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Monday, October 29, 2001
Updated: November 5, 7:05 PM ET
ESPN The Magazine: T Time

By by Chris Palmer

The kid they call Pumpkinhead has this little half-skip he does right before he crouches down and explodes like all hell toward the hole. Its a light, delicate hop that tells his body to get all loosey-goosey, making it seem as if his skin is the only thing holding his mile-long limbs together.

Thats the move Tracy McGrady used to shed Sam Cassell at the three-point line in Game 3 of last seasons Magic-Bucks playoff series. Next, he picked up his dribble and drop-stepped outside the line, then took off -- Matrix-like -- extending the ball just above the box and crushing on 6'10" Tim Thomas.

Thats the move that gets Tracy McGrady on the video-game box fronts.

After the flush, he straightened his crumpled body, his mouth just inches from Thomas ear, spewing junk. Dont jump with me, he scolded. And Tims his boy -- went to Paris with him just last summer. But McGrady has no friends on the basketball court.

The Magic lost that series, 3-1, but there was little question who was the best player on the floor. T-Macs numbers read like the product of some scorekeepers imagination: 33.8 points, 8.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game. But as important as the numbers were the nasty scowl, the cutthroat attitude, the outright intimidation. Ray Allen wouldnt make eye contact with him. Big Dog couldnt take the constant yapping. McGradys team didnt win, but no one wanted the series more.

McGradys performance wasnt lost on the rest of the league. This wasnt the high school kid Toronto GM Isiah Thomas had tried to trade to Philadelphia as a rookie. Nor the player Darrell Walker, his first coach, declared would be out of the league in three seasons. Nor the player who was so unhappy and unproductive that hed bury his head in a pillow in his SkyDome apartment for nearly 18 hours a day.

No, this was the player Michael had in mind when he made Kwame Brown the first pick in the June draft. MJ simply couldnt chance missing the next Tracy McGrady.

The Big Sleep is what they called him just four years ago. So what should they call him now?

The best player in the NBA, says T-Mac.

***

Late in the fall of 1997, McGrady is sitting in his hotel room, alone, wondering how its gotten so bad, so fast. Wasnt it just about six months ago that Jerry Krause, GM of the world champion Bulls, was fawning over him? Krause was so enamored of Tracy that he had arranged a draft-day trade that would send Scottie Pippen to Vancouver for the fourth overall pick, which hed use to grab the 6'8" high school kid from Auburndale, Fla. Eight hours before the draft, McGrady was at a hospital taking the Bulls physical when a dejected Krause called to say the deal was off. Michael got wind of it, Krause said, and threatened to retire if the trade was made.

So the Raptors grabbed McGrady at No.9, and it looked like a good fit. Isiah was building a young, exciting team around Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby. Darrell Walker was a hot young coach. McGrady was the high school Player of the Year, so promising that adidas gave him a $12 million contract before hed played his first game.

But it all fell apart in a hurry. Thomas, who was clashing with ownership behind the scenes, was gone by November. Stoudamire was unhappy and looking for a trade that would be granted soon enough. Opening the season 222, Walker had little time for an 18-year-old rookie with poor work habits. He rode McGrady hard in practice and banished him to the end of the bench. Tracy got so angry he wanted to go all Sprewell on Walker, but he knew better. He fumed and stayed quiet until one day he couldnt take it anymore: He went to the coachs office and told Walker to back off. Walker said, Work harder. They got nowhere.

For the first time in my life basketball wasnt fun, T-Mac remembers. It was terrible, man.

So he picks up the phone and dials the person he knows will understand -- Kobe. Its a call hes made about once a week, ever since Bryant invited him to spend time at his house in L.A. soon after the draft. Kobes having a hell of a season, which doesnt surprise McGrady. Hed watched Kobe work with a personal trainer that summer, spending hours in the weight room building his body and hours more on the practice court, honing his shot.

