With Kobe Bryant continuing to defy the wearing and tearing of over 47,000 minutes and 1,300 games (combined playoffs and regular season) by scoring 40+ on a nightly basis, I started thinking about his once-upon-a-time rival, Tracy McGrady. A quick look back through the histories of webpages and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of words filling up blogs, message boards, forums and comments sections making the case for and against each player with the more objective writers conceding the players were, for the most part, too similar to pick one or the other. For the sake of this post, the Kobe-McGrady discussion stopped mattering when their paths diverged (assuming they were once walking the same path).
The Kobe vs. Tmac debate reached its high water mark during the 2002-03 season when Tracy was destroying all comers in Orlando and posted the 14th highest PER (player efficiency rating) in NBA history at 30.3—a mark Kobe’s never bested. McGrady was dominant on a mediocre Magic team that went 42-40 and did what every McGrady-led playoff team has ever done: got bounced in the first round. A few time zones away in LA, Kobe put together a masterful season where he established career highs in rebounding, minutes played and steals—all while scoring 30 points a night. Both players shared a spot on the All-NBA First Team (the last time McGrady would earn the designation) and finished third (Kobe) and fourth (Tmac) in MVP voting. That these two young wings (24 and 23 at the time—Tracy the younger) revealed the full breadth of their talents at such young ages guaranteed a rivalry of sorts if only by virtue of their ages and heights. By 2006, the chatter was quieting down and by the end of the 2007 season, McGrady’s back had finished for good as a present-tense argument.
To address whether or not there was a rivalry is to a take the first steps towards forming a potential understanding of how and why Tracy McGrady went from legend-in-the-making to a guy who occasionally comes to mind as a second-thought to another man’s career. I dug around the dusty internets of 2003 and found a well-written story by Charley Rosen from ESPN’s Page2. The story included some telling quotes:
According to Horace Grant, who played with Kobe in 2000-01, and knows the full intricacies of the triangle offense, “Kobe is totally into proving that he’s better than Tracy. Last week, when the Lakers came to Orlando, Kobe was breaking plays left and right, just forcing shot after shot, trying to outscore Tracy.”
And McGrady? “Well,” he says, “to tell you the truth, as late as last season, I did get caught up in trying to prove that I was better than Kobe. But not any more. It’s a huge compliment that people even consider me to be one of the best players in the league. But I’ve learned to focus on winning.”
OK, OK … but, besides Shaq, who is the NBA’s premier player?
“There’s no question about it,” says McGrady. “It’s Kobe and he’s got three rings to prove it.”
Tracy was right (but I’m not sure how honest) to focus on winning instead of Kobe, but reading about Kobe or MJ or Bird or Magic, the “focus on winning” was always a given. Yeah, you better damn well be focused on winning because you’re competing against the greatest players in the world every night. What it doesn’t seem like McGrady was able to do was find the motivation to give him that extra edge. Anyone who heard MJ’s Hall of Fame speech knows that cold bastard is still carrying grudges today—nearly nine seasons after he retired. Bird used any edge he could and made it a point to not befriend players on other teams—which made the Converse commercial with Magic all the more difficult since this was the closest thing to a sworn enemy and rival. And we know Kobe’s pursuits drift somewhere between manic and sublime. The fire burning inside that man still feels like it’s fueled by some long-standing chip on his shoulder, possibly from his first years in the league when he was regularly and rightfully criticized for being an unapologetic chucker. Now, 16 seasons later, he’s still proving that he can go it alone. What was McGrady’s fuel?
It’s clear he was conscious of differences between himself and Jordan and Kobe. From a Hoopshype interview by David Carro in 2003:
Carro: What particular aspect of MJ would you like to have or imitate? What would you like to learn from him?
McGrady: The competitive fire. I don’t think there is anybody in the league as competitive as Michael. I think Kobe is close. I’d be content to have that of Jordan.
Carro: Do you see yourself at that level?
McGrady: Me? Hmmmm… I think I’m close to that mental level right now.
And in September of 2007, Sonny Vaccaro, sneaker executive and creator of the ABCD high school summer camp, responded to a question from Tim Lemke of the Washington Times:
Lemke: Who’s your favorite athlete?
Vaccaro: I don’t want to go there because there’s so many kids, but I’ll tell you the one who I think is the most naturally gifted is Tracy McGrady. Tracy doesn’t work as hard–and you should put this in your story–as some of the others. Tracy was given more ability than anybody. He didn’t always use it.
Keep in mind, Vaccaro’s been around elite high school players for decades.
All too familiar scene
Lastly, Houston Rockets GM, Darryl Morey:
McGrady was the most gifted player I’ve ever had on the roster. I do think (his talent) got in the way of Tracy’s development. Much of the game was so, so easy… When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age (that McGrady did), because of your physical tools, his wing span was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ. But my sense was that all of that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.
