Jul. 12, 2018

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"I Can Still Go"

Tracy McGrady showed us the permanence of athletic heroism, by letting us see its limits

By the time Devin Brown got back on his feet, Tracy McGrady was sprinting the other way. Just a minute earlier, Brown’s San Antonio Spurs led by ten points. McGrady cut it to two by draining three-straight baskets, each more difficult than the last, but a Houston win still seemed unlikely. With six seconds to go the historically machine-like Spurs inbounded the ball to Brown in the corner—all he had to do was hang on and wait. Instead, he slipped and fell, and the ball found McGrady. Now, Houston’s star was on the run with the game in his hands.
Brown caught up just as McGrady pulled-up to shoot, twenty-six feet from the basket. It’s the type of shot that Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors have normalized now, but, in 2004, earned most shooters a seat on bench. McGrady didn’t hesitate. With three seconds left, he rose skyward and dumped a bucket of water on the Spurs’ circuitry.
Watching live, I couldn’t help but mime his movements. I was alone in my parent’s living room, shooting imaginary jump-shots. I wanted to feel what he was feeling, to understand it on some distant physiological level. The image of him roaring after the game winner—neck veins bulging, eyes aflame—remains clear in my mind, almost fourteen years later.
I was a teenager then, a kid growing up in middle-of-nowhere Ontario with a hoop in the driveway. Basketball filled most of my days. Time felt painfully slow and unlimited: everything was new or undefined or unknowable. I didn’t yet have a sense of an ending.
On that December night McGrady scored thirteen points in thirty-five seconds, and the Rockets won by a single point. It remains one of basketball’s great comebacks and a formative moment of my fandom. It wasn’t actually significant—basketball games in December never really are—but it felt like a temporary lifting of reality, like McGrady was no longer subject to human limitation or constrained by time.​

McGrady’s career began too early and ended too late. He entered the league at eighteen years-old, long-limbed and radiating potential, but at times unsteady and unsure. By twenty-three, though, he led the league in scoring. The next season, he did it again. For a few years, on any given night, he could be the most dominant player in basketball. There was a dreaminess to the way he played, an ease and fluidity that belied his athleticism, a looseness that could be mistaken for passivity. When McGrady was on, when he let his athleticism uncoil, he was the league's most lethal offensive player.
You wouldn’t know that in his final few years. His game, once explosive and fearless, turned ground-bound and outdated. He became a rootless wanderer, playing for four different teams and never lasting more than a season with any of them.
He didn’t age gracefully like his cousin, Vince Carter. Vince constantly reinvented his game as his athletic capacities diminished, transforming himself from a singular springy phenomenon into a well-rounded, thoughtful veteran. Most players don’t do this, or can’t. They cling to a former idea of themselves, and their minds deceive them as their bodies betray them. They struggle as they fall from the lofty perches of stardom. McGrady bottomed out and then hung on too long.
We can take a guess as to why that is, but we don't know. We understand athletes through the fragments of personality and narrative and insight we receive. I am part of this problem, every fan is. We all participate in the mythmaking. We watch to see the spectacular, to find the limits of possibility, to write stories in our minds and encode them to memory. We forget that, with every recollection, things change—time pulls us further from the truth. We remember the last time we told the story, not the original event.
There’s a lot at stake; memory is a route back to ourselves. What happens when the things that define us disappear? For the athlete, and for the fan, recent history can become haunting. A moment becomes all encompassing, replayed and re-watched while your now less-remarkable life goes on.
This uncertainty can manifest in delusion. Visibly broken by a merciless series of injuries and frustrated by his final seasons, McGrady told a reporter in 2013, “I can still go, man. My body is still in shape. I can go. It's about opportunity, though. I want no limits on who I am and what I can do." Later he’d tell another, “I’m better than half the damn league, anyway.”
To those watching him, though, one thing was clear: The T-Mac he was talking about had been gone for years. "Tracy has milked every bit of basketball talent out of his body," an NBA executive told writer Les Carpenter at the time. "There's nothing left."