What should I do? T-Mac asks his friend. Stick to it and your time will come, Kobe tells him. But this is torture, McGrady says. Im not playing, Walker isnt letting up and the team just cant win. Tracy and Kobe agree to hook up at the All-Star Game in New York, where Bryant will start for the West and McGrady will play in the rookie game.

Once there, he watches Kobe charm the media one day and wave off Karl Malone the next. Kobe is just 19 -- nine months older than Tracy -- but he has it all together. Tracy knows he could do the same, knows it for sure, if only Walker werent in the way.

A week later, McGrady arrives at practice to learn that Walker is gone. A weight lifted off my shoulders, McGrady says. Assistant coach Butch Carter takes over, and one of his first orders of business is to show his rookie theyre on the same side. He solicits the advice of Tracys Florida AAU coach, Alvis Smith, whos at almost every practice. The coach starts calling Tracy Kid, and the kid calls him Uncle Butch. Carter insists that McGrady become a great practice player, but starts him out small. Just one solid hour, Carter tells him. Thats all I want.

Carter asks McGrady to work on his shot for most of that hour every day after practice, focusing on catch-and-shoots and spot-ups. Game days, he performs a 30-minute version of the same routine. Carter installs video cameras in the practice facility so he can monitor Tracys progress from his office without breathing down the kids neck. Once he knew that I wasnt getting in the way of his goals, says Carter, he was able to loosen up.

Butch hires a sports consultant to teach McGrady how to deal with the media. He sends a chef to Tracys apartment after practice to teach him what to eat, then arranges to have breakfast served at all morning practices. The kid and his coach are laughing after practice now, and soon the kid stops looking over his shoulder. His numbers double, but almost no one notices in the rubble of a lost season.

That summer, Carter goes to Florida to work with his young player, often bringing him around to the Fort Lauderdale camp run by his brother, Vikings All-Pro wideout Cris Carter. By the next season, the one good hour of practice Uncle Butch wants becomes an hour and a half. Then two. Game tapes go home with Tracy and never come back. The work ethic carries over into the weight room, where McGrady is benching his weight, 212 pounds -- almost double what he could do a year ago.

And he finds his patience. Its Vince Carters first season, and its all VC, all the time in Toronto. Vince is Tracys cousin, and while Carter is Rookie of the Year, McGrady is content to learn, averaging 9.3 points and 5.7 boards in a little more than 20 minutes. He never complained about not starting, Butch Carter says. He just kept working hard.

It all pays off in Year 3. Butch starts using T-Mac as a defensive stopper everywhere but center. Hes Torontos best shot-blocker as well as a force on the offensive glass, and his passing skills are so good that the coach doesnt trust anyone else to inbound the ball. With nine weeks left in the season, McGrady finally becomes a starter, playing a key role as the Raptors grab their first playoff berth.

The postseason is a revelation. McGrady drives the Knicks crazy, shutting down whomever he guards while shredding New Yorks fabled D. Even more striking is how relaxed, how confidently he plays, in contrast to cousin Vince, who looks lost on his way to shooting 30% for the series. I felt like I had nothing to lose, says T-Mac. I felt free.

The Raptors lose in three tight games, including a four-point Game 1 defeat despite Tracys 25 points and 10 boards. After the final loss, McGrady drives straight to his apartment, packs his bags and heads home. T-Mac has arrived, but soon hell be gone.

***

The decision to sign with the Magic was easy: Toronto fired Uncle Butch, Tracy wanted out from under Vinces shadow and Orlando was home. McGrady reunited with strength coach Wayne Hall, who had prepped him for the draft camps three years earlier, and he was soon benching 300. He ran conditioning drills, alternating distance work with sprints. He strapped on a 20-pound vest and ran the steps of the baseball stadium at nearby Disneys Wide World of Sports to increase his quickness, sometimes hopping all the way on one leg to improve his balance and explosion.

One day Tracy clocked 4.29 in the 40. Just to make sure, Hall told him to run it again, then again, and both times Tracy ran in the low 4.3s. Another day Tracy tossed a baseball around the park, which is also the home of the Braves Gulf Coast Rookie League team. After watching the righthanded McGrady throw in the mid-80s, the Braves offered him a contract.

