Yes, NBA legend Penny Hardaway—more commonly known as the greatest NBA player in the history of ever; Gen Z, do your Googles—is world-renowned for his basketball prowess and coaching aptitude. But before anything else, he’s a loving father to his three children: LaTanfernee, Laila and 21-year-old Jayden.
Ever since Jayden was placed on the autism spectrum at 2 years old—he’s since tested out—autism awareness has been an important cause to the four-time NBA All-Star. So for Autism Awareness Day (April 2), the Memphis coach has partnered with Polaris Slingshot to help amplify awareness on behalf of Autism Speaks, a leading autism awareness group that promotes solutions for the needs of individuals living with autism and their families. And in speaking to The Root, Hardaway explained why it’s so important for each of us to “Light It Up Blue” to demonstrate our support, understanding and acceptance of people with autism.
“Autism and autism-related disorders are very near and dear to my heart, as we battled alongside my son after his diagnosis at the age of 2,” Hardaway said. “We worked in conjunction with his speech, occupational and behavioral therapists to help him along his path. With Jay’s hardworking demeanor, we kept pushing forward without knowing what his outcome would be, and as a result, Jayden was no longer on the autism spectrum by third grade.”
As for what made Polaris Slingshot the ideal partner to help get this message out, the Orlando Magic legend pointed to the company’s commitment to altruism.
“Slingshot is all about giving back to the community,” he said. “Autism is one of the charities that they wanted to give back to. And obviously, it’s a cause that’s near and dear to my heart because of my son, Jayden. Going to those occupational behavior and speech therapists all the time and seeing him line bottles up and do all of these different things, we knew something was wrong.”
He continued, “Jay was diagnosed with early-stage autism, so you’re fighting for your child. So when he started going to the therapists he started making huge strides. He tested out of it just a year later and now he’s valedictorian of his class, a straight-A student in college and playing on the [Memphis] basketball team, man. So when Polaris Slingshot approached me with this, it was an easy deal for me.”
Hardaway also wants people to understand that if autism is diagnosed early enough, that it’s possible that with proper therapy and intervention, your child will no longer meet the criteria for autism.
“My son would line up all the water bottles in a snake form all the time,” he said. “So when you start noticing these little patterns and things that back in the day you would’ve ignored, you need to take your children to the doctor and find out. If you wait longer maybe it’s harder, but if you see your child doing different things out of the norm then you need to take heed to that.”
He continued, “To the parents that are going through this with their children, that are still fighting the battle to try to get their kids back to normalcy, just know that God is real and miracles do happen. There are kids that do test out of the spectrum. You just have to keep fighting. They have my blessings and my prayers.”
To learn more about autism awareness or how you can support the cause, check out Autism Speaks.