by Bonsu Thompson | @DreamzRreal
The date is November 2, 2010. The place is the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Pistons’ arena. The opponent is the Boston Celtics. There are 35 seconds left in the first quarter when Nate Robinson misses a 21-footer. Teammates Charlie Villanueva and Tracy McGrady jump for the rebound. While Villanueva secures the board, McGrady feels a tear in his left knee––the knee that’s plagued him since 2008, requiring arthroscopic and microfracture surgeries in less than a year. It’s the same knee, which along with an assortment of other injuries (including a bad ankle that worsened said knee), demoted his profile from one of the League’s most feared scorers to brittle journeyman.
For the next three quarters, Tracy sits on the Pistons’s bench teary-eyed, thinking, “This shit is over.” The Central Florida native who skipped college to eventually dominate NBA competition for the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets—seven All-Star appearances, two NBA First-Team selections and consecutive scoring titles—was ending his remarkable career from the pine of a Lottery-bound organization. This is not how McGrady wanted to be remembered.
“T-Mac was unbelievable,” says Penny Hardaway, another former perimeter phenom who, too, destroyed on Disney turf. “He was tearing the League apart. He just dominated. With being very athletic and with the size…he passed the ball very well, too. His game reminded me a lot of mine.”
Fortunately, Tracy’s worst fears wouldn’t manifest. After the Boston game, he and his team would fly to Atlanta; the knee pain wouldn’t travel with.
It’s a season later now and McGrady is still in the League, pain-free and a member of the Atlanta Hawks. The weathered 32-year-old is no longer the impossible defensive assignment he once was—a 6-8 2-guard equipped with a first step as quick as it was long and a jumpshot that featured a Dunk Contest-contender’s lift, impeccable apex form and ridiculous range.
What Tracy McGrady is today: an owner of career averages of almost 20, 5 and 5 and—amidst an ’11-12 season that’s as mean to its elders as Bébé’s Kids—the potential MVP of the Hawks’ bench. Did we mention he’s pain free?
The sad part is that McGrady’s deterioration—which lead to his scoring average plummeting to single digits after the ’08-’09 season—might have been prevented. “Tracy had a bad ankle condition years ago when he was in Toronto, and the bio-chemics were never fixed—that caused the knee pain,” says Dr. Keith Pyne, sports chiropractor and the man responsible for McGrady’s relief. “So I fixed the bio-mechanics of the ankle and knee, then said to him, You have really [inflamed knee tendons]. The best guy I know to get rid of that is Dr. Peter Wehling in Germany.”
On a cold January afternoon, the man who once scored 13 points in 33 seconds dials up SLAM to discuss his body’s recovery, sending Kobe to Germany and what it will take for the Hawks to advance him out of the first round for the first time in his 15-season career.
SLAM: Last year you’re thinking your career ends in Detroit. You get to Atlanta and your knee’s fine. What happened exactly?
Tracy McGrady: I was struggling at the early part of that season. I felt good in the offseason, but when I got to camp I had a little setback so my knees weren’t as strong. Playing Boston, I felt something rip in my knee. At the time I didn’t know what it was; not thinking that when I was training with Tim Grover in Chicago he told me that I was gonna need to keep playing on [my knee] to break up the scar tissue. So after that game I get to Atlanta and I’m in my room walking around, stretching, and I’m confused because I don’t feel any pain. I wake up the next morning and I feel good. I get to the arena and I’m doing everything to hurt my knee—I’m playing on it, cutting—and I don’t feel any pain. So I told my trainer and he said, “You probably broke up some scar tissue.” That’s when I remembered what Tim Grover told me. From then on, I didn’t feel anymore pain.
SLAM: You’ve suffered injuries to your back, ankles, shoulder, knee… Can you imagine if you went to college?
TM: Oh I would’ve been done. It would’ve been over. Honestly, my first real injury was when I fell on my back in Orlando and started having back problems.
SLAM: Would you say your loss of athleticism stems more from the damage caused by your injuries or you aging while rehabilitating the injuries?
TM: The operation for a microfracture definitely hinders the athleticism, but it’s the aging as well. It’s a combination, but this is what separates guys who suffer injuries from being great players. What are you gonna do when you suffer a significant injury? You’re gonna fall back on your skills. I’m fortunate enough to play after an injury because I have those skills and basketball IQ.
SLAM: Today your knee is healed because of the German injection process that Kobe brought attention to. But you received it first and even advised Kobe to have it, correct?
TM: Tim asked me what I thought of the surgery and I said, Shit, it did wonders for me. He told me that Kobe was having some issues with his knee so I recommended that Kobe go over there.
SLAM: So last summer was the first off-season in years where you didn’t have to rehab. What was your workout regimen like?
TM: I train extremely hard during the offseason. I don’t play any pickup ball. Never did. I work on my individual skills. So this summer, having come off of this injury, I told myself I was also gonna play a lot of pickup ball to get my body ready for back-to-back games. I played a lot of pickup. Went down to Houston and played with guys like Rashard Lewis, TJ Ford, Kyle Lowry, Reggie Evans, a bunch of them. We got it in.
SLAM: You’ve said that playing now is more of a mental game and you know your limitations. What are some specific things that you can’t do on-court?
TM: In my day, it was nothing to take anybody off the dribble on any night. It was nothing for me to go left or right and spin back to create a shot. I can’t do all of that now. I probably can do it, but in my mind I’m like, Ummm nah, don’t do that [laughs].