Tracy McGrady arrives in China with great expectations.
“I used to be a big fan of Shandong’s basketball team for more than 10 years back in the old days,” says Zhao Quan Min, a fan who showed up at the Qingdao University Gymnasium to watch McGrady and the Eagles play against the Bayi Rockets, “But I never really followed the new Qingdao Eagles. Of course, I used to like McGrady back when he used to play with Yao in the Houston Rockets. So it’s great that he’s here in our city.”
When asked about his expectations for the team this year, Zhao smiles and without a hesitation replies, “A championship.”
McGrady’s move is helping to bring non-basketball fans to the stadium, too. Wang Bi started coming to Qingdao’s home games after she heard about McGrady’s signing. She says she has been a fan of Mai Di for the past eight years. When asked why, she answered, “Because when I saw him on TV, he was so handsome, and cool!”
On game night, another group of fans sitting in the upper stands let their large banner—unfurled widely across the rows—do the talking: ‘T-Mac comes—Can Championship Be Far Behind?’
Speaking to reporters, McGrady admitted he knows little to nothing about his opponents in China. He’s new here, and he’ll learn. The CBA won’t be an easy league for him and his team, and there are no guarantees of success. But the city of Qingdao expects, and the fans are excited. Now, the pressure is on McGrady to deliver.
Or so we think. Because as the man himself claims, there is no pressure at all.
China loves basketball, and McGrady, who spent the best-remembered years of his career in Houston with China’s greatest player, Yao Ming, is rightfully loved in China. He has been a superstar in the US, and his arrival in China has been greeted with frantic fan frenzy. He was mobbed by fans as he first walked out through the airport, he is mobbed by fans screaming out his name at every home game, he has fans of other teams cheering for him, he has the attention of every person in the 1.4-billion strong country that cares for basketball, and even of a great number of those who don’t.
In the middle of this frenzy, this outpour of love and attention, McGrady seems as calm as ever.
“There’s no pressure!” McGrady exclaimed a day after his first home game in Qingdao—a loss to the Foshan Long Lions—when we asked him if he felt any burden of being the biggest basketball star to arrive in China, “No pressure. I just play ball. That’s all that I know to do.”
McGrady has had a rough start to his career with the Eagles, and the team has gone through a major transition phase since finishing ninth last season, their best ever finish since the team’s inception in 2003. Gone are last year’s All-Stars Li Gen and the American Lester Hudson. In came McGrady and former NBA player DJ Mbenga, who was soon replaced after a rough start by the American Chris Daniels. To put it bluntly, the surrounding cast in the team around McGrady is weak, but that is the price that the team has to pay for signing a former NBA superstar. Speaking to reporters, McGrady made clear that one of his goals is to help his Chinese teammates get better.
The Eagles finished last season with a 16-16 record, their best ever finish in the CBA. After a rough start to this season, the team fired their Korean head coach Kang Jung-Soo and promoted junior coach Zhang Shizhang to the top post. Unfortunately, as the new coach is learning, success won’t be too easy, even with T-Mac’s talents. Nine games in, McGrady’s Eagles are the worst team in China. At the time of writing, they were 0-9 and T-Mac was still looking for his first win in China. The team will have to work hard and figure out their identity if they plan to fulfill their first goal: to start winning games. The fans’ dreams of the playoffs, or that improbable championship, will have to wait for later.
But will there be a later? With the exception of Marbury, many foreign players have the tendency to use China has just a stepping stone or a phase in their career. There are no guarantees if McGrady will be in Qingdao, or even in China next season. McGrady sounded non-committal about his future too.
“I’m not thinking about long-term plans right now,” he said. “I don’t think that far ahead. I go day-by-day. I don’t know what the future holds for me.”
If he doesn’t have a clear future, then McGrady will have to make the most of his present time with the team. And whether or not he likes to admit it, this is a team that is under major spotlight this season, and with every loss, the pressure on the players is going to increase exponentially. China loves McGrady because they love basketball superstars. But China loves winning even more.
Marbury—another great talent from the NBA who couldn’t find success back home—was able to turn it around and win an elusive championship with the Beijing Ducks in China. Marbury always had fans in China, but becoming a champion turned him into a legend. A statue of him—paid by the Ducks’ fans—stands outside the Wukesong/MasterCard stadium where his team won the CBA Finals last season.
McGrady will have no problem having individual success in China, putting up big stats (he’s currently averaging over 25 points, 4 assists and nearly 6 rebounds per game), and in the process, remaining extremely popular. He has been a great individual player and a popular one before, in the NBA. But he was never too successful with his team, and never tasted the sweet success of an NBA Championship. Now in China, he has to turn his fortunes like Marbury did and turn individual brilliance in to team success.
There will be questions and concerns constantly surrounding him. He’s in his 30s now and is being expected to carry a heavy load for the Eagles. Will he be able to do it on a consistent basis at this age? He has also been constantly hampered with injuries in the past, injuries that cut short what could have been an even better career.
The journey ahead won’t be easy. There will be loud noises screaming at McGrady on court and loud fan frenzy chasing him off of it. There will be the need to win and to entertain, to dominate and to help others in his team dominate. To stop his opponents and go somewhere neither he nor his new team has never been before.
Luckily for McGrady, he is already blessed with one weapon for the road ahead. He may look calm, slow, and a little too relaxed at times, but don’t be fooled: because like the art of Tai Chi makes one move gracefully to become stronger, McGrady has the graceful talent to come out stronger than ever on the basketball court. The eyes won’t always show it, but a switch will constantly flip off and on—multiple times a game—when he turns the calmness into deadliness, the lethargy into swift concentration.
When he becomes the most dangerous player on court.
Translated from and originally published in SLAM China.