Picture trying to squeeze a 15-year playing career down into a tiny ball that could fit into the palm of your hand, something so compact, yet full of weight and significance.
When Tracy McGrady made that first 3-pointer, the Rockets were still down by five points to the Spurs on Dec. 9, 2004 and nobody shuffling toward one of the exits of Houston’s Toyota Center could have imagined the history they were turning their back on.
It was Halley’s Comet meeting the Big Bang.
“People forget how incredible a talent he was.” — Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams.
Boom! McGrady poured in 13 points in the final 35 seconds — including the game-winner from 26 feet — to give the Rockets an 81-80 victory.
“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen happen in a basketball game,” said teammate Dikembe Mutombo.
“We didn’t know what hit us,” said Manu Ginobili of the Spurs.
“That’s the kind of performance that takes a unique talent and a very, very special player,” said Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. “Don’t tell me that he isn’t one of the most special athletes ever this play this game.”
McGrady could have deserved a special corner in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame just for that singular effort that still gets hits today and sends chills down your spine when you pull it up on YouTube.
But the truth is that the legend of T-Mac was constructed from a decade of similar feats on the court that might seemed apocryphal if they hadn’t been captured on video.
Entering the league with Toronto as an 18-year-old straight out of high school, by the dawn of the 21st century McGrady could do just about anything he wanted with a ball in his hand and a basket in front of him. T-Mac was a 6-foot-8 bundle of long arms, powerful, springy legs and an imagination with few limits. He was combination of power and grace, mixing shifty moves for silky layups with rainbow shots for 3-point buckets and rim-rattling drives for slam dunks.
McGrady could rebound when needed, could hit a barely-open teammate on the money with a thread-the-needle pass anytime he wanted, fill up the hoop with as many points as required and also go to the other end of the court and lock down his man with some heady defense.
T-Mac, at his peak, had more tools in his belt and more raw talent from which to draw than few who played the game. He was a walking highlight film — the resounding spike dunk over 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley, the 62 points dropped on the heads of the Wizards. He scored 36 points in 27 minutes at the 2006 All-Star Game in Houston, yet wasn’t named MVP.
“People forget how incredible a talent he was,” said Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams.
The knock throughout a 15-year career that saw him win back-to-back scoring titles, make seven All-Star teams and get named to the All-NBA teams seven times was that he could never get his teams to the second round of the playoffs.
Yet it was no less than Kobe Bryant who reportedly told TV host Jimmy Kimmel that McGrady was the toughest opponent he’d ever faced. Ahead of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and all the other stars of his era. When later asked to confirm that statement by columnist Bill Simmons, Bryant texted: “No question.”
The lack of postseason success had a lot to do with injuries to himself and key teammates. When he left the Raptors to join the Magic, Grant Hill suffered the first of his series of debilitating broken bones in his feet. When he moved to Houston, center Yao Ming and McGrady were a star-crossed pair that flirted with playoff success, but couldn’t break through because one or the other always seemed to break down.
“Toughness is one of those nebulous words,” Van Gundy said. “Toughness is being able to concentrate enough to carry out a game plan. Toughness is the ability to execute a play under duress, having a poise about you, making shots late in the game. That’s mental toughness, and Tracy has that. Taking on guys, beating a double team by yourself. Guarding tough players, like Nowitzki. That’s physical toughness, and Tracy has that, too. To say he doesn’t have toughness is ridiculous.”
McGrady has always shrugged off the criticism.
“Social media can give a lot of people voices these days, and the first thing they say is ‘No rings, no rings,’ ” McGrady offered recently. “You have to have a great team and some luck to get a ring, right? Unfortunately, I wasn’t blessed with that. But I go back at them with this: Anybody can win a championship. Everybody can’t get in the Hall of Fame.”
Queue up the video of those 13 points in 35 seconds.
Few ever even imagined half the things T-Mac could do, let alone get them done.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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