tim Jr., sending him mail in his sophomore year. Beilein kept tabs on him during his junior season and brought him up for an unofficial visit for the Duke game that year on Dec. 6.

Tim Jr. was already feeling comfortable with the Wolverines. The fact that Michigan was the first school to show interest meant something to him, and it was clear Beilein truly cared about him, constantly checking on him and making sure Tim Jr. was keeping up with his academics.

Beilein was going to be like a second father, and his teammates would be his family.

The Wolverines beat No. 4 Duke, 81-73, in an electric game just weeks after getting blown out by the Blue Devils in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. The Crisler Arena crowd rushed the court after what amounted to Beilein’s first signature win as Michigan’s coach.

“Knowing (Tim Jr.) now, he’s passionate, he loves to win,” said senior guard Zack Novak, who showed him around the night before the Duke game. “Looking back, if I were to re-recruit Tim Hardaway, I would have him come to a big game at home (again), like (the Duke game). He would go for that.”

And he did. By the time the visit was over, Tim Jr. had a good feeling about where he wanted to play in college. He came to Ann Arbor for Beilein’s Elite Camp in the summer before his senior year, determined to nab a scholarship.

Tim Jr. put on a show, draining 3-pointers, skying for rebounds and wowing with his athleticism.

“He was just killing it,” Novak said. “It was stupid.”

Beilein offered, and Tim Jr. wasted little time in committing. That senior season — free from the stress of the recruiting process and the burdens of his father’s old ways — he played his best basketball yet.

Michigan knew it was getting a steal. He wasn’t ranked in the in the Rivals.com Top-150. His only other offers were from Minnesota and Kansas State. How was Tim Jr. flying under the radar, with the father he had and the potential he oozed?

“We kept trying to tell everybody, this kid is special,” said Chris Brown, his coach at Palmetto. “He’s being underrecruited.”

Schools finally began to catch on. UCLA and Villanova, Tim Jr.’s childhood favorite, offered in his senior year, but it was too late. It was always going to be Michigan.

***

The whispers within the basketball program before last season indicated Tim Hardaway's son was already the team’s best player.

He seemed to prove it early on. But just as Michigan’s strong start soon gave way to a 1-6 stretch in January, it became clear that as well as Tim Jr. was playing, he was still a freshman — there was more to be had. Big Ten defenses were tougher than anything he had yet seen (he was shooting just 36 percent in conference play).

Michigan coach John Beilein sat him down after what amounted to the team's rock bottom — the Wolverines’ January home loss to Minnesota that put them at 1-6 in the conference.

The season was on the verge of complete collapse, the locker room was in a fragile state. But Beilein didn’t yell at his young guard — he just talked, trying to understand where Tim Jr. was mentally, and what he needed to do to take his game up a notch. He was coaching like a father — like Tim Sr. finally learned to do after that apology.

It worked. Four games later at Penn State, the Wolverines were down nine points with less than eight minutes left. Tim Jr. hadn’t scored a single point, but he knew he had to spark his team.

Tim Jr. proceeded to score five straight points, and later knocked down two straight 3-pointers to lead a 10-0 Michigan run that ended in a critical 65-62 road win.

But it was nothing new. He has always thrived in the big moments.

“That’s one thing about Tim — any big game, he was going to show up,” Brown said. “He wants to be in that situation. He wants the ball in that situation. … He prepared himself mentally for those situations, did all the work.”

It was like the district championship game in Tim Jr.’s senior year when he poured in 45 points — 17 straight at one point — to defeat rival Killian on the road. Tim Sr. watched with pride, cheering his son on loudly.

Then there was that December night at Pine Crest. The Panthers featured Brandon Knight, one of the top point guards in the nation and a consensus top-10 recruit. He would go on to star as a freshman at Kentucky last season before being picked eighth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft.

This was the kind of game Tim Jr. lived for. It felt like the state finals — Pine Crest’s gym could only hold about 1,500 people, but at least 2,500 were squeezed in. College coaches from all over the state of Florida were there to watch, and so too was Beilein, who would get an early preview of what his future star could do on a big stage.

Tim Jr. wanted to prove that rankings don’t mean anything. He demanded to guard the all-everything Knight, even though he was several inches taller and a couple steps slower than the point guard. And at the end, the underdog proved he could hang with the big boys. Knight finished with 36 points — Tim Jr. with 42.

In Latvia this summer, Tim Jr. proved his mettle once again. He was playing for Team USA — like his father had 10 years earlier in the Sydney Olympics.

Entering its final game against Australia in a fight for fifth place, the U19 team was desperate to salvage something out of the difficult trip. Tim Jr. responded, putting up a personal tournament-best 21 points to lead his teammates to a 78-77 win.

“When he gets (shots) like that shot he hit against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, to the shot he hit against Duke, those were shots that were certainly big shots,” Beilein said. “He lives for that, without even maybe knowing it, because he just stays in the moment.”

***

How does a skinny 6-foot-3 high school guard respected by so few colleges become an All-Big Ten player? How does he become NBAdraft.net’s projected sixth overall pick — eight spots higher than Tim Sr. was chosen — in the 2013 NBA Draft?

