By: Les Carpenter
I. A Long Goodbye
SUGAR LAND, Texas — The game does not leave gently. And so on a fall afternoon, with sunlight streaming through the windows of his home basketball gymnasium, Tracy McGrady practices hard for an NBA comeback he will never make.
His face sparkles with sweat. A gray T-shirt clings to his chest. He has been shooting three-pointers for more than an hour in a routine he has performed every day since completing a childhood dream of playing professional baseball. He must hit 500 of these three-pointers before he can stop. Music thumps from a nearby speaker. A silent tally builds…455…456…457.
He already knows the futility of his quest. It’s a few days before he left on a monthlong trip to China during which he hit the winning shot in a basketball exhibition, posed for hours of photographs and perhaps made millions in endorsements and future business.
The China trip had been booked since January, so even if an NBA team had called on the phone he has left on a nearby bench, he would not have been able to attend its training camp. He won’t sign unless he goes through camp. That wouldn’t be doing it right. If there’s going to be a comeback—and it doesn’t seem there is—he is going to do it right.
Still McGrady pushes through these workouts, because after 15 months away from the NBA there is something in these jump shots. His body feels young again.
The back spasms that sabotaged his prime seasons are gone. The left knee pain that took away his speed has disappeared. He is fresh. He is certain if he works extra hard and gets into what he calls “tip-top” shape, he can matter for a team again.
“I’m better than half the damn league, anyway,” he will later grumble.
He is 35 now and richer than any kid who never went to college could ever dream of being. His net worth has been estimated at $80 million, according to Wealth-X, an ultra high net-worth intelligence and prospecting firm.
“I’m better than half the damn league anyway.” – Tracy mcgrady
He is 35 now and richer than any kid who never went to college could ever dream of being.
For months businessmen have pilgrimaged here to discuss a plan that could dwarf his athletic legacy by changing the way people live, rebuilding the structure of our cities and recasting the fate of thousands of professional athletes destined to go broke.
“Unfortunately injuries robbed him of that greatness prematurely.” – Jeff Van Gundy
There was a time in his life when McGrady aspired to be like Magic Johnson, who has molded a new legacy, bringing economic revival to blighted neighborhoods. Now he wonders if maybe he can be bigger than Magic, making more money, helping more people.
He doesn’t need basketball any more than it seems to need him. But his 2014 has been sprinkled with these random dalliances that scream of a retiring athlete lost in transition, even as his purpose has never seemed clearer.
“He’s a Hall of Fame player, a great, great player. Unfortunately injuries robbed him of that greatness prematurely,” Jeff Van Gundy, his coach with the Houston Rockets, will later say.
“When you have injuries and take prime years off the career, it’s hard to rectify what you could have done with those years.”
McGrady hits his last jump shot, shakes and flops to the ground. He sighs, then stretches his legs. This had been a good workout.
“It’s a shame that it goes to waste,” he says.
II. T-Mac Time
Early this century, before the back ached and the knee went, Tracy McGrady could do almost anything on the basketball court. He was “T-Mac,” an exotic blend of power and grace, a shooting guard in a power forward’s body—gliding for layups and pile-driving dunks.
T-Mac could pass. T-Mac could rebound. T-Mac could guard the other team’s best scorer. T-Mac at his healthiest was complete in a way few have ever been complete.
And when the baskets came, they poured from his hands in a flurry of astonishing highlights, each bequeathed with its own title: the 13 points in 35 seconds, the 62 points against Washington, the dunk on Shawn Bradley.
“People forget how incredible a talent he was,” says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams.
Those days don’t feel that far gone.
“The Thing is, I canstill go, man” –Tracy mcgrady
Since walking away after the 2013 NBA Finals, he has worked hard to be Tracy McGrady, suburban father of four, husband and businessman, wearing suits to meetings and burying himself in financial prospectuses.
But then come these moments like today when 35 feels young, when he can hear the words of Kobe Bryant on that television interview calling him”the guy who actually gave me the most problems,” and the pride swells up. And Tracy turns into T-Mac.
T-Mac at his healthiest was complete in a way few have ever been complete.
“The thing is, I can still go, man,” T-Mac says. He is driving from lunch to his daughter Layla’s junior high school volleyball game, but the workout is still on his mind.
“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, not stand in the corner and shoot jump shots,” he says. “I want to be involved, that’s not saying 10 to 15 shots, I want to be involved. I don’t want to stand in the corner and shoot threes. That’s not me.”
The ideal team, T-Mac says, would be the Lakers. The Lakers are inexperienced. The Lakers need players. He could be the second star the Lakers must have to go with Bryant.
