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Penny healthy for Orlando return

The O-rena figures to buzz again when exiled former star plays as a visitor for the first time.

He was booed before he even arrived. He was loved and hated while he was here. And he was cast off with hardly anyone shedding a tear.

Penny Hardaway had an uneasy stay in Orlando, and his first return tonight since being traded to Phoenix figures to be no different.

"He was sort of like Muhammad Ali when he was here. Some people loved him and some people didn't," Magic vice president Julius Erving said. "I think he'll be greeted with mixed emotions. He's got to face the music and I'm sure he wants to get it over and done with."

Hardaway's return with the Suns figures to be Orlando's most anticipated regular-season game since Feb. 22, 1998, when Shaquille O'Neal played against the Magic at Orlando Arena after signing with the Los Angeles Lakers in July 1996.

The Magic (20-25) is struggling, yet Hardaway's visit is expected to produce one of the team's largest crowds this season. Nick Anderson, one of four Orlando starters traded from last season's team, came back to cheers Nov. 30, but he and his Sacramento Kings didn't pack the O-rena.

"It's going to be weird to see him in a different uniform," forward Derek Strong said. "It's going to be really weird trying to guard him and stop him from scoring."

Hardaway, booed by Magic fans on draft day when Orlando traded to get him, returns to the only other city in which he has played, one that trumpeted him as the league's next Michael Jordan and later cast him as an overpaid, underachieving, injury-prone talent who couldn't carry a team to the title.

The fans loved him when he was brilliant. He, along with O'Neal, led the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals, where Orlando was swept 4-0 by Houston. That season, Hardaway missed just five games and averaged 20.9 points. The next season, he played every game, averaging 21.7 points, and Orlando nearly went back to the title series, losing to Chicago in the Eastern Conference final.

But O'Neal bolted after that season and responsibility for the team's fortunes fell solely on Hardaway. He never delivered like before, leading Orlando to two playoff appearances, both ending in the first round. He regularly had knee problems and missed 63 of 82 games during the 1997-98 season.

He soon fell out of favor with fans, who believed he orchestrated the firing of coach Brian Hill three years ago. They later grew tired of Hardaway's finger-pointing and his recurring knee problems.

By the time he was traded to the Suns this past off-season, most folks in Orlando were glad to see him go.

"It's what comes with the territory. It's what comes with being a superstar," Erving said. "If you get superstar money, if you're hurt, you better have a cast on. No ingrown toenails or things like that. That's just the way it is."

Little has changed for Hardaway since he moved to Phoenix. He again was hailed as a savior but has battled injuries _ foot problems this time _ and played solid but not brilliant, leaving some to question his worth.

He has played in just 20 games and averaged 17 points. After missing seven weeks with the ailing foot, he scored a season-high 27 points in Phoenix's 93-87 win against Philadelphia on Wednesday.

While with the Suns, Hardaway has talked numerous times about his days in Orlando, saying he didn't get a fair shake there and that he's much better off in Phoenix, where he said he feels appreciated.

So what is it going to be like when he steps inside the O-rena tonight?

The Magic players likely will greet him warmly. Only five of them _ Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, Strong, Michael Doleac and Matt Harpring _ played with Hardaway in Orlando, and all had decent relationships with him.

The fans, though, may be another story.

"He might get booed, but I really don't think he should. When he left here, he told the fans "Thank you for everything,' " Armstrong said. "If you go and try to blame the Magic or try to blame Penny, nobody's going to win."