BY TIM REYNOLDS, Associated Press
Tim Hardaway was the first to raise his hand.
''He was so genuine,'' said Martha Fugate, the director of the YES Institute, a children's advocacy group based in South Miami which hosted that discussion. ``He gave the perfect answer.''
Seven months ago, that simply wouldn't have happened.
Hardaway would have made a joke or said something hurtful, like his infamous ''I hate gay people'' answer when a radio host asked him how he'd respond to having a gay teammate. That led to the former star point guard's banishment from NBA All-Star weekend and dealt his reputation an embarrassing blow.
Yet there he was, in a classroom with about 40 people, mostly strangers and some of them gay, talking about the importance of education and awareness -- pointing to himself as the perfect example of how attitudes can be reshaped with a little bit of knowledge.
''I just wanted to go in and get educated, that's all. Get educated on what I said and why I said those things,'' Hardaway said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. ``I'm working on understanding it now. I'm not really trying to make amends. I've been there trying to get help.''
Hardaway has declined many interview requests in recent months, saying he didn't want to make his work with advocacy groups seem like a publicity stunt or a quick-fix to an image problem.
''I had no idea how much I hurt people,'' said Hardaway, who spent most of his NBA career with the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat, and still makes his home in South Florida. ``A lot of people.''
In the weeks that followed his Feb. 14 comments, stories circled that Hardaway's home was in foreclosure (he denies it) and that a car wash he owned was unable to pay its bills (he denies that, too).
Neighbors even asked about rumors that his wife and children were leaving him, which never happened.
For Hardaway, it was all a few weeks of ``hell.''
''I've always told my family, there's going to be bumps in the road,'' Hardaway said. ``And I caused a huge bump, the biggest bump in my life. But I'm going to do whatever I can to correct it. That's all I can do. So that's where I am.''
That process began in earnest when he learned of the institute, which has classes and programs designed to raise awareness on issues facing ``gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and all youth.''
The group, founded in 1996, seeks to prevent teen suicides while boosting the self-esteem of children and keeping them free of violence and discrimination.
''I was scared out of my ... mind,'' Hardaway said of his first visit. ``I didn't know how they were going to act toward me. But you know what? They welcomed me with open arms. That eased a lot of my nervousness.''
So he went back a second time, then a third, then a fourth.
And that early apprehension is now gone. His photo appears on the group's Web site, smiling alongside some members of the institute's staff.
''We were surprised how real our relationship with Tim got,'' Fugate said.
He's now considered a friend there, and his presence is so valued that Fugate released a letter earlier this month touting the work Hardaway has done.
''Thanks to his honest albeit misguided reaction, Tim did find his way to YES Institute and the education he got was not just about others, but about himself,'' Fugate wrote. ``Because he is a role model, perhaps other people will also learn -- hopefully before bad consequences happen to them.''
NBA commissioner David Stern met with Hardaway about a week after asking him to leave the league's All-Star festivities. He is aware of the changes Hardaway is trying to make.
''We appreciate Tim's efforts at education and promoting understanding,'' Stern said Thursday.
Hardaway wants to get back into the NBA some day as a coach or personnel director, yet readily acknowledges that he did those plans a major disservice with his comments.
Over time, he hopes that'll change.
''I have taken steps and I'm happy that I did,'' Hardaway said. ``If I didn't, I'd still be naive about it, ignorant about the whole thing. But I can talk about it now. I'm a polite person. That's how I am.''