Remembering Tracy McGrady’s career
The Tracy McGrady Story covers a lot of ground: limitless potential and unmet potential, complete self-assuredness and postseason shortcomings, eye-popping highlights and career-altering injuries, naps and private jets.
The NBA chapter of this book ended Monday, when McGrady announced his retirement from the league that he entered straight out of high school as a scrawny 18-year-old.
“Thank all of you who have supported me over 16 NBA seasons, seven All-Stars, and countless exciting moments,” McGrady wrote on Twitter. “Retiring from NBA. Stay tuned.”
McGrady, 34, exits with career averages of 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 16 seasons with the Raptors, Magic, Rockets, Knicks, Pistons, Hawks and Spurs. Those are fine numbers, but they badly undersell McGrady’s peak impact. McGrady made seven All-NBA teams from 2001-08. In four seasons with the Magic from 2001-04, he averaged 28.1 points, seven rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals, and he led the league in Player Efficiency Rating in ’02-03. Remember, his Magic tenure spanned his age-21 to age-24 seasons.
There’s really no neat way to pull together McGrady’s tenure, which began during Michael Jordan’s sixth title season and ended with LeBron James’ second. With that in mind, here’s a deep survey of McGrady’s journey with an assist to the Sports Illustrated vault.
McGrady spent three seasons in Toronto after being selected ninth in the 1997 draft out of North Carolina’s Mount Zion Christian Academy. He struggled with his adjustment to NBA life and the Canadian climate, and he started just 53 games combined in three years.
As Isiah Thomas and other Raptors officials prepared for last June’s draft, they were certain their choice (at No. 9) would be French-born Olivier Saint-Jean of San Jose State. Instead, to Thomas’s surprise, Tracy McGrady, the phenom out of Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., was still on the board. Thomas is even happier than he was on draft night: In preseason McGrady, 18, showed flashes of brilliance that have the Raptors convinced he’ll beat their ’96 top choice, Marcus Camby, to the All-Star Game.
The Raptors were correct, but cruelly so. McGrady made his first All-Star Game in 2001, the first year after he left Toronto. Camby, now 39, never earned an All-Star nod; he signed with the Rockets last month after the Raptors bought out his contract following his acquisition from the Knicks.
Tracy McGrady, now a Toronto Raptors rookie guard-forward, is almost always alone. He says that he used to have an entourage, but the guy had to go back to cosmetology school in Florida. So day after day McGrady sits by himself in a lavish, prefurnished three-bedroom, three-bathroom, three-TV apartment in Toronto that overlooks Lake Ontario and once belonged to Blue Jays pitcher Juan Guzman. McGrady lives like a shut-in. When he’s at his apartment—which he is virtually all the time when the Raptors aren’t on the road—McGrady folds himself into his couch and studies grainy videotapes of Magic Johnson running the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense during the Showtime era or plays video games or watches college hoops and wonders what might have been. McGrady doesn’t read newspapers, and his huge apartment contains one book, Spencer Johnson’s inspirational tome The Precious Present.
McGrady is wistfully indulging in a teenage fantasy. He makes countless long-distance calls, and there are no parents or siblings around screeching at him to get off the phone. His beeper blares so ceaselessly that his November cellular-phone bill reached nearly $1,500.
On Nov. 18 [Isiah] Thomas told the Toronto players that he might soon leave the organization if his plans to acquire a majority ownership share in the Raptors fell through. Thomas concluded his remarks by turning to his youngest player and saying, “Tracy McGrady, welcome to the NBA.” Two days later, Thomas resigned. “When I heard the news, it really hurt me because Isiah was like a father figure,” McGrady says. “I felt lost, like everybody else was in a boat and I was drowning out in the water somewhere.”
Just four days after Thomas’s departure, forward Popeye Jones greeted McGrady in the Raptors locker room and told him, “Get your stuff, T-Mac. We’re about to be traded to Philadelphia.” Toronto and Philadelphia newspapers were reporting rumors of a deal that would send Jones and McGrady to the 76ers for guard Jerry Stackhouse and forward Clarence Weatherspoon. The trade never came off (on Dec. 18, Stackhouse was shipped to the Detroit Pistons), but McGrady was disillusioned again, especially when he realized Thomas had initiated the talks. “You think you’re playing for a solid organization and think you’ve put down roots. Then suddenly you feel like you’re not needed.”