“This Kobe,” he says. “I could play with him.”
If only T-Mac could find a team that agrees with him. Even Williams, who fondly remembers the back-to-back NBA scoring titles McGrady had for his Magic a decade ago, sighs softly when asked about the comeback.
“Tracy has milked every bit of basketball talent out of his body,” Williams says. “There’s nothing left.”
Two former NBA head coaches who were asked about the possibility of a McGrady comeback deem it highly unlikely. “You’re talking about one of the most competitive businesses in the world,” one says. “He was a great player, but he’s been gone for a year. It would be almost impossible.”
Still T-Mac nods as he gazes over the steering wheel. These days he views the NBA as nothing but a bunch of kids happy with jump shots and highlight moves, oblivious to the work it takes to be great. He says they might be faster than him, but they don’t have the range to their game. They are not complete.
“The league is so young and they have no skills,” he says. “They have athleticism but no skills. Half these guys wouldn’t be able to play in the league when I first came into it. There’s only a handful I enjoy watching anyway. When Kevin Durant and LeBron are gone, who is going to carry the league? There’s no LeBron or Kevin Durant in the next batch.”
His words hang for a moment inside the car. Then T-Mac disappears. Tracy pulls into the school parking lot and walks toward the gym, just another dad in town watching his girl play sports in a life after basketball.
“HE WAS A GREAT PLAYER, BUT HE’s been gone for a year. it would be almostimpossible.” – NBA coach
III. The Bucket List and Baseball
In many ways, McGrady’s brief baseball career this year was more Tracy than T-Mac. Baseball was his first love, a passion he shared with his much older cousin C.J. back home in central Florida. It was C.J. who taught McGrady how to pitch, building a makeshift strike zone from couch pillows as they watched Yankees and Braves games on television. Basketball forced him to abandon baseball in high school, but he never lost his fascination with the game.
Years later, after McGrady was in the NBA and C.J. had died, he vowed that if he ever had the chance to play professional baseball, he would seize it. With the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League here in town and Tracy still in shape, it made sense he would find his way to their mound.
“How many people get to live out two dreams?” his wife, CleRenda, says.
It shouldn’t matter that McGrady’s record stands at 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA and 10 walks in 6.2 innings pitched or that his lone strikeout came in the league’s all-star game, after which he promptly retired. This was never about going to the major leagues or blocking the path of a righteous prospect. Rather it was the checking of a box on a bucket list that is a little bigger than the rest of ours.
“When I did it, I did OK,” he says. “They weren’t hitting the ball over the fence.”
He liked the camaraderie that came with the long bus rides, and he made the 6 a.m. Southwest Airlines flights on those occasions when the team traveled by plane. He did balk at some of the threadbare motels the club chose, preferring accommodations that rated more than half a star, but he made up for his vanity by treating the players to lavish dinners in big cities.
He vowed that if he ever had the chance to play professional baseball, he would seize it.
And yet the thing he loved the most, the challenge that satisfied the T-Mac in the Tracy, was that some of the hitters he faced had actually been real live big leaguers. This raised them in his mind to a status of equals, men who also reached the highest level of their chosen craft. None of these were more important than Lew Ford, the one-time Minnesota Twins outfielder who once hit 15 home runs in a major league season.
The other Skeeters called Ford “The Babe Ruth of the Independent League,” which was all T-Mac needed. Suddenly Ford was his target, his baseball Kobe. The one hitter he absolutely had to get out.
“I was nervous when I saw him,” McGrady says. “I thought for sure he was going to go deep on me.”
When Ford came to the plate, McGrady threw him a fastball. Ford swung. The bat cracked. And the Babe Ruth of the Independent League grounded into a double play.
Three weeks later, McGrady walked away. There was nothing left for him to prove.
“How many people get to live out two dreams?” –Clerenda mcgrady
IV. What’s Next?
Here is how Tracy McGrady is going to change the world.
He is going to teach athletes to take control of their money. He is going to make them understand what he has come to learn in the last four years, when the injuries piled up and the games played went down: that it is easy to grasp investing once you know the language. And once they have this knowledge, he will help to launch a revolution among players who have been told they are too dumb to ask the right questions.
He is going to teach athletes to take control of their money.
He has a plan to make this happen. It was a plan designed by a friend, Rodney Woods, who first approached him about the idea a few years ago and has been pushing him to study and visit factories and meet executives ever since.
In this plan athletes and entertainers—suddenly wealthy people like himself—will learn about minority-owned manufacturers and then invest in those companies, bringing capital and jobs to the very neighborhoods where they grew up.