Hard work. It’s what defines Tim Jr. as a player, ever since the seventh grade when his father first noticed. Tim Sr. calls him a “sponge,” eagerly soaking up all the coaching he can and attacking workouts and practices with the same intensity. He made sure his son was going to earn his accolades.

“There’s a lot of players with (good) DNA that may not have that same drive,” Beilein said. “Tim’s got it. He’s grown up with great focus, (knowing) what it takes to achieve. Tim likes to work hard, so that he can achieve success and not be given success.”

In many ways, Tim Jr. is still that same kid who was a handful for his parents, the same guy his high school teammates razzed by calling “Timisha.” His teammates just shake their heads when he and junior guard Eso Akunne talk endlessly about their favorite cartoons.

But he’s also a man. There’s a different look about Tim Jr. this year — he’s taller (6-foot-6, despite what he’s listed at on the roster), more confident, more determined. The quiet intensity that he carries with him always, and then unleashes with every two-handed dunk, is stronger than ever. He has that air that all great players carry — that Tim Sr. had all those years ago.

His teammates know that he’s the team's best player.

“We don’t vote or anything, but I don’t think it’s a secret,” Novak said. “And I don’t have any problems saying that because he’s not someone who carries himself like he’s better than anybody else. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team, got one of the best attitudes on the team.”

With that talent comes the responsibility to lead. Novak and Stu Douglass are the captains, and the obvious guys that the other players look up to. But they’re aware that they have to groom the next man for the job because they’re not going to be around next year. And they know this is Tim Jr.’s team to carry.

He spent tons of time back in Miami while training for Team USA over the summer working on his mid-range game, his ballhandling and on running ball screens — on all the skills so critical when you’re the focal point of an offense. And he worked on his leadership, ready to be the man his teammates look to.

Tim Sr. trained with him. The two hadn't got to work together like that in a while.

***

It appears the dark years of Michigan basketball are over.

The NCAA Tournament should be reached every year, players say. Championships should be the expectation, they echo.

Tim Jr. answers all your questions very quickly — almost too quickly, not even letting you get all of the words out of your mouth. But he stops when asked a very simple one — is Michigan basketball back?

He pauses for a moment — an eternity in his energized world — to think it over.

“People can say we’re back, but in our eyes, we’re not back at all,” Tim Jr. says. “We’re trying to make it all the way to 1989 (National) Championship level. … We’re trying to make it to the Fab-5 level.”

There are a few givens for Tim Jr. this season. He’s going to drain some clutch threes. He’ll have some highlight-reel dunks. He’ll lead the Wolverines in scoring in more games than any other player. He’s going to explode with passion, making those unrestrained facial expressions he’s so famous for.

The unknown is how big of a leap he’s going to make. It’s an important question because Michigan’s season depends on it. Those championships will be won on the shoulders of Tim Hardaway Jr.

When you watch him, think of who he is — think of a basketball player forged by a legacy, by years of heartbreaking family conflict, by the work ethic that defines him and the moments that inspire his greatness.

Think of Tim Sr., watching happily from a distance, seeing his son reaching for his dreams.

“I love it, just (feeling) how I would feel if I was in the stands and bringing that into the game,” Tim Jr. said. “It’s fun when you’re actually out there doing that.”

***

Tim Sr. was there to watch his son play against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament. He saw Tim Jr. knock down the killer 3-pointer that gave Michigan the lead for good with two minutes left, the shot that clinched an NCAA Tournament berth in what was supposed to be a lost season.

It wasn’t the gym at Palmetto, but it felt like it because Tim Sr. was at it again — talking loudly about Tim Jr.’s play and his team, dissecting his performance, criticizing him at times. It wasn’t a flashback to the troubled past, though — Tim Sr. was calling the game on radio for Compass Media.

He had never called one of his son’s games before — he’d only ever watched Tim Jr. while cheering from the stands.

This was a lot harder.

“Man, I do not never, ever, ever want to do that anymore,” said Tim Sr. “It was strenuous, it was hard. After that game I had a headache. … I had to be a regular commentary person that didn’t have a son on that team.

“I wouldn’t do it anymore. It took so much out of me. After the game, I was sweating.”

When Tim Jr. makes it to the NBA — widely considered a matter of when, not if — he'll finally see the other side of his childhood, the side that his father was living when Tim Jr. was just that little boy, looking up to his All-Star dad.

“Words couldn’t describe how I would feel,” Tim Sr. said.

But that's a conversation for another day. There's this season and all of the challenges, joys, pains and pleasures it's going to bring. Michigan has more heights to reach, carried by Tim Jr.

In Miami, Tim Sr. thinks about his son, his namesake. He forged that name, and it means something. But Tim Jr. has his own dreams, and Tim Sr. just hopes he achieves them, like all fathers do. It's out of his hands now, though.

The two Hardaways speak almost every day, usually around lunchtime — there's a lot of silences to make up for, after all. The father and son don't normally talk about basketball. They don't need to. The father always makes sure that his son is staying warm up in Michigan. But father and son are both busy, and must say their goodbyes eventually.

So Tim Hardaway Jr. puts his phone down and gets up to go, a legacy behind him but his future far in front.


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