Says [Raptors forward Walk] Williams, “In two months Tracy’s gone from 18 years old to around 26. He’s learned that there are no mommies around here. Nobody is going to hold his hand.”
At a family reunion in Atlanta in July 1997, McGrady, who had just graduated from Mount Zion Academy in Durham, N.C., was approached by a woman wanting to talk hoops. She asked him whether he knew her grandson, Vince Carter. McGrady said sure, sometimes they played pickup games at North Carolina, where Carter had finished his sophomore year. In fact, whenever McGrady needed a place to store his gear, Carter would let him use his locker. Carter’s grandmother explained that her father-in-law is the brother of McGrady’s grandmother, making Tracy and Vince second cousins once removed … sort of. It turns out that the relative of Vince in question is his step-great-grandfather, which means the two players aren’t really kin. Such genealogical technicalities will be forever lost on them, though. Upon hearing of the distant connection, McGrady says, “I started freakin’ out. I couldn’t wait to tell Vince that we were related.”
Carter and McGrady stayed in contact through a year that placed them at vastly different coordinates. Carter was among the best college players in the country in 1997-98, while McGrady made a seismic leap, directly from Mount Zion to the pros. Drafted by Toronto with the ninth pick, he had a rookie year he describes tersely as “hell.” Flashes of brilliance were leavened by extended stays in coach Darrell Walker’s doghouse. McGrady was a frustrated, lonely teenager in a strange city, racking up huge phone bills and sleeping as much as 20 hours a day. “Basically,” he says, “I was just in a funk.”
The clouds parted when Carter—again, think impatience—left Chapel Hill after his junior year to turn pro and, following a draft-day swap with the Golden State Warriors for his college teammate Antawn Jamison and some $250,000, ended up in Toronto. NBA players often import their friends and family to lend familiarity to an alien situation; suddenly, Carter and McGrady had a built-in support system. They realized that, in addition to family ties, they shared similar tastes in food (fried chicken and pork chops), music (R&B, rap and hip-hop) and, not least, video games (Madden NFL). Soon they became inseparable, each as likely to be in the other’s apartment as his own. Teammates tell of Carter and McGrady sitting at opposite ends of the team bus and speaking to each other on their cell phones. “They say they’re cousins,” says guard Dee Brown. “But Siamese twins is more like it.”
The McGrady/Carter combination, which helped the Raptors to their first postseason in franchise history, in 2000, will endure for generations thanks to their memorable performances at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, judged by The Point Forward as the second-best contest of all time. Carter’s victory gets the headlines, but McGrady’s athleticism and power were absolutely off the charts.
It would prove to be a fleeting partnership.
As recently as last week, sources close to him said hell bolt the Raptors when he becomes a free agent this summer. Toronto vice president and general manager Glen Grunwald refuses to believe it until it happens. “I’ve heard all the rumors that he’s leaving, but I haven’t heard that from Tracy,” Grunwald says. “We had very frank discussions with him before the [Feb. 24] trading deadline. We told him, ‘Tracy, we’d love you to stay. You’re our first choice. But if you don’t want to stay, then we need to talk about where we can trade you that will make us both happy.’ He said no to that. He’s never told us he doesn’t want to be here.”
Then again, Shaquille O’Neal never told the Magic he was leaving in the summer of 1996, but once the Lakers feverishly cleared salary cap room to accommodate him, he took a hike. Stephon Marbury didn’t let the Timberwolves know he wanted out, either—until a week before last year’s trading deadline, when he demanded to be sent to the Nets. Young stars often have a hard time telling the only team they’ve been on that they want to make a break, and the team often deludes itself into thinking it can find a way to make the relationship last.
McGrady is deeply loyal to his agent, Arn Tellem, and to Adidas, which signed him to a $12 million endorsement deal. Both Tellem and Adidas want him to play in the U.S. to enhance his marketing potential. “I’m sure they have their agendas, but Tracy has assured us hell make his own decision,” Grunwald says.
McGrady’s decision amounted to ditching the Raptors to head back to his home state of Florida, as he received a six-year, $67.5 million max contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal between Toronto and Orlando. He wasted no time with the Magic getting acclimated with the role of franchise player, and all the luxury and glory that come with it.
