I met Tracy McGrady, once. It wasn't really a personal interaction, and at the time, I didn't think much of it. Perhaps I still shouldn't make much of it: he just signed an autograph on an old program from the Mavericks game I'd been to earlier in the year, said an obligatory hello to the star-struck pre-teen that I was, and moved on to the next fan behind me in line.
Now, though, I can't help but try and give that TMac signature, nestled symbolically between the signatures of Shawn Bradley, Michael Finley, and Dirk, the gravity that it deserves. I like to imagine that signature as having it's own space on the page. Separate -- yet related to -- the signatures around it, much like the real man's impact on me as a growing fan of the sport.
At the time, I didn't think much of that meeting and signature, partially because McGrady was so disinterested in me as a fan, but mostly because I was internally such a diehard Maverick-at-heart that I wouldn't allow myself to be awed by the personification of sheer talent standing several feet above me.
My dad and I had -- at that point -- been buying 6 Game Passes to Rockets games every year for the past few years (plus all the Mavericks and Phoenix Suns games). Those passes also bought us tickets to the Rockets' "family fun night," where all the players went to Dave and Busters to mingle with qualifying ticket holders.
Those 6 Game Passes, then, bought me that fondly-remembered moment with TMac, who is perhaps the most purely talented man to ever play the game, if not by any means or measure the best.
On a side note, the passes also bought me temporary name recognition from Rafer "Skip-to-my-Lou" Alston for a night, after I beat him at one of those basketball shooting games they have at D&B (which remains my greatest personal accomplishment, I think).
The most important thing that those 6 Game Passes probably bought, though, was my first really visceral and deeply personal interaction with the sport of basketball. I saw my childhood hero, Dirk Werner Nowitzki, live and in person, twice per year for several years. I even got his autograph, once.
I saw my favorite team warp and change as I rooted for them from the nose-bleeds, and then from the bottom floor, for years, whenever they came through.
I saw the seven-seconds-or-less Suns blister the Rockets just as often as I saw Dirk in his prime.
All of this is emblazoned powerfully in my memory as the time when I really discovered and learned to love basketball. But, the thing that never occurred to me until today is that the one, single constant from each one experience to the other is Tracy McGrady.
No matter what team was playing: Mavericks, Those Terrifying Early 00's Pistons, Suns, or just ANYBODY, TMac was almost always playing.
He wasn't always playing well: he was hurt a lot, and it was hard to tell occasionally whether he was injured or just didn't care about that particular game. Sometimes he mostly just walked from three point line to three point line.
Other times, he was just a fireball of scoring, setting the court alight. Watching him score 40 in person was not rare.
I think, in retrospect, that I never appreciated how much of an influence TMac had on my development as a fan and on my appreciation of the sport. He was always there, the shadow over my entire formative experience.
And he was incredible.
During the Rockets-Mavericks 2005 First Round Playoff series, I was 12 years old (so, yeah, I'm really young) and I had moved from Dallas to Houston 3 years prior.
Despite my age, I almost got the snot beaten out of me by a thoroughly inebriated grown man, as punishment for wearing a Dirk Nowitzki jersey and loudly and aggressively rooting for the Mavericks, in Houston, in a high-stakes playoff series. After all, this was probably the playoff series that defined the Houston-Dallas basketball rivalry from here on out, and I was wearing a Mavericks jersey, and I was loud about it. You could probably say I wasn't bright, too.
To my never-ending glee (I still hold this over my Rockets fan friends) the Mavericks won both games that I attended, games 3-4, at the Toyota Center. What I never really appreciated at the time was what, exactly, I was really getting to see in the process of going to the games. On the court each night were at least 2 HOFers there, probably 3 if Yao gets in because of his work in involving the Chinese market, and then JET, all in their primes, with Finley hanging on as best he could.
I think it's interesting, firstly, that people give McGrady grief over his playoff performance, as if he didn't try hard enough or play well enough. In '04-'05, he improved in basically every significant statistical category from Regular Season-Playoffs.
From the regular season to the playoffs that year, his TS% went up from 52.6% to 56.1%, REB% went from 8.9% to 10.5%, AST% went from 28.6% to 33% (!!!), and his PER went from 22 to 27. His average box score went from 26-6-6-2 to 30-7-7-2.
