It's Jan. 10, 1997, and Tracy McGrady has just dominated yet
another high school basketball game. He's in a musty locker
room, picking up dozens of malodorous socks and towels, because
tonight it's his turn to handle that chore. McGrady has just
spent two days with a reporter who is eager to learn if McGrady,
an exceptionally gifted senior forward, will apply for the NBA
draft. The kid has talked at length about his life. About how he
grew up poor, fatherless and anonymous, living with his grandma
in the tiny Florida town of Auburndale. About how he never
aspired to any college grander than nearby Polk Community until
he was unearthed in the spring of 1996 by Joel Hopkins, coach at
Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C. About how he
decided to transfer to Mount Zion, a budding national basketball
power, for his senior year and how he took his first airplane
flight, from North Carolina to New Jersey for a summer
basketball camp. About how at that camp astonished college
coaches from Kentucky, Syracuse and other schools dangled the
possibility of a scholarship, and how dazzled NBA scouts told
him he could be among the first 15 picks in the next year's
draft. About how those divergent paths made for the most
gut-wrenching decision of his entire 17 years. And, finally,
about how his fondest dreams were to guard his hero, Penny
Hardaway, to slip on a pair of Air McGradys and to see his face
on a McDonald's cup.
Forty-five minutes after the game, McGrady says goodbye to the
reporter and scoops the last of the wet towels into a duffel
bag. He begins walking toward the gymnasium exit when he
suddenly turns back toward his interrogator. "Let me ask you a
question," says McGrady, wide-eyed and desperate for some sage
advice. "What do you think I should do?"
Tracy McGrady, now a Toronto Raptors rookie guard-forward, is
almost always alone. He says that he used to have an entourage,
but the guy had to go back to cosmetology school in Florida. So
day after day McGrady sits by himself in a lavish, prefurnished
three-bedroom, three-bathroom, three-TV apartment in Toronto
that overlooks Lake Ontario and once belonged to Blue Jays
pitcher Juan Guzman. McGrady lives like a shut-in. When he's at
his apartment--which he is virtually all the time when the
Raptors aren't on the road--McGrady folds himself into his couch
and studies grainy videotapes of Magic Johnson running the Los
Angeles Lakers' offense during the Showtime era or plays video
games or watches college hoops and wonders what might have been.
McGrady doesn't read newspapers, and his huge apartment contains
one book, Spencer Johnson's inspirational tome The Precious
McGrady is wistfully indulging in a teenage fantasy. He makes
countless long-distance calls, and there are no parents or
siblings around screeching at him to get off the phone. His
beeper blares so ceaselessly that his November cellular-phone
bill reached nearly $1,500. McGrady calls relatives and friends
in Florida and his girlfriend in North Carolina. About once a
week he compares notes by phone with second-year Lakers guard
Kobe Bryant, who also went straight from high school to the NBA
and who befriended McGrady last summer during a meeting set up
by their agent, Arn Tellem.
Occasionally McGrady stares out his 12th-floor window at the
incoming Canadian winter with a deep sense of dread. Before he
came to Toronto, he had seen snow only once in his life, and he
behaves somewhat like a bear in hibernation, sometimes sleeping
as many as 20 hours in a day. He despises the cold so much that
although he lives just a few blocks from SkyDome, he always
drives to games. Funny, when McGrady isn't alone, he usually
hangs out with thousands of people.
When Isiah Thomas, then Toronto's executive vice president for
basketball, selected McGrady with the ninth pick of last June's
draft, he believed McGrady was the second-best player available,
behind only Tim Duncan. McGrady already had a six-year, $12.3
million endorsement deal with Adidas. In September, on the day
McGrady signed a three-year contract worth $4.68 million, he
boasted that he would be Rookie of the Year and would invent a
unique jam that would win the Slam Dunk contest during the
All-Star weekend. With his bank account bolstered, McGrady
promptly bought himself a $47,000 Lexus sports utility vehicle
and a 1995 Mercedes. He pledged $300,000 to Mount Zion Academy.
He bought his grandmother Roberta Williford a house on a Florida
lake, and he bought a condominium nearby, where his mother,
Melanise Williford, is staying while the new house McGrady
purchased for her is being built. "I'm just blowing up because I
can't believe this," said McGrady before training camp began.
"It can't get any better."
He was right.
Perhaps it was a foreshadowing that, before entering his second
exhibition game, McGrady forgot to tie the drawstring on his
shorts. He played one-handed until the first whistle, using the
other hand to hold up his pants. "I guess I'm still a little
nervous about this," he said afterward.
At 18 (he won't turn 19 until May 24), McGrady is the youngest
player in the NBA. He's so young that he started this season
with a teammate, John Long, 41, who was playing in the league
before McGrady was born. (After suffering a broken jaw, Long
retired on Nov. 12.) McGrady is the fourth player in the last
three years to leapfrog from high school to the pros, and the
fates of the other three are diverse. After two NBA seasons
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett signed a six-year,
$125 million contract, the richest in sports history. Bryant
already is the darling of the Los Angeles Lake Show. However,
forward Jermaine O'Neal is mildewing on the bench in his second
year with the Portland Trail Blazers (on Sunday, he was placed
on the injured list with a strained left calf muscle). "Jumping
from high school to the NBA is like a virgin sleeping with a
40-year-old woman with three kids," says Toronto forward Walt
Williams. "You better raise your game a lot or you'll be
McGrady learned that lesson during a preseason game against the
Denver Nuggets. After botching a windmill dunk at one end, he
retreated on defense, whereupon Denver's rookie forward-center,
Tony Battie caught him with an elbow while going up for a shot.
