Always have a great time with my big little brother. pic.twitter.com/r9NOgFd7mQ
— Tracy McGrady (@Real_T_Mac) October 28, 2014
If you believe in such a concept as being so overrated that something becomes underrated, Tracy McGrady might well be the epitome. McGrady was a seven-time All-Star, led the league in scoring twice and had the 25th-highest scoring average in NBA history, but he still drew frequent criticism for his teams’ inability to reach their highest potential.
Part of it was that his teams — except for McGrady — were rarely particularly talented. But past that, it was his sleepy-eyed appearance and casual demeanor that led people to question his toughness. His nickname was “The Big Sleep,” referring to his ability and propensity to fall asleep on a dime, primarily due to his heavy workload and responsibility on his various teams. Ironically, that was one of the things that made him great: T-Mac could drop 40 — or 50 — on you while making it look easy, and he had zero problem stepping up to take high-profile shots.
“Toughness is one of those nebulous words,” Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy once told Sports Illustrated. “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 (Dirk) Nowitzki. That’s physical toughness, and Tracy has that, too. To say he doesn’t have toughness is ridiculous.”
Raised primarily by his grandmother, McGrady lacked structure in his home life, and he attracted little attention at Auburndale High School despite averaging more than 23 points and 12 rebounds as a junior. Without the requisite grades to play Division 1 ball and with some notable disciplinary issues under his belt, McGrady’s basketball future was in jeopardy. A coach of a neighboring high school recommended to Joel Hopkins, then the coach of Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., that he look into McGrady, which was the genesis of a remarkable rise in status and stature.
Before he arrived in Durham, McGrady dominated the ABCD Camp the way LeBron James would several years later. That prefaced his tour de force at Mount Zion, during which he averaged more than 27 points per game while living in a house with his coach, the coach’s wife and the other players on the team. More importantly than basketball fundamentals, the experience taught him much-needed discipline; Mount Zion was run with the regimen of a military academy, complete with early-morning wake-up calls for workouts.
Wanting to provide for his family, McGrady went pro and was selected No. 7 by the Toronto Raptors in the 1997 NBA Draft in which Tim Duncan was selected first. While living in relative isolation in chilly Toronto, McGrady started just 19 combined games in his first two seasons, showing flashes of greatness, but accomplishing nothing substantive. In his third season, McGrady became a more relevant part of his team’s plan, starting 34 games and averaging 15.4 points while teaming with distant cousin and close friend Vince Carter. In what would be a harbinger for T-Mac, the Raptors were eliminated in the first round by the Knicks.
Eager to break out on his own without Carter — and without playing-time restrictions — McGrady left Toronto after three seasons for the Magic, who signed him to a multi-year contract to be a cornerstone of the team. He was joined in his home state by Grant Hill, as the two hoped to combine for a new-era Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen tandem.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to T-Mac on his way to NBA immortality didn’t actually happen to him. Hill’s ankle, abused during his final postseason run with the Pistons, made him basically a non-factor with Orlando. Left to carry the load, McGrady saw his scoring average soar nearly nine points per game his first season, and he would lead the NBA in scoring in both 2002-03 and 2003-04. But despite that, the Magic lost in the first round in his first three seasons on the team, and then finished with the worst record in the East in 2004.
McGrady demanded a trade to the Rockets, where he joined All-Star center Yao Ming as one of the most decorated inside-outside duos in the league. McGrady kept up his excellent play — a 13-point outburst in the final 35 seconds to beat the Spurs in 2004 was perhaps the zenith — but his reputation took a hit as a result of a Sports Illustrated profile that painted him in a poor light, portraying him fairly or not as someone consumed in material possessions, such as his infamous private jet.
McGrady continued his ascent to superstardom in Houston, representing both Adidas and Pepsi while making the All-Star team his first three seasons, but was again cursed by injuries to a teammate, as Ming’s feet were unable to hold up under his enormous frame. After several more first-round exits, McGrady’s own body started to give out after years of shouldering a heavy load. T-Mac experienced back and knee problems, eventually succumbing to microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2009. In a touch of bitter irony, the Rockets finally made the second round with McGrady on the roster, though his season had ended.
Not yet 30, McGrady was never the same. He bounced around to the Knicks, then the Pistons and Hawks, before landing in China with the Qingdao Eagles. McGrady averaged a robust 25 points, but his team finished in last place.
Incredibly, McGrady returned to the NBA right before the playoffs, signing with the NBA Finals-bound Spurs, giving him a legitimate shot to win a championship. T-Mac played in six games, scoring zero points — and San Antonio fell just short of beating the Heat.
McGrady then retired, though in an incredible twist, he played Minor League baseball for the Independent League Sugar Land Skeeters in 2014. He started four games, recording a 6.75 ERA — not all that bad for an ex-NBA All-Star. He recorded his first career strikeout in the Atlantic League All-Star Game, then retired from that sport. He has donated his time to several start-up companies, as well as some notable charitable pursuits, including support for Darfur refugee camps.
Long compared to George Gervin in terms of his game, McGrady also had in common with the Iceman that neither won a championship despite robust statistics. McGrady was caught up in a mid-00’s divide between fans and players fueled by skyrocketing contracts and incidents such as the infamous “Malice at the Palace,” and the SI profile did him no favors.
But McGrady was also rarely in a position in which he had the supporting cast that would allow him to truly thrive. That was in part his own doing, and he knew it, citing that first Raptors team with Carter as his best shot to win a title.
“In hindsight, looking back, obviously I wish I had stayed in Toronto,” McGrady said recently. “There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often. But if ‘if’ was a fifth, you know?”
When it came down to it, though his absolute prime was too short, T-Mac had otherworldly talents, played at a Hall of Fame level for a period of years and seemed a much better guy than people gave him credit for. It’s a shame he was unable to reach the highest level his skills dictated he should have.
But all things considered, McGrady did pretty darn good for a kid who might have never gotten out of Auburndale, Fla., at all.