Tracy McGrady looks toward the future. (Getty Images)
When news broke last week that Tracy McGrady was considering a move to the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association, it seemed reasonable enough, if a little sad. An offseason spent searching for a new NBA home had turned up precious little, with September workouts with the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs failing to result in a guaranteed deal and few stateside opportunities on the horizon following three straight years of fringe-average-or-worse play.
After a quiet turn for the Atlanta Hawks in which McGrady averaged career lows in points (5.3) and minutes (16.1) per game, no team seemed eager to assure the seven-time All-Star of a roster spot, so his choices were to seek training-camp invites and fight his way onto a roster or look overseas. And given McGrady's status as a recognizable and still-marketable star in China thanks to the years he spent playing with Yao Ming on the Houston Rockets, it seemed a safe bet that Chinese fans (and, as a result, teams) would have the greatest interest in T-Mac, even in a form vastly diminished by lower back, shoulder and multiple knee injuries.
All that reason turned into reality on Tuesday, as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported that McGrady had agreed to a one-year deal with Qingdao worth an as-yet undisclosed amount of money (though Chinese outlets are reporting it is more than $1 million, according to the Associated Press) and was making plans to travel to China within the next two weeks. Before he hits the tarmac, though, McGrady wanted to reach out to his fans, penning a salutatory piece that, for fans of a certain age — late-20s to late-30s seems like a solid ballpark — might be a bit tough to read.
There are times in life that a new road presents itself and it appears this time has come for me now. I am so proud of what I have accomplished these past 15 years playing in the NBA. It was a dream entering the league as I just turned 18 years old. I worked hard and poured my heart and soul into this game. I consider myself a student of the game as I have watched, studied and played with and against the best players in the world. The NBA was my University and I learned so much. The gratitude I feel is really immeasurable. I have experienced the best moments a player can experience and have had some dark ones too. Both equally important in helping shape me into the man I am today.
McGrady says in his note that he's leaving the league "for now," and it's still technically possible that he could return to the NBA once his CBA contract is up; after all, despite having spent 15 years as a pro, he's still just 33 and, as Woj notes, the CBA season ends in March, which leaves the door open for McGrady "to return to the United States and possibly sign with an NBA playoff contender," provided he showcases attractive enough wares in China to entice a top-shelf team into viewing him as a postseason value.
But that seems more like wishful thinking than reality, considering how the toxic combination of years and injuries have reduced McGrady from all-world talent to eminently replaceable role player whose NBA job prospects had dried up. Given all that, it seems much more likely that "for now" is really "for good." (As a player, at least; given McGrady's incredibly sharp mind for the game, it wouldn't be especially surprising to see him come back in a scouting or coaching capacity someday, although one wonders if his seemingly career-long reputation as a less-than-willing participant in non-playing pursuits, to which he has copped in recent years, would make league executives pause at the thought of adding him to the bench or front office.)
The tone of McGrady's note (check out all the uses of the past tense) indicate that he knows as much. He thanks the "many profound people who inspired me along my way," from the executives who "believed in me," including Isiah Thomas, who drafted him while running the Toronto Raptors; Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos and then-general manager John Gabriel, who made him their centerpiece in the summer of 2000 and watched him blossom into one of the most devastating scorers on the planet; and Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, who gave McGrady's career new life when he imported him to play alongside Yao in an inside-out tandem that, due to injuries, regrettably never really materialized the way we'd all hoped.
He thanks a slew of ex-teammates who "showed a young kid from Auburndale Florida how to be a better player." He thanks Kobe Bryant for the "honor" of playing against him and Rockets running buddy Yao Ming, with whom he says he "shared an experience together that will always be with me." He thanks his agents, his mentors, his family and God. It is, for all intents and purposes, a retirement speech — we may see Tracy McGrady again, but the Tracy McGrady we knew is saying goodbye. A cynical sort would likely say that the Tracy McGrady we knew has been gone for the better part of the past five years; this is why cynical sorts aren't big hits at retirement parties.
Of course, like reigning CBA champion Stephon Marbury and others before him, McGrady will still be playing basketball for a living — he says he is "excited to play for Qingdao Eagles in China" and that "it will be an honor to play for them." But he'll have plenty of time to ingratiate himself with fans there; this one, he recognizes, is for the rest of us.
Thank you to every fan that has followed me and believed in me. Injuries and all, I wouldn't have changed a thing. I am proud of the mark I left on this game and am grateful to have been a part this league. It was a dream to play in front of all of you, each night, in every stadium. Thank you.
If McGrady never plays another second of NBA basketball, he will leave the game having averaged 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game for his career, with two NBA scoring titles, six top-10 scoring finishes, seven All-NBA team honors ... and an eternal sense that, even setting aside the injuries, he never really reached his full potential, a world-shaking talent frittered away by too many firing-blind shooting nights, lackadaisical defensive rotations and failures to soar at his career's biggest moments. He will be, I suspect, one of the most contentiously debated players of his generation for a long, long time.
But those interested in slotting and characterizing will have plenty of time to bash their brains in about where he ranked and how much he mattered; this moment, I think, is for the rest of us. In moments like this — for me, at least — that other stuff kind of melts away, and what I tend to remember is stuff like this:
And I think it's good to remember stuff like that. So: Thanks, Tracy. Travel safe and knock 'em dead.
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