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The Good Life?

Jan. 10, 2005
Jan. 10, 2005

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Jan. 10, 2005

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The Good Life?

He may be a rich NBA superstar with his own jet, but Tracy McGrady has his worries--like how to rescue the Rockets and how to repair his reputation

Sometimes Tracy McGrady wonders what it's like to have a real job. He admits he has no idea. Framed by tan curtains, he is lying on a burgundy-and-cream sofa in velour sweats, his neatly shorn head propped at a 45-degree angle on a brown cushion, his torso connected by spindly legs to his distant, stockinged feet. The effect of this scene, the languorous posture of a dauphin in repose, suggests magnificent confidence. "I would like to know how it feels to punch a clock, to balance a check," he says as he watches his own Adidas commercial on television, in which miniature soldiers, tanks and helicopters are overpowered by a dunking TMac. He shakes his head, slowly, gnawing for a moment on the nail of his right index finger. McGrady never had a paper route or bagged a grocery, and now, a centimillionaire at 25, he realizes he may have missed something. "I don't know what life is like, I don't know how regular people live," he says. "I just can never understand it. My first job was the NBA."

This is an article from the Jan. 10, 2005 issue Original Layout

And the corollary, he insists, is that none of us can understand what it is like to be him.

Think of all the differences between Houston Rockets shooting guard Tracy McGrady and the rest of us. We have never been on TV; he is on all the time. We started out with a part-time job; he earned $245,000 on his first payday. We know how many bathrooms there are in our house; he does not. "Bathrooms?" he says. "Seven, eight, 10?" McGrady wonders how to bridge the gap between us and him, how to stay connected with the fans who watch games and buy sneakers, providing him with a revenue stream that makes the gulf more likely to widen.

"I'm just one guy," he says. "I can't bring the whole league closer to the fans. But I worry about that. Look, people have no idea what it feels like to be me, to be the guy who is blamed for the problems when the team is losing. I'm the guy making the most money, so I'm the guy everyone blames. What if people came to your job, if your company wasn't doing well, and said, 'You, you are the problem'? You would say, Me? It's a whole company, a whole team."

The tattoo on his right shoulder reads, AND EVERY TONGUE THAT SHALL RISE UP AGAINST THEE IN JUDGEMENT SHALL BE CONDEMNED--ISAIAH 54:17.

He is driving down Route 59 from the Toyota Center to his new house in the suburb of Sugar Land. McGrady is behind the wheel of his BMW 7 series sedan, the V12 purring and the interior smelling like peaches. There has always been a droop to his gaze, a sleepy sag below the eyes that gave him, even as a 18-year-old rookie, an air of weariness. Now, after eight seasons and three teams, he has grown into that heavy-lidded look, his experience having finally caught up with his facial expression.

He's talking on his cellphone, arranging for his fiancée, ClaRenda Harris, and their one-year-old daughter, Layla, to fly in from North Carolina. The family has yet to spend a night in the 25,000-square-foot mansion he bought from former Houston Astros pitcher Shane Reynolds. He presses OFF, and another call comes in. "It's here? All right! What exit?"

He puts down his phone and says, "This is going to blow your mind." But he's talking to himself.

Five minutes later he emerges from the BMW and stretches in the bright sun. His usually unhurried walk is suddenly brisk. He enters the commuter airport terminal, passes a few surprised businessmen, and there, glistening on the tarmac, is a white Falcon 2000 with T1 MAC painted on the side. This is the first time he has seen his new jet. He stands for a moment on the runway, taking it in, shaking his head. He bounds up the stairs. The interior is champagne and cream; the walnut trim is buffed to an almost metallic sheen. He is greeted by his business manager, Gustavson Bass, who points McGrady to the VIP seat--the first seat on the right side of the cabin--and shows him the armrest controls for the sound system, DVD player and air conditioner.

The 6'8" McGrady sits down, sinking into the soft leather. He smiles and looks out the porthole.

"We're actually saving money by having this plane," Bass explains. "With the depreciation schedule and being able to lease it out, this will pay for itself."

McGrady isn't listening. He is already out of his seat and down the gangway. At the bottom of the stairs he turns around and takes in the plane once more. Then he is gone.

"I'm the first one," he says, back in the car. "No NBA player ever had his own jet."

Won't this set off a frenzied plane-buying competition among elite players?

"All right," he says with a laugh. "Let them bring it."

That gulf between player and fan has never seemed so unbridgeable.

"Oh, it's a business, it's a business," McGrady says of the NBA. As he's driving, he thinks back on his career, on his rookie season alone in that Toronto apartment during a frigid Canadian winter, barely playing for a Raptors team that won 16 games. A year earlier he had been the star at Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., where he would walk by the Lexus dealership in Raleigh and wave to the pretty salesgirl, swearing that he was someday going to own that silver Lexus Landcruiser and maybe even marry that girl. (He bought that car. He is engaged to that girl.) From the security of high school, with games in which he took a seat in the fourth quarter because he had given his team such a huge lead, he went suddenly to riding the pine in Toronto behind Reggie Slater.

