These are the things I will remember about Tracy McGrady: 13 points in 33 seconds. The self alley-oops in NBA All-Star Games. The absurd zippered suit jacket he wore to the dinner of Magic’s Roundball Classic. The dunk on Shawn Bradley. His incredulously repeating “Stephen Hunter” to me when I mentioned his seven-foot Orlando Magic teammate during an interview. His dunk on James Felton at 1997’s adidas ABCD Camp, which catapulted him into the public eye.
Tracy McGrady announced his retirement on ESPN’s First Take, which more or less cemented his status as the ultimate (and perhaps first) totally modern player. A virtual unknown from Florida in the summer of 1997, his dunk over Felton at ABCD Camp put him on every scout’s radar, and fast-
Tracy McGrady announced his retirement on ESPN’s First Take, which more or less cemented his status as the ultimate (and perhaps first) totally modern player.
tracked him to the NBA Lottery. It was the Lana Turner discovery story for a new generation. Five short years later, he was first team All-NBA. The following season he led the League in scoring with the highest average (32.4 PPG) since Michael Jordan’s ‘92-93 season. But it was the start of his ending.
There were the injuries, for one. McGrady’s back and foot woes dated back to even before he had to play 40 minutes a night for the Orlando Magic. And then there was the whole never-getting-out-of-the-first-round thing, which became a larger part of the McGrady narrative than even his own game. Never mind that some of the teams he played for had no business even making the playoffs, let alone advancing in them. But McGrady’s obvious talents made him a superstar, and superstars advance. Period. As the years went on, though, McGrady’s “failures” ultimately said more about us than it did about him. Calling him an “underachiever” is based on what we wanted and expected him to achieve, not what he actually did.
Make no mistake about it, Tracy McGrady was a transcendent talent whose plaque will one day hang in the Basketball Hall of Fame. There was no better guard in the NBA in the first half of the 2000s first decade, and, were McGrady and Kobe Bryant’s roles reversed, maybe there’s a different argument being made about the best guard ever.
There was no better guard in the NBA in the first half of the 2000’s first decade, and, were McGrady and Kobe Bryant’s roles reversed, maybe there’s a different argument being made about the best guard ever.
Instead, McGrady is doomed to be tagged with “he just didn’t want it bad enough,” his reality fitting neatly into the cliché. (It didn’t help that his most noted off-court ability was being able to take naps anywhere.) Never mind that maybe the game just looked easy for him, or the fact that, had he practiced as hard as Jeff Van Gundy seemed to want him to, that he may not have been able to play in the actual games. Unfortunately for McGrady, he ultimately was whatever the coaches and media said he was. This despite his winning more scoring titles than Jerry West and just as many rings as Elgin Baylor.
We’ll say it again: Tracy McGrady will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And that’s not just because every single player to lead the league in scoring even once (with the exception of Max Zaslofsky, who did so in 1947-48) who’s eligible is already in. All of the 15 retired players to accumulate 15,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists are in the Hall as well. McGrady’s best was better than most, and more extended than some. And his dominance would have lasted even longer than it did had it not been for injury. It was his body that failed him, not his mind. To put him in the almost-ran category with the likes of Antoine Walker and Steve Francis is laughable. McGrady is a lock (well, Basketball Reference has his probability at 58 percent) just like his cousin Vince Carter—maybe they’ll even go in the same year.
And when that happens, I’ll be able to say I once played with a Hall of Famer. This would have been in Orlando towards the end of 2001*, after a September 11, 2001 NYC adidas event was cancelled for obvious reasons. After an interview session, we were invited to suit up for a three-on-three game with McGrady. The players were a mix of media and adidas reps and one All-Star who never had to put it into second gear. Heck, he never had to get out of neutral. But two or three times, for a few brief seconds, he let everyone know what playing against Tracy McGrady is really like: It’s fucking terrifying. Sitting on the sidelines watching an NBA game is one thing. Standing on the three-point line and trying to get a shot up while a 22-year-old, 6-8 swingman closes out on you instantaneously is another thing entirely. He managed to fluster fellow SLAM editor Ryan Jones so badly on one close-out that he shot a three-point attempt over the backboard. McGrady also threw down one vicious dunk just because—like any of us was going to be able to do anything about it. He may as well have been a different species.
Players drafted in the ‘90s (and born in the ‘70s) are becoming an ever-more-endangered species. With McGrady’s retirement, only three active players remain from the ‘97 Draft—Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups, and Stephen Jackson. And as players who spent their entire careers being hyperbolized by sneaker companies and ESPN alike are finally, fairly assessed, hopefully the truth will win out. In the end, perhaps Tracy McGrady was a flawed superstar. But the first word of that assessment should never overshadow the second.
*This actually took place in July of 2003. I know this because I found photos (and sketchy 17-second video clips) of the game. Which means T-Mac was 24, not 22, and coming off his first scoring title. He was still fucking terrifying. I added a couple of shots from the game for your entertainment. You're all welcome.