Tito T-Mac: Lost in New York

New York Knicks v Golden State Warriors

Tracy McGrady was recently inducted to the Hall of Fame, which I thought was a good excuse to type these words on YouTube: “Tracy McGrady ultimate career mixtape.”

The first video that pops up is a five and a half minute-long highlight reel that featured a young Tracy McGrady with springs for legs, throwing down explosive tomahawk dunks; several two-handed follow-up dunks; and a couple of windmill dunks, sleepy eyes and all. The greatest trick that T-Mac ever pulled was to convince the world that he’s bored with basketball.

There’s one dunk where McGrady, playing for the Toronto Raptors, viciously threw it down on a 3-on-2 fastbreak versus the Chicago Bulls. McGrady advanced the ball to the freethrow line, where he was met by one defender: a 6-foot-9, 235-pound player from Hungary named Kornel David. McGrady, looking David right in the eye, took off as his feet touched the dotted line inside the paint, maybe about 11 to 12 feet away from the basket.

It was picture-perfect, straight out of a sneaker commercial: McGrady’s eyes locked on target, right arm flexed and fully extended, both legs in flight form, body tilted like a rocket mid-air. The takeoff was graceful, but the landing was nasty.

McGrady launched into the basket so hard that as he and David collided, David’s whole body curled up and fell lifeless to the floor, as if his soul had already ran for cover. David’s arms flailed upon impact, almost comically, but also catastrophically—in that moment, Kornel David, once advertised as the “Michael Jordan of Hungary” was rendered useless, his body reduced to a mere prop to cushion McGrady’s fall.

When David got up, he checked to see if he still had his shorts on, because getting back on defense half-naked would have been the only thing more embarrassing than getting dunked on by T-Mac.

There was also this one dunk where McGrady, as a member of the Houston Rockets, yammed on a 7-foot-6 moving target named Shawn Bradley. McGrady’s patented off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself was there. There were also clips of his underrated passing skills as well as his knack of swatting shots ala Alyssa Valdez.

The highlights end with the iconic game-winner against the San Antonio Spurs, the one in ’04 when McGrady singlehandedly completed a comeback by scoring 13 points in 35 seconds. As the clip fades to black, you could see McGrady, flanked by his teammates, celebrating the victory like a champ, like when Jimmy Chitwood hit the winning shot on Hoosiers. Only McGrady wasn’t a champ, and his story did not end there, not like that.

Years removed from his peak days in Orlando and Houston, McGrady played in a New York Knicks jersey for 24 games—and started in each one of them—in the 2009-2010 season. His debut with the Knicks on February 20, 2010? Now that’s a sports movie.

tracy-mcgrady-knicks-debut

The Knicks, in a pre-Carmelo era, played at home in that game and put up a good fight against an Oklahoma Thunder team fronted by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. McGrady was dealt to the Knicks just two days prior, and without any practice, started as the shooting guard up for a team that had Eddie House, David Lee, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari.

A 30-year-old McGrady, wearing No. 3, looked less like All-Star T-Mac and more like a guy who changed from his office clothes and played with a group of kids to see if he still got it.

In one play early in the first quarter, McGrady managed to sneak his way around Jeff Green and found a clear path to the rim. Thunder’s Nenad Krstic, a 7-foot, 240-pound big man from Serbia, slid into the paint with both arms raised. McGrady took off, but minus the explosiveness and elevation he once had, as if he forgot to press the turbo button on his controller.

In a different time zone, this would’ve been an easy dunk. Krstic would’ve been Kornel David’d, but no thanks to knee surgeries, back spasms, and gravity that always wins, what happened instead was a very tito play from T-Mac. Or in this case, Tito Mac. He absorbed contact from Krstic and scored on a bank shot, plus a foul.

Tito Mac already amassed 19 points by halftime through a collection of lay-ups, mid-range jumpers, and tito shots. He still had the stroke and the smarts, and he used both in finding ways to score. No more two-handed windmills.

Early in the third quarter, McGrady semi-elevated for a jumper over two defenders, scored, and was fouled again in the process, prompting Walt Frazier, New York legend and ultra-smooth broadcaster, to say: “This is just astounding what T-Mac has been able to accomplish tonight.” And hearing that statement in 2017, I thought it summed up the T-Mac legend. Or at least gave a clear snapshot: his Knicks debut marked the beginning of the T-Mac Farewell Tour.

Up to that point in his career, McGrady had been a seven-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA First Team, three-time All-NBA Second Team, and two-time NBA scoring leader. But he had missed more than a hundred games before joining the Knicks; he would never be the same after the injuries. At that point in his career, seeing him shoot jumpers over people would no longer be the norm. A 20-point output would be considered “a rare performance,” like an Eminem-Elton John duet at the Grammy’s.

McGrady poured in a total of 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting in that debut game—the most he scored since January 2009. It’s also the most he would score until his retirement in 2013, as per Basketball Reference. None of these points made it to his “ultimate career mixtape.” No clips from that moment in the fourth quarter, with the Knicks down five and McGrady on the bench, when chants of “We want T-Mac!” engulfed the Madison Square Garden. “I haven’t felt that good in a while, to really be received that way, to hear those chants,” McGrady said then, after the game.

The Knicks lost in overtime to a younger team, with Durant—a seven-foot T-Mac prototype—scoring 36 points. Durant’s career trajectory is way better than McGrady’s. He was blessed with the Big 3s and the Big 4s, the Westbrooks and the Currys; he is now 1-1 in the NBA Finals, a record we should expect to change at least in the next three years. McGrady, on the other hand, wasn’t blessed with a Big anything. His promising partnership with Grant Hill in Orlando and Yao Ming in Houston both ended in DNPs. He made it to the Finals once as a fixture at the very far end of the Spurs bench.

“You have to have a great team and some luck to get a ring, right? Unfortunately, I wasn’t blessed with that,” McGrady said, days before his induction to the Hall of Fame. He was more reflective and aware in his induction speech (which would’ve been great if it lasted for only 35 seconds as an homage to himself), saying to his children in attendance, “Your character is always much more significant than your reputation.”

On one hand, McGrady’s reputation was that he didn’t practice hard; wasn’t a great leader; can’t get past the first round; always hurt. On the other, he was an explosive scorer, a superhero who can leap tall Bradleys in a single bound.

His character showed when he was no longer those things.

Photos from Getty Images

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