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Game changer: Tim Hardaway Jr. worked his way back after ‘dark period’ of career

Knicks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. reacts against the Heat at Madison Square Garden on April 6. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

LAS VEGAS — On the toughest night in what had been a month of tough nights, Tim Hardaway Jr. seriously considered quitting basketball.

Hardaway, a first-round draft pick and son of five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway, had just played his first game in the NBA’s G League. His team, the Canton Charge, lost and he shot poorly. After eating a postgame meal from McDonald’s, he watched as his teammates...

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LAS VEGAS — On the toughest night in what had been a month of tough nights, Tim Hardaway Jr. seriously considered quitting basketball.

Hardaway, a first-round draft pick and son of five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway, had just played his first game in the NBA’s G League. His team, the Canton Charge, lost and he shot poorly. After eating a postgame meal from McDonald’s, he watched as his teammates stretched out on the floor of the team bus as they made a five-hour drive home through the snow back to Ohio.

“I was second-guessing myself at the time, thinking about if I really wanted to play,” Hardaway recalled last week before a Knicks summer league game. “It was a dark period.”

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That night was more than two years ago, but the outlines of his teammates sleeping on the floor are still fresh in his mind as he prepares to become the team leader this year under new Knicks coach David Fizdale.

Hardaway and his father believe that he wouldn’t be where he is today — that he might not have found a way to step outside of his father’s shadow and come back to the Knicks last year as a highly compensated cornerstone of their rebuild — if the Hawks hadn’t pushed him to the brink by sending him down to the developmental league for five games early in the 2015-16 season.

In a phone interview last week, Hardaway Sr. said, “It was a blessing in disguise.”

BUTTING HEADS WITH DAD

There may be no bigger fan of the G League than Tim Hardaway Sr. Maybe that’s because the league brought out something in his son that he never quite could. It gave Tim Jr. a sense of hunger and desperation. It yanked what the father calls “that so-called silver spoon” right out of his son’s mouth and threw it out the bus window.

To an outsider, growing up with an NBA dad sounds like a dream existence. And, for Tim Jr., some days it was. He got to practice his three-point shot with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He got to play H-O-R-S-E with Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.

Yet in the Hardaway household, basketball was not all fun and games. There were tear-filled rides home from AAU games in Miami as the father dissected his son’s game and questioned his attitude. He didn’t get back on defense. He didn’t find the open man. He needed to work on his shot.

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Once he got into high school, those lectures turned into screaming matches. To the son, it seemed that his father only saw his mistakes. To the father, it seemed like the son was growing up soft.

“We butted heads a lot,” Tim Sr. said. “It was really my fault because I wanted him to be like me and play like me and act like me and approach the game like me. I forgot that he grew up differently.”

Make no mistake: The father didn’t want his son to grow up the way he had on Chicago’s South Side. He didn’t want him to be constantly looking over his shoulder, to live in a place where parents worried about their kids being recruited by gangs instead of colleges.

Tim Sr. married his high school sweetheart and worked hard to give his family a better life. He had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams but said he found he couldn’t relate to the life his son was living — “growing up in paradise” — where the biggest decision was whether to go out on a friend’s boat or meet them at the beach.

“His dad grew up in a really tough environment and he couldn’t create that for Tim,” said Fizdale, who began working in the Heat’s film department when Tim Sr. played there. “I think his dad wanted him to have an edge he got from that environment. A lot of that was his dad putting his forearm in his chest and saying you’re not going to be some soft rich kid. There’s no entitlement here. You’re going to earn your keep.”

The more the father pressed, the more his son would pull back. Tim Jr. said he once went two or three weeks without speaking to his father. “We’d be in the same house, and I’d walk right past him,” he said.

Yet even when his father wasn’t in his face, it was often impossible to escape him. Tim Jr. remembers the start of one game against a private school in Miami. As his team broke the huddle to start the game, he looked up in the stands to see that every student from the opposing school was wearing a giant mask of his father’s head posted on a stick.

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“Who’s your daddy?” they chanted.

As if he could ever forget.

“It wasn’t about not listening to him. It was about I want to make it on my own without anyone saying your dad did this for you,” Tim Jr. said. “It’s bad enough and then we both have the same name with just Junior. People speculate that you made it to the league ’cause of your pops.”

And then one day, it got better. In the middle of Hardaway’s junior season at Palmetto Senior High School, the athletic director, who was aware of the family tension, pulled Tim Sr. to the side. Rather than sit in his regular spot by the bench where he would critique his son’s games, it was suggested that Tim Sr. watch the game alone from the top of the bleachers and just be a spectator.

Sitting in a different seat, Tim Sr. got a different perspective. He saw a son who loved the game as much as he did, a player with a different body and different style but same competitive attitude. He decided he was tired of being his son’s basketball coach, and would much rather just be his dad.

“He asked me to drive home from the game with him,” Tim Jr. said. “He apologized on the way home. We had lost and I was expecting something else and he apologized for everything. I accepted. Ever since that day moving forward, we’ve been like the closest we’ve ever been.”

‘RUDE AWAKENING’

It was Tim Sr., along with some friends and former teammates, who helped pull Tim Jr. out of his funk after the Knicks traded him to Atlanta three years ago. Tim Jr. never wanted to leave New York, and former Hawks assistant coach Charles Lee said he was bitter.

The Hawks wanted him to work on his game and his body before becoming part of the regular rotation. He was a DNP his first 15 games, including the season opener against Detroit where Tim Sr. was an assistant coach. Things got worse in December when the Hawks, who did not have their own G League team at the time, sent him to Canton.

“It was a rude awakening and humbling,” said Tim Jr., who played two games with Canton and then later three games with San Antonio’s developmental team in Austin. “I have the utmost respect for the guys in the G League, because they are battling and trying to make it where you are. If they sense blood or fear in your eyes, they are going to try to take it.”

Tim Jr. finally understood a little of what his father had gone through on the playgrounds of Chicago. Basketball was his father’s way out of a tough childhood, and it became his way out of his “dark period.” He dedicated himself to becoming the best player he could be. Those around the league, including Knicks president Steve Mills, noticed the difference when he got back to Atlanta.

The Knicks gave Tim Jr. a four-year, $71-million contract last summer, which means he will make more over the course of this deal than his father did in 14 seasons in the NBA. The size of the contract is a large bone of contention with some Knicks fans, who like to harp on the fact that Hardaway shot below 32 percent from three-point range.

Still, Tim Jr. averaged a career-high 17.5 points last season, taking on a bigger portion of the scoring load after Kristaps Porzingis went down with a knee injury in February. With Porzingis out until the midpoint of the 2018-19 season or more, the Knicks want Hardaway, 26, to take on a prominent role working with younger players on the team.

Tim Jr. flew to summer league to watch the team and shoot with undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier. He has had Knicks teammate Emmanuel Mudiay come down to Miami to work out with him and has plans to bring down Frank Ntilikina.

“We expect him to be a leader on and off the court,” said Mills, who re-signed Tim Jr. shortly after Phil Jackson was fired last summer. “He has that competitive fire in him and we expect he’s going to help bring the young guys along.”

Tim Sr. thinks it’s a perfect role for his son.

“I think he can be a leader on that team and I think he can help hold everybody accountable every night,” Tim Sr. said. “We are different players, but we are both very competitive. He does not like to lose.”