And that was when he first heard it: Tracy is lazy, Tracy is unfocused. Initially, coach Butch Carter interpreted his laid-back style as a lack of commitment. But his teammates didn't mistake impassiveness for indifference. "I saw this years ago," says Vince Carter. "We all knew: Look at this guy. He can play." In McGrady's third season he averaged 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, enticing the Orlando Magic into working a sign-and-trade deal and assuming his sevenyear, $93 million contract. Living just 40 minutes from his hometown of Auburndale, the setup was perfect; surely he and Grant Hill would contend for an NBA title. "That was as happy as he ever was, right then," says boyhood friend Obie McDowell. "He was on his way to a happy ending."

Hill's perennially injured left ankle drastically changed the script. Without him McGrady suffered through three straight opening-round playoff exits, but he flourished as a one-man attack. His fadeaway jumper became one of the most effective weapons in the league, earning him scoring titles in 2003 and '04. Those numbers, however, couldn't buoy the team, which started last season 1-19. Now the same laid-back attitude that had put off the coaching staff in Toronto was fueling the perception in Orlando of McGrady as a spoiled superstar. He became the lightning rod for the fans' frustration. "With all the talent, all the notoriety that comes with being the Man, there comes criticism," says Hill. "What great player hasn't been criticized?"

McGrady further alienated fans by sulking, becoming a turnstile on defense and standing by the scorer's table with his arms folded while his teammates huddled during timeouts. "Last year was a difficult season for him personally," says Magic coach Johnny Davis. "He seemed to withdraw. You always like for things to end on a positive note, but it just didn't happen that way here."

After dealing McGrady, along with Juwan Howard, Reece Gaines and Tyronn Lue, to the Rockets for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato--the first time a reigning scoring champ had been traded since Bob McAdoo in 1976--Orlando G.M. John Weisbrod publicly questioned McGrady's work ethic, saying that a "superstar is defined by wins, by making the players around him better and by making the team better."

"Wait," McGrady says, hearing the echo of those criticisms. "Listen. You can sit there and say I'm making millions of dollars and I should play hard every night and how can I not? It's not that easy. In those situations you forget about how much you're making. It becomes so hard to get up for every game. Every finger is pointing at me. And I'm not going to sit here and say I played my hardest every night. I'm not going to say I played good defense every night. But this is a team game. How can you play if you don't trust your teammates?"

He pauses as if he is hearing his own words. "Some nights I did slack off--and I knew that was a terrible thing to do--and I still was slacking off. That feels so bad. And I'm the leader, these guys are following my lead, so the whole team suffers even worse. That was wrong. Now I would do it differently. I learned. I have to bust my butt no matter what. Last year was the worst experience of my life. And I learned. And believe me, I'm grateful for this opportunity here."

To make this opportunity in Houston work, McGrady has modified his gunner's philosophy (at week's end he was taking 3.3 fewer shots per game than last season) and is leading the Rockets in assists. If anyone tracked passes that bounce off a teammate's hands and go out of bounds, he would lead the league in that stat. The equation that lured T-Mac to Houston--Big Man+Perimeter Threat=Title--applies only if McGrady and 7'6" Yao Ming enhance each other's games. For too much of this season, however, it has looked like subtraction by addition. Through last Saturday, T-Mac was scoring 24.0 points per game versus 28.1 last year, while Yao's production was up only slightly, to 18.8 from 17.5. Houston's offense hinges on McGrady, whether he's driving and dishing, or staying on the perimeter to pass to Yao or to look for his own shot. With McGrady trying to incorporate his teammates into the offense, points have been scarce. At week's end the Rockets were 15-15, and they ranked 26th in the league in scoring.

There are too many nights when Yao is a nonfactor, when he has trouble executing the pick-and-roll, takes an eternity to repost and has trouble fighting through a screen without committing a foul. When asked whether Yao will ever be a dominant player, McGrady smiles and says, "That's what everybody asks me. Everyone wants Yao to be superaggressive, but he's not. That's not his game. Yao, he's like a Rik Smits--type, you know? He's so big, and he's got a nice touch. I think he can become that type of player."

But McGrady didn't force a trade out of Orlando to play with a Rik Smits-type, did he?

McGrady shakes his head. "No, he'll be better than that, once he learns to let the dog out every night."

Yao says that the addition of McGrady has taken pressure off him. "When he's out [on the perimeter], the defense has to double-team him. And when he drives, he is so good at finding the open man. Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady are both great teammates, but Tracy is a very helpful teammate."

"Tracy is such a more unselfish player than people think," says coach Jeff Van Gundy. "He finds a way to make his teammates better. Once Yao gets used to the spots where [McGrady] will get him the ball, we'll execute better."

