McGrady is back on MVP track   

Updated: February 9, 2007, 1:04 PM ET

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With the clock near zero, Tracy McGrady took the rock, jumped up into his flawless form, and released a jumper so pretty the nets didn't want to let go. The crowd roared as McGrady high-fived fans in the front row, smiling so hard I'm positive he had to ice his face after the game.

It was only the end of the third quarter, but the score was 82-52. McGrady had just scored his 32nd point and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy mercifully kept his top dog on the bench in the fourth quarter of a recent win over the Timberwolves.

"I'm just out there having fun," McGrady says. "I'm feeling healthy and I know my team needs me to do certain things to win and I'm just trying to do all that I can to make sure that happens."

It's good to see McGrady in high spirits again. During All-Star break in Houston last year he gave one of the most cryptic interviews I've ever seen from an athlete. Slouched over, wearing a pair of shades, McGrady spoke of dealing with the worse kind of personal pain he's ever experienced. He didn't go into details, which, of course, kicked opened the door for gossip.

"Man, back then I heard people saying all kinds of things about me," he said. "People said stuff like my son wasn't mine or that I was breaking up with my girl and stuff like that. It was just a bunch of rumors. I understand people have to say something, but none of that was true.

"I was just so frustrated because I was dealing with the back issue and off the court I was dealing with people in my life, friends and family, who were really taking advantage of me. I gave money to some people I loved and thought I could really trust them and they just really took me to the cleaners. It wasn't the money so much as the betrayal. It really hit me hard. So dealing with that and my back every day, it just caught up with me."

T-Mac is one of the most easygoing, approachable superstars I've ever met. He says that's a big reason why he was deceived.

"It's hard for me to say no, because these are my people," he said. "And these are the people I really love, so to trust them, to give them money and to have them do that to me really got me down. That's what I was really going through last year. People didn't understand that because I didn't want to say exactly what it was but I was just dealing with some real life issues."

But McGrady says where he was then and where he is now are miles apart -- especially physically.

"The doctors told me I just needed to rest, so for about six to seven months I did nothing but sit on my lazy butt and ate," he said. "I ballooned up to 250 pounds because I couldn't do nothing, but the rest helped.

"It was a scary thing at first because I didn't know what was going on with my back. I never thought about retirement but I wanted to know what was going to be the next step … do I need surgery and things like that. But I spoke with a lot of doctors and I got the rest I needed and now I feel great."

And playing great.

For much of this season the MVP talk has been about Steve Nash, Gilbert Arenas, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, but T-Mac has inserted himself into the conversation.

When Yao Ming -- the team's leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots -- went down with a broken leg Dec. 23, many thought the Rockets were going to struggle in his absence, and understandably so. McGrady was out seven games with back spasms, and to be quite honest, wasn't playing that great until that point anyway, averaging about 19 points on 40 percent shooting.

But instead of falling off, the Rockets are thriving. Yes, Juwan Howard, Shane Battier and Dikembe Mutombo are contributing more, but they are able to do so because teams are focused on slowing T-Mac, whose play over the past month and a half reminds us all why he is still among the game's greats.

The Rockets are 15-6 since Yao's injury and McGrady has hit 30 in 12 of those games and averaged 29.9 points per game in January. More importantly, he's led or shared the team's top assist man honors 13 times in the past 17 games, meaning when the double- and triple-teams come, he is finding Battier, Howard and Luther Head for easy buckets. That's what MVPs do -- they win by doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. And consider this: Heading into Friday's game against Dallas, the Rockets are 2-6 when McGrady doesn't suit up, and Yao played in five of those losses. Conversely, the Lakers, Suns and Mavs are 6-2 without Kobe, Nash and Dirk.

"I think I'm having an MVP run over the past month or two," he says. "If I started out playing like this at the beginning of the season there's no way I shouldn't be in the race, but because I've started out slow I can see why people don't mention me.

"But if I keep this up … yeah it would be nice. But you know what? I'm just glad to be healthy and winning and having fun again. Last year the game wasn't fun at all. Now the fun is back."

Yeah, T-Mac, it is.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." LZ can be reached at l_granderson@yahoo.com.


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