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The T-Mac In Winter

Apr 17, 2013, 7:09 PM EDT

File photo of Tracy McGrady of the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles driving the ball to the basket next to a U.S. All-Star team player during their basketball match in Qingdao Reuters

SAN ANTONIO — Tracy McGrady is a shockingly young man. He will not turn 34 until May. He’s younger than, among others, Adrian Beltre, Tom Brady, Bradley Cooper and Kate Hudson. He’s too young to be President (not that this seems an especially viable career option) and he’s younger than all but one of the Backstreet Boys.

Still, everything about Tracy McGrady screams oldness.  I think this is probably because he was drafted by Toronto right out of high school, so we have known him for a long, long time. His started in the NBA in 1997 – that year he was teammates with Tim Kempton, who was once teammates with Cedric Maxwell, who was once teammates with John Havlicek who was once teammates with Bob Cousy. When you can be connected to Bob Cousy through only three teammates, you have been around a while.

Also, athletes – and particularly brilliant young athletes like McGrady – age differently from the rest. There was a time when Tracy McGrady seemed limitless. He could absolutely fly – who could forget the time he dunked over 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley (“He just sucked the gravity right out of the building!”). He was an unstoppable scorer, twice leading the league in points-per-game (since 2000, his 32.1 points per game in 2002-03 is third behind Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson in 2005-06). T-Mac was a breathtaking player who could do ridiculous superhero things.

Now, well, he can’t. He knows that. He’s still amazing when you compare him to, say, the best basketball player you know. But he’s not THAT player, not even close to THAT player – he’s aged, he’s been hurt, he’s grown tired, he hasn’t been an NBA regular in a long while. This season, he played his basketball in China. When asked how the basketball is played there, he breathed the deep sigh of a man who has seen pretty much everything. “Physical, man,” he said. “Physical.”

McGrady was at the San Antonio Spurs shoot-around Wednesday, working out for the first time for his new team. Nobody – not coach Gregg Popovich, not the Spurs players, not even McGrady himself – has any expectations about this relationship. He’s a wildcard. He might work his way into a certain role — maybe as an emergency point guard. He might play in certain situations like when the Spurs need an energy burst. He might not play at all. The Spurs signed him because Stephen Jackson was cut and they figured, hey, why not? Maybe the Spurs remember when he scored 13 points in the final 35 seconds to lead the Yao Ming Rockets to a shocking win over San Antonio in 2004.

“I don’t know if they remember that … I do know my Asian fans remember that,” McGrady says. “Every year, they have like a day to remember it.” Everybody laughs, but McGrady doesn’t. “I’m serious. They do.”

Wednesday, McGrady goes through a basic workout – lots of weaving, a few shots off screens, some basic education on the Spurs Way. There’s no way to catch him up on nearly everything the Spurs do, not this late in the season, but there’s also no reason for that. McGrady knows how to play basketball. He is a seven-time All-Star, and this is his eighth pro team if you include the Qingdao Eagles in China. Whatever the Spurs need from him, sure, he will find his way.

What is striking is how much the workout takes out of him. He admits that he got back from China two months ago, and he spent the bulk of those two months playing with his kids and sitting on the couch. All around him, Spurs players run around and barely sweat. But after a few sprints, McGrady breathes heavy. After a few more, his shot begins to fall off the front rim. He talks to the basketball (“C’mon girl, get in there!”).

If there is a knock on McGrady’s great career, it is that his teams never once won a playoff series. It is a sensitive point with him (“I can’t do it myself,” he says softly). He know that here in San Antonio, at the end, after he thought his NBA days were over, he gets a chance to be part of one of the best teams in the league. He gets to play with Hall of Famers and a Hall of Fame coach. Sure, he would like to taste victory, even as a role player, even if he never gets off the bench.

So, he’s pumped up about it. He works through the rust and the pain. The Spurs coaches put him in a baseline drill … basically, he is to set a screen, then sprint full speed to the corner, catch the ball and drain a three-point shot. The drill will go on until he makes three three-pointers.

And so, McGrady takes a step, a skip, runs into the drill. He sets the screen, sprints to the right corner, catches, fires, swishes the shot.

“Great shot,” the assistant coach yells. “Go!”

And Tracy McGrady runs out again, sets another screen and sprints full speed to the other corner, catches the ball and shoots the three. This one too, swishes.

Before the coach can say another word, he’s in motion again, back to the screen spot, a pause, and then all out to the corner, he catches, he jumps, and he fades away from the basket as he lets it go. This one swishes as well. Three shots, three swishes, just like old times.