The Magic has made so much progress in the past two weeks that it’s getting ahead of itself. One week after five-time All-Star Grant Hill announced he would sign with Orlando for a reported $67.5 million over six years, the maximum allowable, forward Tracy McGrady declared his intention to sign a similar deal with the Magic. McGrady, 21, a Florida native, said he was happy because “not too many superstars get a chance to play at home.” That statement requires a 20-second timeout. McGrady, who averaged 15.4 points for the Raptors last season, may have been one of the coveted prizes in this year’s free-agent sweepstakes, but he isn’t a superstar yet. It would be just as premature to consider Orlando a championship-caliber team.
Payne Stewart’s old house belongs to a 21-year-old Orlando Magic swingman who has never gone to college, never made an NBA All-Star team, never won a playoff game, never even been in a starting lineup for an entire season. He grew up in a three-bedroom house with his mother and grandmother just 40 minutes southwest of Orlando, in Auburndale, Fla. Only four years ago, as a junior at Auburndale High, he was suspended from the basketball team for mouthing off to a teacher.
“It’s blind faith,” concedes coach Doc Rivers of the Magic’s decision last summer to pay the 6’8″, 210-pound McGrady $93 million over seven years. “If he begins to meet his potential in a year or two, we can be a great basketball team. We think he can be a scoring version of Scottie Pippen—and Scottie is a pretty good scorer.”
“You can argue that we’re the only team doing well with only one All-Star,” says Orlando coach Doc Rivers. “Then you look at him—at age 21 he’s carrying the burden for the sixth-youngest team in the league.” Being young and supremely talented is not as easy as McGrady makes it look, Rivers adds: “His body is still maturing. That’s why he sleeps so much. You turn off the lights for a film session, and he’s out.”
Almost overnight the Big Sleep (as his teammates call McGrady) has emerged as “one of the top five talents in the league,” according to Bucks general manager Ernie Grunfeld. After serving as a complement to Vince Carter for the last two years with the Raptors, McGrady seemed destined to play a similar role for Hill this season. “I thought he was going to be like Scottie Pippen,” says Rivers. “But Tracy scores too much. I don’t try to compare him to somebody now.”
Although McGrady’s individual play was breathtaking, the Magic never delivered on their potential because Grant Hill played a total of only 47 games over McGrady’s four years in Orlando.
Because McGrady and Grant Hill take up roughly half of Orlando’s cap space, the team doesn’t have the flexibility to acquire a major inside player. McGrady knows that the Magic’s prospects hinge on Hill’s left ankle, which has been operated on three times over the last three seasons—and, according to McGrady, will probably soon go under the knife a fourth time. Last week G.M. John Gabriel said that Hill will rest his ankle for at least another month, after which doctors may perform “minor” surgery to alleviate what they believe is tendinitis.
“I don’t know how Grant can come back,” McGrady says. “But he’s fighting, and I’m not giving up on him. I know a lot of people who would have hung it up already if they were in his position.”
The only benefit of Hill’s absence is that it has accelerated McGrady’s development. “He reminds me of a young Julius Erving in a lot of ways—his length, his athleticism,” says 76ers coach Larry Brown, who will coach McGrady on the Olympic team over the next two summers. “There’s nothing he can’t do.” With a league-leading 30.4 points per game, T-Mac is on his way to becoming the youngest player to average 30 points since Bob McAdoo in 1974-75. “It’s not what I want to do,” he says of his increased offensive output, “but I feel like I’ve got to score a lot for my team to be in games.”
McGrady is not much for false modesty. He knows how good he’s been this season and made his MVP choice clear. “KG has another All-Star, Wally Szczerbiak,” McGrady said before Game 1. “Tim [Duncan] and Kobe are dominant players on dominant teams—they could win it every year. But with what I accomplished individually and for my team, I think I deserve it.”
McGrady never garnered that recognition, but he did make the All-NBA first team in 2002 and ’03. Before the Magic won a single playoff series in the McGrady era, he was traded to the Rockets in 2004 on the heels of a 21-61 season that saw the firing of coach Doc Rivers and reports of friction between McGrady and new GM John Weisbrod. McGrady, now 25, was packaged with Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue and Reece Gaines for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato.
Shortly after his arrival with the Rockets, McGrady signed a three-year, $63 million contract extension that would carry him through the 2009-10 season. All told, McGrady was looking at more than $109 million worth of salary over the next six years when he first took the court in Houston. Although he made the All-Star team in each of his first three seasons with the Rockets, back and knee injuries began to limit his effectiveness, and by the end of his lengthy deal, McGrady’s expiring contract held more value as a trade chip than he did as a player.