To sharpen his game, Tracy would head over to the house of new neighbor and best buddy Shaq, who gave him a key and an open invite to use the indoor full court with the Superman logo. T-Mac was there five days a week, working on his mid-range jumper and busting downcourt for pull-ups off each wing and at the foul line. He spent hours shooting threes, sometimes two full feet behind the line, stopping only when he felt he couldnt miss.

When the season began, he didnt miss much. Penciled in as Grant Hills sidekick, Tracy took over the team when Hill was lost for the season after four games, and he was unstoppable. Making good use of the 12 pounds of muscle hed added to post up smaller guards, he hung 31 on Seattle, 31 and 40 on consecutive nights against New Jersey, 43 on Indy and 38 on San Antonio on his way to a starting spot in the All-Star Game. I knew he could score, says Magic coach Doc Rivers. I just didnt know he could shoot like that.

With the Magic fighting to make the playoffs in late March, Rivers found his team down by one with 7.2 seconds left in Philly. He looked over at McGrady, who had produced another monster game: 42 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists. We were drawing up all sorts of plays in the huddle when I finally said, Just give it to Tracy, Rivers says.

McGrady caught the inbounds pass near halfcourt with Jumaine Jones draped all over him. He blew by Jones with a righthand dribble, launched himself in the lane and banked in a game-winning finger roll with 2.7 seconds remaining.

At seasons end, his 26.8 point average was the best in history for a player 21 or younger. He made second-team All-NBA and was voted the leagues Most Improved Player. In Orlando they have another opinion. Hes the best player in the NBA, says Hill.

***

The Magic come into this season as one of a handful of teams that can win the Eastern Conference title. Hill is back from his right-ankle injury and looks fit. Mike Miller, last seasons Rookie of the Year, spent his summer adding a low-post game. Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant will at least plug that hole at center. But what makes this team special is McGrady, and the possibility that he and Hill can be this decades Michael and Scottie.

Understanding the opportunity, Tracy hit the film library this past summer. Hes had trouble bringing the ball up against smaller guards, so he watched Magic Johnson. He wants to use screens better, so he studied Larry Bird. Mostly he watched the Bucks series -- at least 40 times, by his count -- to see what he did right and what he did wrong.

He also saw a lot of his longtime girlfriend, Clarenda Harris, whom he met four years ago in a Raleigh, N.C., Lexus showroom. Harris, then 22 and working her way through NC State at the car dealership, quickly caught his eye. Their first date was at a sports bar, where they ate chicken fingers and watched MJ sink the winning shot in Game 1 of the 97 NBA Finals. He never bought the Lexus, but theyve been together ever since.

Harris, a speech therapy major, taught McGrady to project his voice when he speaks and to look his listener in the eye. One day in late July, McGrady showered his mansion with rose petals and walked Clarenda into the backyard for dinner. When Clarenda uncovered her dish, she found a five-carat diamond ring sitting on the plate. Tracy quickly got down on one knee and popped the question. When she stopped crying, the answer was yes.

***

Its the flip side of 2 a.m., and Tracy McGrady is sprawled out in a limo cruising through L.A. Hes just finished shooting a sneaker commercial, a takeoff on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Its suggested that a trip to the Finals against Kobe could start a new Magic-Bird rivalry, and a smile comes across his face. Were both relentless, we both try to kill you, he says. Its a good matchup.

If McGrady and Bryant do forge the next great rivalry, it will be only fitting. A pair of high schoolers have become the games best two players, and theyve taught the NBA a lesson in the value of investing. Three of the first four players picked in last Junes draft bypassed college.

As Tracy fishes through a candy dish, he starts talking about the days big news: Jordan has finally announced his comeback. When I was 18, I was intimidated by him, he says. Now the intimidation factor is gone. But theres some kid left in this 22-year-old. Can you imagine if I get 40 on MJ?

Yes, we can.

This article appears in the November 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.