Last March, Dan Devine penned a thoughtful column based around the surprisin' opinin' from former Houston Rocket coach Jeff Van Gundy that Tracy McGrady's practice habits were less than ideal due mainly to his ideal status as the game's best all-around talent. Van Gundy, who coached McGrady from 2004 to 2007 with the Rockets, offered that McGrady essentially put one-tenth the effort into practice as he should, and McGrady's former Houston GM Daryl Morey offered this slight bit of damnation:
"Much of the game was so easy -- you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players. When it's that easy to dominate at that young age because of your physical tools -- his wingspan was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ -- my sense was, all that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights."
Other factors went into play, as Dan noted, and pure raw talent alone probably wasn't the biggest reason McGrady took it easy in practice. That hasn't stopped McGrady, who has been a little melancholy of late, from essentially agreeing with Van Gundy and Morey in an interview with Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports:
"I'm just not a great practice player," McGrady said. "That's what I wasn't. I was a gamer. You put me in a game and the lights are bright and the stands are filled. That's just what I was. But you practice, get up and down and do this. That wasn't my thing.
"The crazy thing about it is… there's a lot of players like that. People are so scared to really voice who they are. They want to be politically correct. Just scared to see what other people's perceptions are… When you have God-given talent, I think that that kind of hinders your practice habits and that's what I think it did to me. Had I not been so talented, I probably would have busted my (butt) in practice."
Again, we have quite a bit of respect for McGrady as he, to paraphrase T-Mac, really voices who he is. But was he really like that?
Tracy heard complaints about his work ethic in his very first training camp, all the way back in 1997. Then-coach Butch Carter was putting the 18-year-old through two-a-days, which was par for the course, and he developed plantar fasciitis as a result. Coming directly from the NBA from the basketball-minded Oak Hill Academy, which keeps kids in classes far longer than they do the court in spite of the school's hoops reputation, McGrady's feet just weren't ready for the grind. The accusations of being unable to play through pain stuck, though.
Then the back woes hit, something you rarely see from a player in his early 20s, as his then-coach in Orlando (Doc Rivers) pointed out. Could injuries have been avoided with better practice habits? Perhaps. Injuries can also be created and then sustained, though, in a dogged practice. There really is no way of telling. Yes, someone can pull a hamstring or wrench a back by showing up to camp out of shape, but was Tracy ever really out of shape?
Still, I can't help feeling like selecting McGrady as the poster boy for wasted chances is at least partially a function of our own propensity as writers, observers, executives and fans to jam talented players into a hyperbolic chamber, imbue them with whatever dreams may come and then get all pissy when they don't pop out, pure and perfect, exactly the way our imaginations envisioned.
Maybe more diligence would have enabled McGrady to avoid the lower back, left knee and left shoulder injuries that have cost him wide swaths of playing time over the past nine years, first with the Magic, then with the Rockets and, in a playing-out-the-string sequence, the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. Maybe adhering to a better class of regimen would have mitigated the fallout of the injuries, or would have gotten a healthier version of T-Mac back on the court sooner. These are reasonable possibilities.
Dan goes on to point to most sports writers' lasting impression of McGrady, as the guy that never got out of the first round as an active player. This was always unfair, and aided by T-Mac's glee as he thought his Magic were about to put away the Detroit Pistons in what he thought was a best-of-five series back in 2003. McGrady never led a team out of the first round of the playoffs, but his teams never lost to an inferior team. His teams lost because they were supposed to. They lost to better squads.
We're aware that we're coming off as apologists for McGrady, and that he tightened his own screws with the admissions and guesswork on record in front of Tomasson.
We just want to find a sense of balance, though, and not for fans and writers alike to slough Tracy off. He really is the rare animal in this case, both as a one-time all-world player, and the rare honest pro athlete. These are things to be celebrated, even as we tsk-tsk his time spent in a February 2006 shootaround somewhere in Memphis, all these years later.