Have Respect: He Was Legend

As sports fans – and more importantly here basketball fans – we tend to have terrible short-term memories. It’s all about what’s next. We hardly consider what happened last year because we’re too wrapped up in what is now and what that means for the future.

For example, take the Sacramento Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder of last year. Do we even remember how atrocious these teams were? They combined for a record of 40-124. The Kings were worst defensive team in the league. The Thunder were the second worst offensive team in the NBA. But looking at the way they are now, the futures look so bright we can’t even see the doldrums that plagued two fan bases from just eight months ago.

So when we’re asked to think back four seasons ago, it’s hard to remember the order of things and how we rated players. Hell, it is damn near impossible to think back six, seven, eight and especially nine seasons. This season I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in the new Daily Dime Live Chats on ESPN.com. It’s one of the many perks of being affiliated with the TrueHoop Network. And with the latest news that Tracy McGrady is in fact done with the Houston Rockets, there were naturally questions about where he may go for the rest of the season.

Most people remember him as the broken down scorer who is about as reliable to play on any given night as Kwame Brown is to catch any given pass. They think of him as an injury-prone joke of a superstar – someone who has wilted away in the NBA sun. But that’s not the Tracy McGrady I remember.

I Remember The Sleepy-Eyed Kid
Nobody really knew what to do with Tracy McGrady. He wasn’t on the radar of NBA scouts since he was in the seventh grade. He was a nobody in the ranks of the college recruits. He was having a good but not overly spectacular high school career for the Auburndale High School he attended from his freshman to junior years. If you were to look at the list of the top 500 prospects in 1996, you’d see a lot of names. In fact, you’d see 500 of them. But not one of those 500 names was Tracy McGrady. He was an unknown. He was a high school athlete that was expected to be a professional baseball player – not a professional basketball player.

Then he was given a shot to show what he had at the Adidas ABCD camp. He lit up the camp. He lit it up like he was playing Simon. He dunked on blue-chip recruits and lit the high school basketball scene on fire. Afterwards, when you looked at any list of top high school players, you only saw Lamar Odom’s named above McGrady’s. A year later, he polished off a fine senior basketball season at Mt. Zion Christian Academy by declaring for the NBA Draft.

After being selected ninth by the Toronto Raptors in the 1997 draft, he was now a complete anomaly. Raptors fans saw flashes of what he could do. He was a dunking machine and looked like he had glimpses of Scottie Pippen-type defense in him when he was given the chance. He was fortunate enough to have his cousin Vince drafted to the team a year later and with his cousin’s national exposure he finally got a little national spotlight. It culminated for his Raptors career when he participated in the 2000 Dunk Contest. In any other year, he would have run away with it. He just happened to be in his cousin’s spotlight again at the wrong time.

I Remember The Revolution Of The Small Forward
When Tim Duncan passed up on joining the Orlando Magic, it opened the door for the front office to throw a lot of money Tracy McGrady’s way. Nobody really knew what they were getting with him. This signing was based more on potential and what he could do to complement Grant Hill than on him being the number one guy for this team. But that’s not what the Magic got. Grant Hill’s ankle problem didn’t go away and Tracy McGrady was left alone on the court with Darrell Armstrong, John Amaechi, Bo Outlaw and Andrew DeClerq. So what happened next?

Tracy McGrady went OFF.

His first game with the Magic, he scored 32 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked three shots in a win over the Wizards. In a nine-game stretch from mid-November to early December, he averaged 29 points and nine rebounds with 49.5% shooting. In the month of February in 2001, he averaged 29.3 points on 50% shooting over the course of 12 games. He was a one-man wrecking crew. He was Bernard King’s scoring in Scottie Pippen’s athletic frame. It was something we hadn’t seen before. And it was something everybody wanted.

I Remember Self Passing
I know you remember it too. It was a momentary glimpse of brilliance and creativity that NBA players didn’t dare attempt. Hell, they didn’t even think of it. It’s something we did as kids when we’d kick the adjustable hoop in someone’s driveway. It wasn’t something that 22-year old guys did against five of the best players in the world. Had hundreds of basketball players on thousands of basketball courts done it before Tracy McGrady attempted it in the 2002 All-Star Game? Probably.

But this was the NBA. This was chicanery of the most impressive time. This was the seal of approval on the arrival of Tracy McGrady into the superstar club. It was over Steve Nash’s head, off the backboard to a sideways, flying T-Mac that launched a brand, a weapon, and a star all in one fell rip through the rim.

