While pro hoopers tend to reach the peak of their abilities in the NBA, we take pride in the fact that we begin covering the world’s best players before they’re the world’s best players: when they’re in high school, still unknown to the majority of the basketball world. This week and next we’ll be looking back at the PUNKS features that introduced a variety of current NBAers to our faithful readers. (Peep what we’ve ran in this series to date at the bottom of this post.) Up next: the Tracy McGrady piece below, originally printed in SLAM 18 (June ’97).—Ed.
by Anthony McCarron
It was the jaw-dropping stamp on a week that witnessed Tracy McGrady’s journey from gangly unknown to The Man.
ABCD Camp at Farleigh Dickinson’s Teaneck, NJ, campus: The 6-8 McGrady had wowed fans, scouts and college coaches for a week and was putting the finishing touches on his MVP showing in the senior All-Star game. On the break, he came downcourt on the left wing, looked up and saw only 6-9 James Felton, a St. John’s recruit out of Bayonne’s (NJ) Marist High, blocking his path to the rim.
He soared, cradled the ball in his right hand and windmilled it over Felton for a dunk that sent the other campers stampeding out of the stands, high-fiving and hugging. McGrady smiled.
Just wait, Tracy.
Indeed, the day cameras are on hand to record all of his jams isn’t far off, although it’s unknown exactly where he’ll be playing. McGrady considered to be the best player in the nation by some, might skip college and try the NBA Draft. If not, he’ll choose between Kentucky, UCLA, Michigan and Florida State. Heck, he’s already got the nickname for big-time hoops: Showtime.
Not bad for a player who last year was just trying to get some exposure. McGrady, 17, hails from tiny Auburndale, FL. His monster game didn’t get much pub, even though he averaged 24 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks a game as a junior at Auburndale High. In fact, he almost didn’t get invited to ABCD. Directors had nearly finished their list when they decided to include him. A week later, he won the same award Kobe Bryant had won the year before.
He also earned some heavy praise. Most recruiting gurus hadn’t listed McGrady among their top 500 players entering the summer. Afterward, one called him “the biggest sleeper since Shaq.” (O’Neal, a military brat, only busted out nationally his senior year in San Antonio, after years of moving around.)
Another recruiting analyst, Tom Konchalski, said, “McGrady came out of nowhere. There hasn’t been anyone like that since Michael Jordan in ‘80, when he came to Five Star and bowled people over.” (Jordan, a late bloomer, was once cut from his high school team.)
Joel Hopkins, McGrady’s coach at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham, NC, where he’s spending his senior year, adds, “In my opinion, there’s Tim Duncan at Wake Forest, and then Tracy is the second-best basketball player in the state. That includes all of the Charlotte Hornets.”
Well, G-Money might have something to say about that, especially since he copped hardware at the NBA All-Star game, and don’t get Mase started. But McGrady’s got plenty of game, perhaps enough to hang with the big boys.
So the whispers that started at ABCD have found their way to the ears of pro scouts, who have no choice but to be aware of McGrady. At the beginning of the season, Hopkins fielded calls from NBA scouts looking for Mt. Zion schedules, and they’ve been flocking to McGrady’s games and practices like Bob Hurley, Sr.’s players flock to a loose ball.
“If I’m in the top 15 picks, why not [turn pro]?” McGrady wonders. “If you’re that good, it’s a good opportunity. I just want to play with the best. I’m playing basketball to get to the top.”
That’s the reason he left Florida for Mt. Zion, where he traded certain teenage freedoms—dating, trips to the mall, the chance to listen to music—for mad comp and academic discipline. McGrady has his classroom stat sheet in shape because of the school, he says.
And playing for Mr. Hopkins has helped him keep his game rolling. Mt. Zion may have as many as nine Division I prospects on its roster, so McGrady and his ‘mates only get better killing each other at practice. They’ve also had the chance to call “Next” at Duke. Last fall, they played pickup against the Blue Devils, including Greg Newton, Ricky Price, Roshown McLeod and Jeff Capel. They lost by one.
“That was wild,” McGrady says. “Afterward, kids were coming up to us and getting our autographs, instead of the Duke players.”
So he’s as popular in Carolina as he is back home in Auburndale, where “everyone knows when I’m home, and we all go to the park and play ball. That’s what I love to do.
“And I like close games. I like to have the ball in my hands. I know I’m gonna score and we’ll win. I’m gonna make something happen.”
Pure showtime, baby.