The plan is more complicated, of course. It will include education and support for the athletes. It will help link those small minority-owned manufacturers with big companies, connecting, say, a carpet company in Memphis to a car company in need of floor mats. It has already involved hundreds of people in its development and will bring in thousands more when it goes fully live in December.
“I don’t know of anyone putting something togetherlike this on this scale.”- Robert Pagliarini
“I don’t know of anyone putting something together like this on this scale,” says Robert Pagliarini, a California wealth management expert who has represented athletes but is not affiliated with McGrady and Woods.
If the plan works as it should and athletes invest and the minority companies thrive, Tracy should become bigger than T-Mac ever was. He will have an empire not unlike that of Magic Johnson, who bought into neighborhoods no one would touch, building hope with his own brand of Starbucks and movie theaters. Tracy is convinced his will be bigger.
He can become, as David Martin, a Virginia trade and patent expert who is a key adviser to Woods, says, “The first NBA player who is a half-a-billion-dollar industrialist.”
“How many athletes is [Magic] saving?” Woods asked in his first pitch to McGrady. “What has Magic ever done for you? Did he show the athletes how to be successful? You have to show the athlete how it’s done.”
Tracy wants to show them. He wants to tell them how naive they are when they blindly hand their future to advisers without knowing where their money goes. He wants them to see how he has managed to keep his wealth intact by not spending foolishly and how when he did—like the time he bought his own plane—he extracted himself from those mistakes.
He can become “the first nba player who is ahalf-a-billion-dollar industrialist.”- David Martin
He wants them to hear the words of CleRenda, who told him back when his career was falling apart, “Think about the end before the beginning.”
He does not need to be T-Mac even as T-Mac beckons him to the court, tempting him with a taste of what he has missed and a final chance at reclaiming those games lost to the aching back and throbbing knee.
“It’s like walking away from somebody you love,” CleRenda says.
Only now he has a new love.
V. A Player in a New Game
The plan is the ideal replacement for basketball, the drive that can fuel the T-Mac in Tracy. One of the things Van Gundy loved most about McGrady was that he was different than the other players who never wanted to live beyond the game. McGrady went to Darfur, he went to China, he learned things, he had opinions. He was never going to be that player who sat on the couch when basketball was done. He was too smart for that.
McGrady smiles. Afternoon has turned to evening, and he is back in his home gym, but the basketballs are put away. He and Woods sit on a bench on the side watching his two youngest sons race toy cars across the court. The cars skitter over the wood, then crack against the cinder-block wall.
“If we’re not competing against nobody it’s no fun. you want competition.” – Tracy Mcgrady
“This is always going to be about competition, man,” he says. “I have the drive. It’s a challenge. It’s another challenge in my life. If we’re not competing against nobody it’s no fun. You want competition.”
He waves his hand across the gym.
“This is what I know, this is my world,” McGrady says. “I’m not going to have somebody in the business world come in and tell me how to shoot a jumper or how to do my moves out there on the basketball court. When I step into the business world, I’m all ears. I’m going to be humble. I’m not going to bring that T-Mac s–t into the business world. Listen man, I’m a rookie. Teach me.”
McGrady is silent once more. In a few days he will be in China. In China he is forever T-Mac. In China they adored him as they adore a select few American stars who live on the highlight clips they watch on their computers. They slept in his hotel stairwells, crammed into the lobby and required the service of security men in yellow jackets just to walk him through airports.
In China they will always remember him for enduring the winter of 2012-13 when he played for the Qingdao Eagles, scoring 25 points a game for a team that finished in last place. They will buy his T-Mac 2 and T-Mac 3 shoes, which have just been released in China despite the fact they are models that were wildly popular in the U.S. in 2002 and 2003. They will buy the T-Mac name as if they are buying a piece of the man himself.
“I have the drive. it’s a challenge.” –Tracy Mcgrady
The only thing they asked in return was that he acknowledge their affection, that he not act like an American athlete too important to be loved. And so he smiled, he sat at the table they set up in the lobby of each hotel in which he stayed.
It has been a long year already. A year like none of the others… the year t-mac becametracy again.
“They can be overly aggressive people without knowing it, but it’s good times,” he says. “They’re good people.”
He closes his eyes. It has been a long year already. A year like none of the others. The year of change. The year T-Mac became Tracy again. Outside, the chatter continues, a portrait painted of the player who can’t let go. What they don’t realize is that he has already moved on.
“Soon they will find out,” he says.
And sitting here in his home gym, this site of his basketball redemption, where his jump shots fly true, he seems less like an aging athlete fumbling for relevance and more like a young man ready for a legacy he has yet to make.