Monday, October 20, 2008

T-Mac's Sadly Unfolding Story Arc

This morning on NBA TV it scrolled across the ticker, the message that Houston Rockets swingman Tracy McGrady may miss the team's season opener on October 29 versus the Grizzlies due to "health issues." On Houston's media day last month, Mac announced that he hadn't fully healed from off-season surgery on his left knee, and would need an operation after the upcoming campaign to repair an arthritic left shoulder. Yes, you read that correctly: Tracy McGrady already has an injury so serious it will need a procedure at the conclusion of the season...and the season hasn't even started yet. That sounds insane, but it isn't really surprising: With Chris Webber now making his living under the employment of Ted Turner, Mac is the NBA's new resident MCS: Most Cursed Superstar.

McGrady has to be the only player in NBA history that peaked at the age of 23. I never thought he was as good as Kobe Bryant (not as good a defender, not as clutch), but he was damn close: The 6-foot-8, long-limbed frame, combined with the amalgamation of scoring, ballhandling, and playmaking capabilities, made Tracy the offensive fusion of an evolutionary George Gervin and Scottie Pippen. He averaged a 27, 8, and 5 at 21 (his first and breakout year with the Magic), a 26, 8, and 5 at 22, and an absurd 32, 7, and 6 at the aforementioned 23. In those latter two years, he was named All-NBA first team. By consensus, he was one of the two best all-around players in the game, and so his potential, though rarely spoken of, seemed obviously limitless.

But as Stephen A. might say...


(And if I were the Sports Guy, this would be the point that I made a reference to the inevitable "downward spiral" segment teaser of any VH1 "Behind the Music" episode.)

It all started going suddenly downhill from there. The Magic won a mere 21 games in 2004, as Mac missed 15 contests and shot the lowest percentage of his career - this was also the year that back spasms began establishing themselves as his personal Achilles heel. He would be traded to Houston that summer, and while he had a terrific year overall in his first year with the Rockets, he shot only 43 percent and the Rockets lost in the first round to the Mavericks.

Meanwhile, McGrady's once prescribed co-savior of the Magic, the conveniently redemptive Grant Hill, represented Orlando as a starter in the All-Star Game after playing in only 47 of a possible 328 games in the previous four seasons, and No. 1 pick Dwight Howard drew comparisons to a young Moses Malone. The Rockets missed the playoffs entirely the following year, and then, in 2007, Tracy was the victim of another first-round series exit, this time tasting defeat in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Jazz.

Last year, the Rockets won 22 consecutive games during the regular season (second most all-time), but lost Yao for the year in February, and once again, went one-and-done in the postseason, falling to Utah for the second straight year.

Which means that, at 29, and entering his 12th season, Tracy Mcrady has a career playoff series mark of 0-7, and there is no doubt that it is a bearing on the man's soul. McGrady is partially to blame for his embarrassing record: While the Magic were certainly overmatched in terms of personnel against Detroit in the 2003 postseason, he had his team up 3-1 and couldn't muster one more victory (naturally, this was the year the NBA changed it's first-round format from best-of-five to best-of-seven.) And he had a Game 7 at home in '07 against Utah but couldn't pull it out (the 29 points and 13 assists were heroic, but the key is to win the game).

But most of Tracy McGrady's misfortune seems to stem from ill-fate. How many times would he and a healthy Hill have made the Finals together in Orlando? He was forced to go at it alone. Why did a troublesome back sabotage his 20's and put a ceiling on his prime? We'll never know how good he could have been. Why did Yao have to suffer a stress fracture last year, on what could have been Houston's best team since Hakeem's '95 repeat squad? All those wins in a row meant nothing against the Jazz, not with Mac outmanned and reliving his soloist days with the Magic.

And why is it that, now that the Rockets have acquired Ron Artest and assured that McGrady will be a part of the most talented team of his life...he's already injured? The punt never, ever takes a T-Mac bounce.

You take a look at this Houston roster and think that they have a chance to be earth-shatteringly good. And earth-shatteringly good should at least get you past the first round. But if you're a McGrady fan, how realistically optimistic can you be? Things never seem to go in his favor.

Regardless, we root for him. We like him. And thus, may God bless his knee, back, and shoulder, may Yao remain on the court for the duration (or at least be healthy come spring), and may Ron Ron not go Ron Ron. For Tracy's sake.

P.S. And may they not beat my Lakers, under any circumstances.


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