"If this is Yao's team, if that's the way we can win, I'm rolling with that," says McGrady. "There's nothing about me that's selfish. Man, I average more assists than my point guard."

Still, as he reminded us on Dec. 9, when he scored 13 points in the last 35 seconds to almost single-handedly erase a 13-point deficit in an 81-80 win over the San Antonio Spurs, McGrady might be the best pure scorer in the game. And it is this stretch with this team, with Yao as his running mate, that will determine if he's ultimately worthy of inclusion with the alltime greats, if he'll ever be mentioned in the same breath as Magic and Michael. If not, if he can't become the centerpiece of a title team, he will likely go down as just another entertaining scorer--think George Gervin or David Thompson--who came up short.

"Right now you can't even mention me in the same breath with Magic or Michael," McGrady says.

It is pointed out to him that neither of them owned his own plane.

McGrady laughs. "True, true."

In a hotel suite in Los Angeles, McGrady sits on the edge of his bed in front of a room service trolley, picking at a plate of pasta. His cholesterol is too high, he laments. His nutritionist has taken him off fried foods and sugar. Still, he looks disappointed as he jabs noodles with his fork. ESPN breaks into its programming to show replays of the brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the fans in Detroit. The melee is shown over and over. "This is terrible," McGrady says, "just terrible."

Yes, agrees his visitor. It's bad for the league, the players, the fans.

He looks up, slightly incredulous. "No, this linguine," he says. "It's terrible."

O.K. But what does he think about Ron Artest going into the stands? About fans throwing beer at players? After all, this brawl, along with Latrell Sprewell's recent complaint over being offered only $7 million by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kobe Bryant's ongoing bizarre behavior, has made the divide between fan and player as wide as it's ever been.

McGrady pushes away his plate. "What Ron did? That was self-defense," he says. "Look, it goes both ways. As a player, I know not to put my business out there, not to embarrass myself, [because] if you do, you're going to get bad publicity. Like what Spree said, I understand that, but there is another way of saying it. So I have to be careful. But fans need to be respectful, can't be running on the court. That's my office. If I go to your office and I'm stepping to you, you're not gonna hit me?"

McGrady says he wants to reach out to fans. He also knows that he has to. His lifestyle--the BMWs, Bentleys and Maybachs, that Falcon 2000, the gold watches, the properties strewn across the Southeast--is not paid for by salary alone. He earns at least $7 million annually by lending his name and image to Adidas and PepsiCo. For him to justify that income, people must do more than watch him: They have to love him. Or at least be moved enough by him to buy his sneaker, and Adidas's new TMac 4 (retail: $125) was among the hottest basketball shoes of the Christmas shopping season. And if he becomes too remote, he knows, his whole empire is in jeopardy. He has to keep reaching out to his fans, what Karl Rove would call taking care of the base.

"I know I have to keep up my image," McGrady says, standing in the kitchen of his Sugar Land house, picking through a bag of sandwiches. "It's all about how you handle the situation. Last year I led the league in scoring. If I had been on a bad team and had a bad year statistically, then you would have seen my image collapse. I had to lead the league."

He pulls a hamburger in a clear plastic container out of the sack. Pausing a moment, as if to consider his nutritionist's advice, he pops open the container and takes a bite. All over the house there are pictures of his one-year-old daughter--curly hair, beautiful brown eyes and a cupid's bow of a mouth. "You got kids?" McGrady asks his visitor, who replies that his five-year-old is performing in a school show later that week.

"I can't wait for that," McGrady says, "for Layla to begin doing that stuff. To go to see her in shows, so I can go do all that with her. I love it. I love being her dad."

Never mind that this kitchen is as big as many houses or that an indoor basketball court is down the hall or that his private jet is parked a few miles away. For a moment, anyway, he's just a dad, a guy eating a hamburger who says he wants to do his job better, a guy who says he wants us to appreciate him more. Is it possible he's more like us than we think? ■

"Look, people have no idea what it's like to be me, to be the guy who is blamed for the problems when the team is losing," McGrady says. "What if people came to your job, if your company wasn't doing well, and said, 'YOU, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM'?"
"Some nights I did slack off," says McGrady of last season. "I'm the leader, and these guys are following my lead, so the WHOLE TEAM SUFFERS EVEN WORSE. That was wrong. Now I would do it differently. I learned. I have to bust my butt no matter what."
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr.RELOCATION His new 25,000-square-foot house is a home now that McGrady has brought his fiancée and their daughter to Houston.TWO COLOR PHOTOSMANNY MILLAN (2)THE MING THING Though McGrady has served up some tasty stuffs for Yao, the two stars haven't consistently brought out the best in each other.COLOR PHOTOJIM GUNDCOLOR PHOTOBILL FRAKESCOLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLANCOLOR PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.UPON REFLECTION The 25-year-old McGrady is facing up to the fact that his challenge in Houston is make-or-break.