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.