Tracy McGrady arrives in China with great expectations.
by Karan Madhok / @hoopistani
It’s an afternoon practice session at the Qingdao University Gymnasium. It’s a big city debut in the evening in Shanghai. It’s the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It’s the first round of the NBA Playoffs in Houston. It’s him as an athletic 18-year-old straight out of high school in Toronto. It’s him in his mid-30s as a veteran in China.
No matter what jersey he’s wearing, no matter the time or age, no matter the opponent, Tracy McGrady’s on-court demeanor rarely changes. Without the ball, he moves slowly, almost seeming to lumber painfully from one side of the court to the other. Once the whistle blows and the game begins, he speeds up a little, but his body language still gives the impression of lethargy, of being a little too relaxed, of being a little too disoriented.
But blink and you may miss the sudden spurt of energy, a sudden flash, an unexpected spin around an opposing defender, a perfect catch of the ball, a sudden spark of complete concentration, of complete orientation, a couple of quick dribbles to beat the next defender, a quick jump shot, a perfect swish.
Tracy McGrady may have landed in China as a professional just a few months ago, but a little bit of China has always been in the man who local fans now adoringly refer to as “Mai Di.” NBA players have a variety of different training regimes, but there is one—the practice of Tai Chi—that seems to be inherent in Mai Di’s game, whether or not he realizes it. Tai Chi—China’s centuries-old form of exercise and martial art—is a system of slow meditative physical exercises, designed for relaxation, for balance of health, for defensive training.
Walk down through any public park in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or McGrady’s new home of Qingdao, or anywhere across the country, and you’ll see Tai Chi in action. Young and old (well, mostly old!) Chinese practitioners exercising in slow physical meditation. Not every form of physical workout needs to be externally grueling; Tai Chi proves that the slow, almost lethargic-looking form of exercise can perform wonders, can offer the perfect internal balance, can prepare its subject physically, mentally and spiritually for grueling tests of the body and the mind ahead.
From Auburndale High School to the Mount Zion Christian Academy, from Toronto to Orlando, from Houston to New York, and from Detroit to Atlanta, Tracy McGrady—probably unwittingly—honed his Tai Chi skills. In the process, he became the best high school player in the US, became the ninth pick in the NBA, won a Most Improved Player award, was named to the All-NBA First-Team twice, became an NBA scoring champion twice, and played in seven consecutive NBA All-Star games. He became one of the most popular players in the world, and most importantly, one of the finest basketball players in the world.
And in 2012, he arrived in China, the land where Tai Chi has flourished, to flourish with his own command of Tai Chi Basketball. He arrived in the city of Qingdao to guide the city’s DoubleStar Eagles to greater heights than they have ever before.
The Chinese Basketball Association is at its most advanced stage yet. The league has never been better. The talent level in each team stronger than ever before, there is more balance in the league than ever before, and with each passing year, the league gets richer and more popular across the world. There are also a high number of talented foreign players spread across the league, many of whom have been big names in the NBA in past years.
Foreign players have been hitting up Chinese shores for over a decade, but the most-hyped breakthrough first came when Bonzi Wells came in to play for the Shaanxi Brave Dragons. An unsuccessful stint by Yao Ming’s former teammate Steve Francis followed, but the league truly came into global attention when Stephon Marbury bought his talents to China. Marbury’s journey eventually took him and the Beijing Ducks to their first CBA championship in 2012. A year ago, during the lockout in the NBA, a multitude of NBA players—including Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, JR Smith, and Aaron Brooks—all chose to play professionally in China.
Looking around the CBA today, the list of foreign players can sometimes read as a list of the NBA’s ‘Where Are They Now?’ Mike Harris, Rashad McCants, Shavlik Randolph, DJ Mbenga (McGrady’s former teammate in Qingdao), Al Thornton, Quincy Douby, Josh Boone, James Singleton, Von Wafer, Randolph Morris, Sundiata Gaines, and Ike Diogu are earning their salaries far from home in China. Marbury is still leading the Ducks’ offense. This year, multiple-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas finds himself (chilling on the injury list) in Shanghai.
But let’s be real: Tracy McGrady has arrived this season as the biggest foreign name in the history of the CBA. Never before has an American star of his caliber played in front of China’s local audiences, been a teammate to their own players, represented a team of one of their own cities. Tracy McGrady, the man who played 15 fruitful years in the NBA. Tracy McGrady, the man who averaged 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game through his career. Tracy McGrady, who once scored 13 points in 35 seconds.
That Tracy McGrady is now playing in China.
Qingdao is a beautiful city on in the Shandong Province on China’s East Coast. It’s one of the cleanest and greenest of the major cities in the country, and even earned the title of China’s Most Livable City in 2009 and 2011 by the Chinese Institute of City Competitiveness. The city is home to beautiful German-style architecture, pleasant beaches, wide roads, mountains spotting across the city limits, and most-famously, to China’s well-known Tsingtao Beer. Like McGrady, the city is laid-back and easy-going.
The Qingdao Eagles were formed in 2003, and since then, the city’s professional basketball team hasn’t yet had any memorable seasons in the CBA. They have featured a few half-decent foreign players in the past—like Dee Brown and Ivan Johnson—but the squad was never good enough for a playoff run.
But with McGrady’s addition this year, their fans—young and old—are expectant of great things.