None of this is new under the sun though. It’s the information and quotes we’ve been hearing for the past decade. It’s stalked McGrady’s career without discrimination since he was a sleepy rookie in Toronto. When I initially sat down to think about Tracy McGrady and the powers and/or choices that led to his career decline at the young age of 27, I had in my mind a man who was blessed with talents and a physique that forced him down a funnel that became narrower and narrower as he grew older and taller. The gym, with the ball in his hands was his destiny and it’s where he arrived and found definition. But, in my thoughts and recollections, I insisted on assigning a level of blame to McGrady for not doing all he could to cultivate that gift. This is the question that came to the surface:
Are athletes, artists, entertainers, etc obligated to commit themselves to the mediums for which their talents are best suited for a greater good?
Possibly for selfish reasons, Phil Jackson indirectly answered this question in the mid-90s when he said to a recently-retired Michael Jordan, “You don’t know the talent that God has given you and what you are going to deprive people of.”
The same words could be echoed to McGrady and countless others over history. T-Mac’s not Michael Jordan, but he was a great and gifted basketball player who could’ve taken certain elements of his craft more seriously. In the McGrady interviews I read while researching this post, I saw the outline of a man who was fully in tune and engaged in the NBA. McGrady’s simple, but honest and well-thought responses reveal consciousness and awareness. In response to a question about flopping ruining the game, instead of taking the bait he said: “You know who started that was freaking Vlade Divac. He’s the king of that. But those guys, they ain’t soft or anything, they just trying to get a call. They’re trying to win ball games. That’s one thing I’ll give the European players. They competitive and they go hard.”
When asked about the 2006 NBA Finals and Dwyane Wade getting all the calls, he unflinchingly said: “If you were watching that game, it seemed like it was rigged … yea, it seemed like it was rigged. The calls he (Wade) was getting, Jesus.”
Honesty’s never been a problem unless McGrady’s talking about himself. His comments about winning, about his “main motivation is the championship ring, the NBA title,” about learning “to focus on winning” and more win-related clichés that prevent anyone from discerning any truth from his comments. The words he spoke in March of 2011 invited us into the mind of a multifold McGrady who responded to a question about never winning a playoff series with: “I think about it, but I don’t lose sleep over it. It is what it is. If you look at my numbers, what I put up in the playoffs, it’s not like I disappeared every playoff series. I did everything I could to try to advance to that next level. A lot of bad breaks, better teams.’’
McGrady came to terms with his team’s failures by convincing himself he did everything within his powers to win. This comment comes, despite advisors, teammates and general managers continually calling him out for not doing everything he could with the talent he had.
In the same HoopsHype article, he said:
I just wasn’t a great practice player. I just wasn’t. I wasn’t. I just think I could cruise through practice and still be effective. Some guys have to really go (all) out to really have an impact on practice. My ability was just I had God-given talent to where I could just cruise through practice and still be an effective practice player… I was inconsistent. Some days, I have really good (practice) days where I just go hard and a lot of days where like, ‘Uh,’ and I just go through the motions. But I work hard. But I’m just not the best practice player.
It’s difficult to assess McGrady’s commitment with so much contradicting evidence. No one ever considered questioning his talent, just the drive, will, dedication that went along with it and this is where the conflict about obligation comes in. I don’t believe T-Mac ever lacked a love of the game or faithfulness for it. His feel for the game, his knowledge of other players, his willingness to accept a supporting role in order to continue his career all indicate feeling and caring. The gaps show up when you start analyzing the aspects of the game that aren’t fun: practice, conditioning, accepting blame (to McGrady’s credit, he’s cried over losses and went out of his way to accept blame for the Rockets being eliminated from the 2007 playoffs). If you insist on closure for the Kobe vs. McGrady debate; you’ll find it somewhere between winning and just playing the game.
I don’t doubt that Tracy McGrady wants to win basketball games and wants to be an NBA champion, but I can’t help but feel his desire to win comes more from an awareness of what winning means to a player’s place in history as opposed to winning being the end means of playing basketball.
A fitting epitaph: “Win or lose, he just wanted to play.”
“Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic globule, from which one extracts what one needs.”
– Gloria Clemente
Who knew Gloria had Tracy McGrady in mind when she said those famous words to Billy..
Very well-written and with a keen understanding of McGrady’s total career – ability, drive (or lack thereof, honesty, etc. McGrady may be the most physically talented basketball player ever…but he lacked the drive to stay conditioned, he lacked a killer instinct, and he was always too focused on making sure it appeared he did everything he could, while perhaps not actually doing it.