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A Glimmer Of Greatness

I didn’t see it live. It was the greatest moment in the career of my favorite childhood player, and I missed it.

The highlights can’t possibly do it justice, either. The absolute theater that was Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 35 seconds against the San Antonio Spurs in 2006 is the stuff of legend.

Kevin Durant at the Rucker last summer, Michael Jordan’s flu game, Kobe Bryant’s 81, and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 are some moments in basketball that will live forever.

If you’re still reading and asking yourself who Tracy McGrady is, I don’t blame you. It would take a pretty astute NBA basketball fan to recognize the name of a forgotten star. That’s because he played last season for the Atlanta Hawks and in his 16 minutes per game, he averaged a whopping 5.3 points, three rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.

No, I don’t blame you for not knowing or maybe even remembering Tracy McGrady. I pity you, because you missed out on one of the greatest scorers I’ve ever seen play the game. A player who won’t ever be remembered for how great he was – let me count the ways.

In a time in basketball where the clutch factor is at the forefront of everyone’s twitter fingers, McGrady was the definition of clutch. He made big shot after big shot, but always fell short in the end. He never won a playoff series, but this is a story about a man’s contributions to the game of basketball that should live on.

The Spurs were at the height of their dynasty in 2006. Tim Duncan was in the prime of his career. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were blossoming into the superstars we know today. They were the reigning NBA Champions and a little over a year removed from their second title in three years, and they were arguably the most dominant defensive team in all of basketball.

So dominant in fact, that only one player eclipsed the 30-point barrier in a game in the regular season in 2005-06 against San Antonio; that player you ask? Tracy McGrady.

The 13 in :35 was a paragon of McGrady’s career. It was an illustration of how lethal a scorer the two-time scoring champion really was, and how dangerous he could be within any given window. The looks on the faces of Tony Parker, Devin Brown, and Gregg Popovich told the entire story. That story was McGrady’s will to win, which most people dismiss unknowingly – you would have had to see it.

In the season prior to the San Antonio explosion game, McGrady and the Houston Rockets drew Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs in McGrady’s first year with his new team. The tandem of T-Mac and 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming was hailed as the best one-two punch in the league.

McGrady was in the prime of his career and coming off two straight seasons with the Orlando Magic that ended with the league’s scoring crown, and he was just as good for Houston. He averaged 25.7 a game that season and helped the Rockets improve their win total from the season prior by six. Everything seemed to be aligning for McGrady to finally make it out of the first. He had finally found his running partner in Yao, and together they were ready to speed past the Mavericks.

After two games, that’s exactly what fans and media members were saying. Houston had won two straight – in Dallas – and seemed poised to sweep the Mavs. Then it happened – that first loss that surely weighed on the mind of McGrady who was forced to try and make up for his team’s disappearing act the rest of the series.

Dallas took three straight games and put McGrady in a situation he’d become all too familiar with: being on the brink of elimination. In Game 6 and with his back against the wall, he did what LeBron did against Boston the other night (OK, maybe not as historic, but stay with me here). He scored 37 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and dished out seven assists to help the Rockets win in convincing fashion, 101-83.

How did Yao do you may ask: eight points and five rebounds in 27 minutes. In Game 7 he scored 33 points but was a minus 33 – the worst such number of any player in that game. The Mavericks got out to the early lead and ran away with the series. Most of Yao’s points came after the game had already been decided.

Another playoff failure pinned on McGrady, but please allow me to show you the true culprit.

In that series McGrady recorded 30.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. He shot 45 percent from the floor and undertook one of the most difficult defensive assignments I’ve ever seen: Dirk Nowitzki. McGrady was undersized and playing out of position. At times he completely stifled Nowitzki and forced him into bad shots and awkward movements.

Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy lauded McGrady’s efforts during and after the series.

“I read a lot about MVP and I read a lot about All-NBA and I would put [McGrady] up there with anybody you want to talk about for the impact he’s had on our team,” Van Gundy told ESPN in 2005.

The defensive effort of McGrady in that series went almost unnoticed, which recently reminded me of a star in today’s game: LeBron James. “The King” is probably the best defender in the league on top of being the most dynamic and dominant. Everybody likes to pile on LeBron for not closing out games, but how many of those same people take any time to admire the attention and effort James gives on the defensive end of the floor.

That’s what winners do. They sacrifice and do the hard stuff to try and help their team win. And what do you know, when they do we ignore it and focus on what is easy for us to focus on: the final result.

News flash: basketball is a team sport. How many championships have been won with only one or two players making significant contributions? I’d be very interested to see anyone find me a strong example. Most winning teams have a number of players that understand their role and execute on the floor based on that particular role.

How many championships do you think Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal have without Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Artest, or Pau Gasol? Great players need great role players to win in this league; it’s a tested and true fact.

McGrady has never had the benefit of good teammates: players that performed under the playoff pressure, guys that knocked down big shots in big games, ala Fisher, Bruce Bowen, Chauncey Billups, Ray Allen, Steve Kerr… the list could go on and on.

T-Mac never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. He was fourth all time in points per game in the playoffs before this past postseason (he played one round for the Hawks and in six games only averaged 4.2 ppg). Every game was on him to win. It wasn’t by design either.

McGrady was a great passer and ran the point forward position a great deal in Houston. In that respect, he had a lot of Scottie Pippen in him and was able to create for teammates.

In the press conference after another loss in a Game 7, – this time to the Utah Jazz – a broken McGrady looked to be truly beaten. He was a player that gave everything he had for seven games, twice now, only to lose and in embarrassing fashion. The man with all the talent in the world was never the same. Those series took everything out of him.

Today’s McGrady is a shell – a fossil of a once great player that had no limitations with a basketball in his hands. He was one of the special players that come along in small groups every era to help carry the game on their collective shoulders.

If you look real hard you can see what I’m talking about in glimpses – a drive to the basket, a slick step back jumper, or a no look pass to a cutting teammate. That’s where the legend of T-Mac lives today – in flashes.

Just like in a flash six years ago, McGrady caught the Spurs sleeping to give us a memory that will last a lifetime. Just as quickly as that happened, the game passed him by and we’re left with a fallen hero.

A hero with a repaired back, two faulty knees, and at least three surgeries removed from the explosive player that torches defenders in YouTube highlight videos.

But I’m glad I saw him. He (and Kobe Bryant) showed what greatness could be like after Michael Jordan.

Don’t turn off the TV when the stars are out at night. You may just miss something extraordinary.


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