Battie got the basket and a free throw. McGrady got a jaw joint
contusion that forced him to miss a preseason game. His
development was further curtailed on Nov. 4 at SkyDome against
the Golden State Warriors when his youthful exuberance caused
him to try to block a layup with just 1:31 left and the Raptors
ahead by 21 points. He sprained an ankle, which eventually led
to a sore arch that cost him 11 games and sent him into an
emotional tailspin. "Tracy started feeling sorry for himself,
but I didn't treat him like a teenager," Thomas says. "I told
him, 'You're a grown man now. You've got to keep up.'"
Even when healthy, McGrady has had to deal with the fluctuations
in his playing time. In 14 games through Sunday, he had averaged
12.4 minutes, but as three recent games at SkyDome proved, there
are few average stints. Against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 17,
McGrady played 26 minutes; against the Milwaukee Bucks last
Friday, 15; and against the Washington Wizards on Saturday, one.
On the court the 6'8" McGrady has exhibited a smooth jump shot
with good range and slick ball-handling skills. He has a 44-inch
vertical leap and the wingspan of a condor. Through Sunday he
was averaging 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, but much of
his scoring and rebounding had come in bursts. McGrady had eight
points in 11 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 1, and 10
points and 11 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 15. In
the aforementioned game against Boston, he scored a career-high
17 points and provided a soaring dunk and a breathtaking
rejection that were the Raptors' only highlights in a bitter
88-83 defeat. Still, he says, that game did not bring him the
greatest thrill of his young career. The pinnacle came on
Dec.13, when he found himself standing next to Michael Jordan
during a game in Chicago. "I was freaked out thinking that I'm
right beside MJ," McGrady says. "I wanted to say something, but
my lips froze."
For McGrady, playing in the NBA is the first job he has held.
The first paycheck he ever received was for $224,000. Cognizant
of the volatility of this vast wealth in a teenager's pocket,
Toronto's third-year guard and captain, Damon Stoudamire, 24,
has watched over McGrady like a guardian angel. Their SkyDome
lockers are side-by-side, and Stoudamire often sits beside
McGrady on team flights, constantly whispering in his ear. "I
tell him there's going to be a lot of guys wanting to hang with
him and even more women," Stoudamire says. "During games he's
going to face a lot of players who are jealous of him. I guess I
told him to be careful of everyone he meets." Alas, Stoudamire
hasn't been able to protect McGrady from the losing: At week's
end Toronto was 3-23. Stoudamire has called the Raptors a
"laughingstock," and SkyDome has come to be known as The Lost
Off the court McGrady has faced adversity as well. On Nov. 18
Thomas told the Toronto players that he might soon leave the
organization if his plans to acquire a majority ownership share
in the Raptors fell through. Thomas concluded his remarks by
turning to his youngest player and saying, "Tracy McGrady,
welcome to the NBA." Two days later, Thomas resigned. "When I
heard the news, it really hurt me because Isiah was like a
father figure," McGrady says. "I felt lost, like everybody else
was in a boat and I was drowning out in the water somewhere."
Just four days after Thomas's departure, forward Popeye Jones
greeted McGrady in the Raptors locker room and told him, "Get
your stuff, T-Mac. We're about to be traded to Philadelphia."
Toronto and Philadelphia newspapers were reporting rumors of a
deal that would send Jones and McGrady to the 76ers for guard
Jerry Stackhouse and forward Clarence Weatherspoon. The trade
never came off (on Dec. 18, Stackhouse was shipped to the
Detroit Pistons), but McGrady was disillusioned again,
especially when he realized Thomas had initiated the talks. "You
think you're playing for a solid organization and think you've
put down roots. Then suddenly you feel like you're not needed."
Says Williams, "In two months Tracy's gone from 18 years old to
around 26. He's learned that there are no mommies around here.
Nobody is going to hold his hand."
Thus, the 1997-98 season is evolving into a postgraduate year
for McGrady, a chance to learn the pro game and, by diligently
lifting weights, to bulk up from his current 210 pounds to
handle the daily grind. McGrady yearns for some stability, which
is difficult to find in Toronto these days. Thomas is already
gone, and coach Darrell Walker's hold on his job is tenuous.
Stoudamire will be a free agent after this season, so he may be
traded away before he flees. On Dec. 30 in Detroit the Raptors
will play their 29th game, more games than McGrady has ever
played in one season. There will still be 53 more to go.
McGrady's dream of becoming Rookie of the Year has already
vanished. The All-Star Slam Dunk contest was recently canceled.
McGrady had one day off last week, and he had to undergo a root
canal procedure. "One of my boys from Florida will tell me how
easy I've got it because all I'm doing is hoopin', and I'll tell
him, 'Cuz, you don't know the half of it,'" McGrady says.
After the loss to Boston, as McGrady walked out of the plush
Raptors locker room through a maze of used towels strewed across
the wall-to-wall carpeting, he spotted a familiar face who
reminded him of his indecision at the outset of 1997. McGrady
allowed himself to grin at the memory and then quietly asked,
"Do you think I made the right choice?"