Can’t Walk Away
Don’t turn your back on T-Mac.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
The music just happened to be blaring in the Pistons’ locker room, and when I approached Tracy McGrady to ask him a few questions, I was concerned about how the interview would sound when I transcribed it later. But when I sat at my computer and hooked up my recorder, the T.I. song “No Matter What” neatly played under his voice like a soundtrack. It was perfect.
I ain’t dead (nah)
I ain’t done (nah)
I ain’t scared (of what!)
I ain’t run (from who!)
But still I stand (yeah)
No matter what people here I am… (yeah)
No matter what remember
I ain’t break (never)
I ain’t fold (never)
They hate me more (so!)
Yeah I know… (ha ha)
Here I go (yeah)
No matter what shawty here I go (ha ha)
No matter what shawty
Life has a way of coming full circle. And sometimes the end of a journey brings more elements of tragedy than closure. If closure comes with acceptance, then most athletes must learn a self-awareness that comes with the patience of understanding limitations — and eventually succumbing to them.
Pistons guard Tracy McGrady missed 99 games over the past two seasons due to surgeries on his left knee. He is trying to rebuild himself on a rebuilding team, as the current states of both starkly contrast a period of former dominance in the NBA.
Before the season, the 13-year NBA veteran auditioned for team after team after team, resembling a hopeful draft prospect rather than a seven-time All-Star. McGrady — owner of a highlight reel filled with alley-oop passes to himself and dynamic scoring barrages — had to convince teams that he still has some of that left in the tank.
Asked if it was a surreal experience auditioning for teams, McGrady didn’t seem fazed or perturbed by the quick turnaround in status. For him, trying out for teams was something that needed to be done. “You’re flying around to different teams, and you’re doing all these workouts to try to prove your worth, and you know, it’s just something again that I had to do,” he says. “And obviously, under different circumstances because of the situation I was in with my injury, but I’m on a team. I’m trying to help these guys, the younger players, and be a leader and be a great teammate.”
Asked what advice he gives his teammates, McGrady says, “Just how to be a professional. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. How to be a professional, how to conduct yourself on and off the basketball court.”
And that’s exactly what it’s about. McGrady was the highest paid player last season at $23.2 million, and took almost a $22 million pay-cut to sign with the Pistons at the veteran’s minimum. Last season, he was sent from the Rockets to the Knicks in what New York hoped would bring some spark to a fading team. It was a theoretical audition that ended with shaky results due to a shaky knee. And then came the Pistons, who shared the same hopes for McGrady as the Knicks, without having to pay the same hefty price for his services.
While the motives of the teams that hired him are undisguised, something just doesn’t seem right. It’s almost as if he’s not supposed to go out this way. Clubs with championship hopes provide limbo from the League to life after for aging veterans, not teams searching for an identity.
But McGrady is searching for an identity as well, or at least trying to reclaim it. Asked about his knee, he says, “It’s getting better. It’s getting stronger.” He says the main part is “just being able to get through the mental stage.”
McGrady has been candid in dealing with his injury. Regarding the process, he says, “It’s a struggle. Anytime you have a significant knee injury, or injury, period — especially when you’re a athletic player. And when your knees go out — I mean, that’s something that gives us (athletic players) an advantage on players in this league. So, you know, when you kind of lose a little bit of that edge, you kind of got to modify your game a little bit and it’s just a tough thing to get through mentally.”
Does McGrady think that sometimes the situation is mind over body — that his mind is telling him he can do things that he no longer can? “That happens all the time, yeah, as you get older in this league a lot of players will learn that,” he says.
Teammate Ben Wallace understands what McGrady is going through. “I mean it’s tough,” says Wallace. “You know going from being one of the premier players in this league and now having an injury that’s stopping you from doing what you know you capable of doing. I mean, it’s tough. All we can tell him is that the team gonna support him, we gonna be behind him 100 percent. Regardless of what he do on the floor, we gonna be with him, we gonna back him.”
“I’m gonna keep working hard. That’s what I’m gonna do,” says McGrady. “If I can’t do it no more, then at least I can tell myself that I gave it a shot. I played at a high level in this league for such a long time, you know 14 years. It’s unfortunate that I’m going through what I’m going through, but I’m not gonna give up until my body and everything just shut me down.”
Asked how he wants to be remembered, McGrady says, “Whatever they view me as. I mean, I think for quite so long I was able to carry teams in the regular season. Playoffs, I had individual success, but as far as team success, I didn’t have much of team success. I brought a lot of excitement to the game, I played it the right way, scored a lot of points. [Laughs] Just a guy that was very exciting to watch.”
While something seems amiss about a player at the twilight of his career ending up on a struggling team, perhaps there is a bigger picture than chasing a ring or even chasing extra minutes in the NBA. It is about an identity tied into basketball and a life that is not so easy to quit.
Asked what he wants out of this year and what would satisfy him as a player, McGrady says, “Me as a player? Being healthy. Individually, I want to be healthy.”
And as a team?
“We want to make the Playoffs. Right now, we’re not even thinking about the Playoffs ‘cause it’s too early. I think the main thing for us is to recognize who we are and what we gotta do to turn this thing around.”
For McGrady, the recognition will start within himself. And unfortunately, some aspects will still be beyond his control.