Today McGrady is gone from the NBA, and already enshrined in its hall of fame. Some of his cohort, though, remarkably, remain active players: Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili. The last athletes from the generation I grew up watching, and the ones who pulled me to the sport. But they are wavering. Once brazen and unconquerable, they're set to disappear one-by-one as their abilities fade and their roles diminish. A new class of athletes are settling into their place.
A thing they don’t tell you about watching sports is how quickly it ages you, how it compresses time and forces an accelerated reading of it. Years shrink to individual moments—2004 becomes the year of McGrady’s comeback, or when the Pistons won the championship. Athletes, fairly or not, become variously fungible assets, their value dictated by their age and remaining athletic potential. Sports fandom has always had elements of voyeurism, and the watcher is not immune to the effects of the spectacle. The truncated career of the professional athlete forces us to consider our own fleeting opportunities and warns us of time’s unbreaking stride.
It is often painful, now, to see my childhood heroes excel. Not because of their loss of strength or speed, though there is that, but because there exists a refusal to accept the moment for what it is. When Vince completes a men’s league-level layup the announcer will rush to declare that vintage Vinsanity has returned. But of course it hasn't, and it won’t, and it can’t. It’s an unfortunate tick—enthusiasm bleeding into dishonesty.  
I am not impervious. I see familiar flashes and I return to that era. Dirk sticks a one-legged fade-away, Manu threads a pass through a gap smaller than the ball, Vince soars, however briefly, but with an intent still clear and righteous. Suddenly the tractor is backfiring next door, and the ball is rolling down the driveway, into the ditch, and gravel is sticking to the leather.
The bright-eyed players of my youth will soon limp achingly into retirement, a lifetime of basketball having done its damage. It’s a weird thing. I have known them as out-sized talents, and I’ve wanted to believe they somehow bypassed the treachery of aging. In some ways, they have.  They created transcendent moments that are revived and re-lived and remembered long after they're out of the public eye. Beyond those singular memories, though, is something more human. McGrady—and the outgoing class of basketball's stars—showed us the permanence of athletic heroism, by letting us see its limits.

"Tracy has milked every bit of basketball talent out of his body," an NBA executive told writer Les Carpenter at the time. "There's nothing left."

McGrady’s final season began with a try-out. He went to camp with the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs, but didn’t make either team. Instead, he signed in the Chinese Basketball Association. When he landed at the airport in Chengdu, hundreds of fans were there to greet him, colourfully dressed in the various jerseys of his career: Toronto, Orlando, Houston. McGrady had some exciting moments in China—he scored a lot of points and did so quite easily—but his team finished in last place.
By mid-April, the Chinese season complete, McGrady was back in the NBA. He signed with the still-dominant Spurs just in time for the playoffs. McGrady had been a lot of things in his career but, up until that moment, he had never sought the easy route to a championship. It almost worked. He got past the first round of the playoffs for the first time and eventually reached the finals, but he was never really there. The Spurs lost in seven games and one of history’s purest and most prolific scorers failed to register a point. He watched his career close from the end of the bench, and then he was gone.
On occasion, when I play pickup or shoot around with friends, he returns. The old Vince does, too. Same with Dirk and Manu. Their names are still brought up, their best moments rehashed and poorly imitated.  They are different now, of course, as humans and as players. There is no grand pronouncement. It just happens.
It will be strange when they finally walk away, but there is peace in it, too. There’s comfort in seeing former players settle into second lives, as high school coaches or fast food investors or ballooned-up golf dads. Early in his retirement, McGrady reflected on life after basketball. “Right now, I’m just enjoying my life and enjoying being free,” he told a reporter. “My kids love it, and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to be around them. My boys are seven and four right now, and my daughters are ten and five. Just to be able to go out and get to see them play in their Little League, basketball league, and soccer league, it feels so good to be out there and to see that. I love that. They love having me there, seeing them play, and that brings joy to me.”

McGrady tried baseball for a bit, and then got more into business, and then started broadcasting. He seems at peace now, if not still bitter about a more lasting greatness robbed by a run of bad luck and a cruelly-short window for success.

When I think about that winter night in 2004, when McGrady crossed some cosmic threshold, I can't help but think too of Devin Brown, the journeyman who turned the ball over into McGrady’s hands and made the game-winner possible. 

After the buzzer, McGrady and his teammates celebrated in a happy churn at centre court. Brown stood unmoving in the far corner, arms hanging loosely at his sides, mouth agape, the memory still crystalizing. After that season, Brown would appear on five different teams before quietly slipping out of the league, eventually retiring after a stint in Poland. I wonder, now, if he can still feel that moment. If he can still sense McGrady approaching, can still hear the crowd. Once Brown slipped, the fate of the game felt certain, inevitable. I wonder if he can still see the clock.

Sam Riches is a writer and journalist. His work can be found in the Walrus, the New Yorker, and Longreads

Drake Cereal is a basketball illustrator living and mostly-working on Toronto's Dundas Street West

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