I Remember 13 Points in 35 Seconds
It was just another typical TNT blowout game. The Spurs were giving the Rockets their medicine on national television and showing the world once again the Spurs were capable of dismantling even the most promising squads. And then something happened. Something galvanized Tracy McGrady into thinking this game shouldn’t be in the loss column for Houston. My words will never do it justice. Just watch the video.

The insane thing about this performance was the sense of calm McGrady showed through the entire moment. The first three was no big deal. A long range shot over Bruce Bowen who was probably trying to figure out what he was going to eat for dinner after the game. Then he frees himself from Bowen by running him off of a Yao screen. It allows him to pump fake one of the most intelligent players we will ever see in Tim Duncan. Duncan bites on the fake, McGrady draws the foul and knocks down a three. After the free throw, the four-point play has put everybody on alert that this game might be heading to overtime. But it’s no big deal for the Spurs. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the league and Bruce Bowen is one of the best perimeter defenders out there. He’ll slow down McGrady and allow the clock to run out on this run.

But Bowen can’t do what Duncan just did. He can’t foul McGrady on a long-range shot. So he bodies him up as much as he can and McGrady hits an almost desperation three-pointer. He drains it and now it’s a two-point ball game. This leaves the Spurs expecting a foul from the Rockets to extend the game clock. Instead, Devin Brown dribbles out of a double team and falls to the floor. McGrady picks up the loose ball. With the Rockets down only two and less than 10 seconds remaining, the smart play is to take it to the rack and either kick it out for a game-winning three when the defense collapses or you get a bucket/foul situation. But that wasn’t good enough for T-Mac. He was Jaws. He tasted blood. He wanted more. He pulls up in the face of improbability with two seconds left and drops another dagger – his fourth three-pointer in 35 seconds. There was no way he was extending this game. The Spurs screwed up and allowed the Rockets to have some life. McGrady wasn’t going to let that opportunity pass without making them pay for it.

I Remember Having A Serious Debate On Our Hands
Let me drop a couple of average stat lines on you from the 2000-01 season through the 2004-05 season.

Player 1: 74.6 Games | 44.3% FG | 35.2% 3FG | 6.8 rpg | 5.3 apg | 1.6 spg | 0.9 bpg | 2.6 topg | 27.6 ppg
Player 2: 72 Games | 45.2% FG | 33.3% 3FG | 5.9 rpg | 5.4 apg | 1.7 spg | 0.6 bpg | 3.2 topg | 27.1 ppg

Looks pretty even, right?

It’s hard to tell who is the better player here. One is a little more durable. That same player is also a superior three-point shooter, a better rebounder, a better defender in terms of garnering steals and blocking shots and a better scorer. The other player shoots a higher percentage from the field and does a slightly better job passing the ball but has turnover issues.

Player 1 is Tracy McGrady. Player 2 is Kobe Bryant.

Now, I’m not trying to say Tracy McGrady was a better ball player than Kobe Bryant during these five seasons. There are plenty of factors to consider when comparing the two.

McGrady being slightly more durable is kind of shock based on what we know about the two players at this point in their careers. Kobe is a guy who plays through broken and torn fingers. McGrady’s knees have failed him along with his back.

Kobe’s scoring might have been more impressive due to the fact that he had Shaq on his team who took up a lot of possessions. At the same time, he also had the floor opened up to him much more than what Tracy McGrady saw.

Kobe’s assists are slightly higher but when you consider that he was passing to Shaq, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher you’d expect him to get more assists than Tracy McGrady who was passing to Pat Garrity, Darrell Armstrong, Mike Miller and Yao Ming (one year).

Kobe’s rebounding being lower makes sense because he was a shooting guard (not a small forward like T-Mac) and he had Shaq to battle for boards as opposed to McGrady who was trying to out rebound Andrew DeClerq.

So what do we make of this? Was McGrady better than Kobe from 2000-2005? Personally, I don’t care. Lakers fans will call it absurd but for those of us who remember how unstoppable McGrady was, it makes a lot of sense. But that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is there was a debate to be had. There was no definitive answer between who was better between Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. Much like now with LeBron versus Kobe, fans of each player were circling each other with strengths, weaknesses, and stats too similar to decipher a winner.

THAT’S how good Tracy McGrady used to be.

Don’t look back at his bad back, his micro-fractured knees and his inability to get out of the first round when his team wasn’t helping him out. Remember him for the incredible player he was. Hope that he can come back for a new team and help them win some games. We don’t want to remember our stars fading into obscurity. And I certainly don’t want to remember this Tracy McGrady as the player I reflect on.

He was a legend for the first half of this decade. We need to condition our short-term memories to keep that in mind.

Seth Carstens