On the court, he was terrifying to me. The Mavs had lost both of the first games in Dallas, and both away games were do-or-die deals. No one before or since has really had that ability to just freak me out like TMac did. Maybe it was the heat of the moment, but even 2011 LeBron and 2006 Wade weren't as brutally scary as TMac was. It's hard to know why, exactly, that was, since both were (I think) better players than '05 McGrady.
Nonetheless, every time he had the ball, it basically felt like it was time to panic. He wasn't supposed to have the ball. Why did he have the ball?! DAMMIT, DON'T LET TMAC EVER HAVE THE BALL!
I think part of it was preparedness. Wade and LeBron in their primes can, and will, completely and totally dominate every part of your world and there's just not much you can do. However, they're at least consistent about it: they have their sets of strengths and weaknesses. Knowing all of that won't help you much in trying to stop either player, but at least you know how they'll beat you, when they ultimately do.
McGrady, though, was mercurial. He was more Chimera than Minotaur; you never knew exactly how he was going to kill you on any given night. In a sense, he really could do everything, offensively. He had the total skill set, even if it was raw and vaguely unpolished. He just never really used it all at once.
Not knowing exactly what he was going to do on any given position, on any given day, was just paralyzing, though. With every jab step, you wondered whether you were going to get the Lion, the Goat, the Snake, or -- god forbid -- the whole thing, this game.
TMac scored 28 on that first game I went to (Game 3), and 36 on the second (Game 4). Dirk matched TMac's 28 the first night, but shot poorly in the second. Terry, however, had 32 in Game 4, to start his tradition of killing the Rockets.
Box Score for Game 3:
Box Score for Game 4:
Game 3 was amazing. Watching the game in the do or die situation, in enemy territory, in a game that absolutely went down to the last minute, made every cliché very serious and real. However, it will still always be Game 4 that I remember. Which is funny, for a Mavs fan, because Game 4 was the one where Dirk shot 4-14. Those are usually never fun games for Mavs fans.
Interestingly, though, It's also the game where TMac and Yao combined for 56 points on 61% and 88% TS% respectively, and the Mavs won anyway.
In a way, Game 4 was my introduction to real basketball Heroics, as JET -- GOD I miss him -- poured in 32 points on 82% TS%. It seemed like he made up for every single one of Dirk's misses. Finley, too, did his part, but JET brought that team, kicking and screaming, over TMac and Yao's insane performances.
No one from Dallas, or maybe even Houston, too, will forget TMac and Dirk's 48+ point duel in the '05 season (see video below for reference. Because it's awesome). But, for me, the duel forever stuck in my head was watching JET take on the TMac and Yao duo, with a little help from his friends.
Game 4 was just electric. Every heroic play from TMac and Yao brought the crowd closer to a fever pitch, and every time, just before the crowd totally lost it's shit, Terry hit one of his 6 three pointers to suck the energy right out the building. I'd never been a part of something so collectively emotional, and something so collectively dramatic, that the air itself was seemingly made aware of the excitement.
Here's Terry's performance, including a game winner with 26 seconds left (at 3:18, if you want to skip to it).
What I find most fascinating, in retrospect, is that it's not Terry's 32 points that I really loved so much about this game. It's the fact he scored 32 points to win the game, despite the other heroics by Tracy McGrady. Watching the two, in person -- JET, my new hero as I saw him, the Bellerophon who finally slew McGrady's Chimera -- is where I developed my sense of drama and sport. McGrady was the personification of drama in basketball, for me.
Because, after all, McGrady is the backdrop by which I grew to love basketball. For everything that was amazing: Nash oops to Stoudemire, Ben Wallace rejections, and Dirk one-legged fadeaways, there was Tracy McGrady, there to provide my sense of how amazing all of these performances really were.
How amazing were Stoudamire's dunks when compared to TMac's? How great was Wallace's defense if he could stop McGrady? How great was Dirk's shot, if it could stand up to McGrady's off-the-dribble pull up?
McGrady may not have really taught me about flash and pizazz in the game, the way Nash did; or defense, like Wallace; or jumpshooting, like Dirk; or even heroics, like JET.
TMac did, though, teach me how to appreciate the Suns's flash, Wallace's defense, JET's heroics, and just about everything else, simply by being there as my barometer for being amazing. Because, after all, he was one of the best at being Amazing that we've seen in a while.
By that measure, he taught me how to really appreciate basketball. For that, I can't thank him enough.
See in you in Springfield, Tracy.