Houston’s other cornerstone player, Yao Ming, also was in and out of the lineup with injuries, and the Rockets were able to secure just one playoff-series victory during McGrady’s five-plus years in town. Of course, that came in 2009, when McGrady was sidelined with a season-ending knee surgery.
If Tracy McGrady had any second thoughts about leaving Orlando, they vanished when he heard Magic G.M. John Weisbrod say he was not his type of player. “It shows you the difference between the two organizations,” says McGrady, whose threat to opt out of his contract next summer led to Houston’s acquiring him for Steve Francis in a seven-player trade. “I’m sure the Rockets had some dirt on Steve when he left here, but what did they say about him? Nothing but good things. They were professional.”
He presses OFF, and another call comes in. “It’s here? All right! What exit?”
He puts down his phone and says, “This is going to blow your mind.” But he’s talking to himself.
Five minutes later he emerges from the BMW and stretches in the bright sun. His usually unhurried walk is suddenly brisk. He enters the commuter airport terminal, passes a few surprised businessmen, and there, glistening on the tarmac, is a white Falcon 2000 with T1 MAC painted on the side. This is the first time he has seen his new jet. He stands for a moment on the runway, taking it in, shaking his head. He bounds up the stairs. The interior is champagne and cream; the walnut trim is buffed to an almost metallic sheen. He is greeted by his business manager, Gustavson Bass, who points McGrady to the VIP seat–the first seat on the right side of the cabin–and shows him the armrest controls for the sound system, DVD player and air conditioner.
The 6’8″ McGrady sits down, sinking into the soft leather. He smiles and looks out the porthole.
“We’re actually saving money by having this plane,” Bass explains. “With the depreciation schedule and being able to lease it out, this will pay for itself.”
McGrady isn’t listening. He is already out of his seat and down the gangway. At the bottom of the stairs he turns around and takes in the plane once more. Then he is gone.
“I’m the first one,” he says, back in the car. “No NBA player ever had his own jet.”
Won’t this set off a frenzied plane-buying competition among elite players?
“All right,” he says with a laugh. “Let them bring it.”
Though they arrived more quietly than Dallas, the Rockets came into the series with their own head of steam, buoyed by seven straight wins to end the season and fortified by a supporting cast that has McGrady smiling. In the ongoing game of completing the phrase The Best Player Never to Have …, McGrady is at the moment The Best Player Never to Have Taken a Team Past the First Round. He almost did it two years ago in Orlando, when his Magic had the Detroit Pistons down 3–1. Then he opened his mouth and said, essentially, that the series was over. The Pistons used his words as bulletin-board material and won three straight. “Hey, I was young then,” says McGrady, now 25 and in his eighth year in the league. “I didn’t know any better.”
Indeed, there is no player quite like McGrady, who is listed as a small forward but who is, in reality, a blend of shooting guard (he comes off picks for jumpers as well as anyone in the league) and point guard (the offense usually runs through him). [Jeff] Van Gundy, who finds flaws in a rainbow, gloomily ticked off the reasons the Rockets should have lost Game 1 (they attempted 22 fewer free throws than the Mavs, were outrebounded 44–39, etc.) and boiled the outcome down to this: “I’m not sure we win if Tracy doesn’t hit three home runs that were, like, miraculous.” One of T-Mac’s treys was, like, otherworldly. With the shot clock running down during a third-quarter possession, he launched an outlandish fallaway jumper from about 25 feet and began backpedaling downcourt even before it went in.
Yet the mention of T-Mac always comes with an asterisk designating a dearth of toughness. “Toughness is one of those nebulous words,” says Van Gundy. “Toughness is being able to concentrate enough to carry out a game plan. Toughness is the ability to execute a play under duress, having a poise about you, making shots late in the game. That’s mental toughness, and Tracy has that. Taking on guys, beating a double team by yourself. Guarding tough players, like Nowitzki. That’s physical toughness, and Tracy has that, too. To say he doesn’t have toughness is ridiculous.”
The Rockets’ run has been fueled by the player with the most to prove: Tracy McGrady, 28, the ubertalented small forward with seven All-Star selections, two first-team All-NBA honors … and zero playoff series wins to his credit. The same McGrady who in 2003 as a member of the Orlando Magic openly talked about the second round while his team led the Detroit Pistons three games to one, only to see the Magic blow the series. The same McGrady who last season told the world to put Houston’s playoff chances “on him,” then couldn’t prevent a loss to the Utah Jazz. (He shed tears of frustration during his press conference after Game 7.)
