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.