“Terrific Tracy,” the coach yells. “Great job. Go shoot some free throws.”

Tracy McGrady smiles a little bit. He still can put the ball in the basket. Then he bends over, grabs his shorts, inhales and exhales and holds on for dear life.

  1. 4thquartermagic - Apr 17, 2013 at 7:10 PM

    If he could’ve stayed healthy, dude would’ve been one of the greats. Too bad.

  2. shuttaman1990 - Apr 17, 2013 at 7:38 PM

    About to turn 34, but he can’t play like Kobe?
    What a lame, Lakers will make sure he remains a first round virgin!
    He ain’t built like a shooting gawd, more like a shooting FRAUD!

    • asimonetti88 - Apr 17, 2013 at 9:59 PM

      I’m a diehard Lakers fan, and you make even me dislike Lakers fans.

    • andrewproughcfe - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:38 AM

      / \

  3. Rich Peters - Apr 17, 2013 at 7:53 PM

    Reblogged this on Higher Ground.

  4. dewangibson - Apr 17, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    Great piece. Nice to see PBT mix it up a bit and include long-form writing.

    • asimonetti88 - Apr 17, 2013 at 10:00 PM

      Joe’s a great writer, he was a big coup for NBC Sports, even if he focuses a lot of baseball.

      • louhudson23 - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:49 AM

        “Joe’s a great writer, he was a big coup for NBC Sports, even if he focuses a lot of baseball.” Should read BECAUSE he focuses a lot on baseball….

      • asimonetti88 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:25 AM

        Yes, you’re right. I was on the phone when I wrote it, wasn’t paying attention.

  5. beagle11 - Apr 17, 2013 at 8:20 PM

    This actually felt like journalism..

  6. watermelon1 - Apr 17, 2013 at 8:35 PM

    The reason he seems so old is because he was never really marketable. He never talked much as far as endorsements. Sure, he’d give the occasional post-game interview. But does anyone really remember him for anything other than basketball?

    He has those lazy eyes that just make him look like he’s super tired all the time and could fall asleep while dribbling the ball up the court.

    Dude just acts old.

    • asimonetti88 - Apr 17, 2013 at 10:51 PM

  7. itsonlyaspeedbump - Apr 17, 2013 at 9:20 PM

    Mocking old, injured guys who didnt win is considered cool, but before back problems derailed his career, this cat could flat out BALL.

    When he left Toronto and got out of Vince Carter’s shadow he became a full-grown man. One of my favorite All-Star game memories was him throwing the ball off the backboard to himself for the fierce dunk.

    It seems hysterically absurd now, but in his heyday Kobe or TMac was a legit argument. (Back then, not now. Dont lose your mind Laker fans) Who knows if everyone stayed healthy how their careers would have been viewed now. Kobe had the good fortune to play with other great players who (for the most part) stayed healthy. TMac’s best teammates were Carter, Grant Hill, and Yao Ming; all potential all time greats who were cut down by injuries.

    Im no Spurs fan, but I hope they go deep in the playoffs just so he can experience a long playoff run for the first time.

    • beagle11 - Apr 17, 2013 at 10:04 PM

      I hear what your saying, and TMAC was somewhat unstoppable for a while. But i remember hearing bad things about his work ethic. If I remember correctly, Tmac, Kobe and Vince were arguable at one point, I just think Kobe totally outworked the field and evolved his game while the others’ games just faded with their athleticism.

  8. timb12 - Apr 17, 2013 at 10:32 PM

    This is the best article I’ve read in a while. I’d rather read this than most of the stuff on here. It was really good. I sent it out to my friends.

  9. thenew013 - Apr 17, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    well that explains why i thought he was older. i was seven when he was drafted and i was more into power rangers than basketball. i only really knew him because i had his shoes but when i started really following basketball he was already on the decline. best of luck t-mac.

  10. chrislam111288 - Apr 18, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    Kurt Helin take notes

  11. sleepyirv - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    I recently thought about how incredibly young athletes really are when I noticed Johnny Mize and Richard Nixon were born in the same year. Mize’s baseball career around the point Nixon’s political career started which is why I never dream to think of them as contemporaries. It’s strange to think how few years of an athlete’s life is taken up playing the sport and how quickly we forget them unless they stay around the sport as announcers or coaches. They’ll always be ballplayers even if they spend 30, 40 years doing something entirely different.

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