“I haven’t had this kind of trust in my teammates before,” says McGrady. Sitting in front of his locker following Sunday’s win, his voice begins to lower. “I’m a pretty damn good player, but I can’t do it by myself.”
“This is the first time I’ve felt going into a season that something really special is going to come out of it if we put everything together and understand our roles,” McGrady said at the start of training camp. “There’s a God that sent help. I’ve been waiting for this [chance] for a while.”
If Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had been playing this season out on a PlayStation 3 console, the restart button would have gotten a pretty good workout. Forward Shane Battier suffers a foot injury? Click. Never happened. Forward Ron Artest rolls an ankle? Click. Swingman Tracy McGrady aggravates lingering knee and shoulder injuries? Click. Click. Unfortunately life rarely imitates electronics. Battier, Artest and McGrady had missed a combined 59 games at week’s end, forcing coach Rick Adelman to use 16 different starting lineups. “It’s made this season a bit of a roller coaster,” says Morey.
But there have been signs that the ride is leveling off. After McGrady’s season ended on Feb. 9 (he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee two weeks later), Houston had gone 8–1 at week’s end, including victories over the Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Cavaliers, and had run its record to 38–22, fourth best in the Western Conference.
The Rockets had a great postseason run—without their best player, Tracy McGrady, who has an injured knee. That led to talk by the press and fans that Houston was better off without him. “In the past when I was out, you really never heard that,” McGrady told me. “Are they better without me? I don’t think so. You ask those guys on that team, they’d say the same thing.” I asked who the press in Houston has been tougher on, him or Roger Clemens. “This year,” McGrady said, “I have to say it’s me.”
Daryl Morey has a $22.5 million asset to peddle, which is why the Rockets’ general manager pulled his entire staff of basketball analysts and scouts off the road and into a conference room in Houston last week. For two days the 10 studied video of players—and it’s a large number of players—they might acquire before the Feb. 18 trade deadline for the mammoth expiring contract of guard Tracy McGrady. In the salary-cap-driven NBA, any deal that frees up future payroll holds appeal, even if it belongs to an All-Star-in-decline who has played just 45 minutes this season. But it’s especially so this year, given this summer’s attractive free-agent class.
“There’s been significant interest,” acknowledges Morey, an Executive of the Year candidate who has kept the Rockets in playoff contention despite seasonlong injuries to McGrady, who has had left-knee surgery in each of the last two seasons, and center Yao Ming, who has a broken bone in his left foot. “We have a good sense of who’s trying to do what, the major players who may be involved from each team, the deals teams would do with us and the deals we would be willing to do with them. But right now they’re all fairly far apart.”
There’s the rub. In Morey’s eyes a contract like McGrady’s is more valuable than ever, as many teams are dying to clear salary-cap space so they can throw big money this summer at the long-anticipated free-agent class of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson.
If there is a how-to book to be written about deadline dealing, Rockets G.M. Daryl Morey should get his own chapter. He swapped Tracy McGrady’s $22.5 million expiring contract (and backup forward Carl Landry) for a 20-points-per-game scorer (Kings guard Kevin Martin), a promising power forward (rookie Jordan Hill of the Knicks) and a first-round draft pick. And he did it while cutting enough payroll to get Houston below the luxury-tax threshold. “You knew they were going to get something good [for McGrady],” says a Western Conference executive. “But I don’t think they could do much better than this.”
McGrady spent the next four seasons bouncing around from New York to Detroit to Atlanta in reserve roles, and he ultimately decided to play in China for the 2012-13 season.
Injuries and age had taken their toll by this point. McGrady averaged just 5.3 points in 52 games with the Hawks in 2011-12.
Somewhat remarkably, McGrady, the man always known for his weak postseason record, came within 5.2 seconds of winning a championship ring in June, as he latched on with the Spurs just before the playoffs. Although he played only 31 minutes total in the postseason, he still generated media interest, particularly at the Finals.
There, he spoke openly and hinted at the possibility of retirement, but the brash confidence he carried throughout his career was still evident. Asked if he would be ready to play if called upon by coach Gregg Popovich, McGrady responded: “Is pig p—y pork?”
What’s next? It’s possible that McGrady continues his playing career overseas, and he appears to be a surefire Hall of Famer, although it could take more than one ballot.