- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Mystery O' The Season? We can finally expose it, so long as no one asks us to explain it.
Vince Carter against Tracy McGrady -- also known as Son of Shaq vs. Kobe -- is the doozy on Tuesday's schedule. One of the most intriguing regular-season matchups of the season, by anyone's reckoning.
Except those who coordinate the league's national TV schedule.
On this night, Lakers at Sonics is the only game available to George Dubya's non-satellite constituency. The NBA's Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday network (rhymes with Burner) isn't airing the Toronto at Orlando showdown, a highly anticipated debut duel spotlighting two formerly feuding cousins.
No, it's not our mistake. And, yes, you deserve more -- especially after sitting through that perfectly good Wednesday in December when the TV game was Cleveland at Chicago. But the best we can offer, as consolation, is a reminder that there will be some fine Tuesday viewing from Seattle after Lakers-Sonics. A rerun of Frasier is still Frasier.
As a more relevant bonus, here's a Vince vs. Tracy preview, the next-best thing to actually seeing their first-ever meeting.
It's their first on-court encounter since McGrady fled Canada for Florida in the proverbial cloud of controversy last summer. A free agent with the Raptors, feeling stifled in Carter's shadow, T-Mac was Orlando's fallback when the Magic failed to squire Tim Duncan away from San Antonio. A half-season later, with Grant Hill lasting just four games on a bum ankle, McGrady has emerged as an undeniable All-Star, while almost singlehandedly keeping Orlando in playoff contention.
Sans Vince, McGrady has hiked his per-game scoring average from 15.4 points to a whopping 26.9 -- which just might be enough to hold off Sacramento's Predrag Stojakovic and Dallas' Steve Nash for Most Improved Player honors.
In the past five games, four of them victories, McGrady has averaged 32.6 points to snap the Magic (18-21) back into the Leastern race. If not for an unfathomable collapse last Thursday in Dallas, where Orlando blew a 22-point lead before winning at San Antonio two nights later, it would have been five straight victories.
So, Doc Rivers, is T-Mac a better talent than you were expecting?
"Much better," Rivers said. "I thought he would be a great defensive player, handle the ball for us. I didn't know he could shoot. He didn't get any shots in Toronto, so none of us knew. He may be a better scorer than Vince. I think he's more difficult to guard, and I would have never thought that."
McGrady, mind you, always believed it, which is why he came a lot closer to joining the Bulls than re-signing with the Raps as Vince's wing man. McGrady ultimately chose to go home, having grown up in nearby Auburndale, but not before issuing some spicy comments about Cousin Vince to ESPN The Magazine. Sound familiar?
Unlike Shaq and Kobe, though, the hurt feelings have seemingly been soothed. No longer do you hear Carter, when asked how he plans to respond in combat, inviting reporters to pick a number between 40 and 50. As in points.
Credit an unlikely peacemaker, Toronto's Charles Oakley, who is said to have interrupted a long-distance conversation with McGrady by unexpectedly handing the phone to Carter. Until Ambassador Oak's intervention, Vince had refused to return several T-Mac calls. Now, the story goes, they're downright chatty again, coordinating itineraries for All-Star Weekend.
"It's going to be interesting," Rivers said. "I just hope it's about playing basketball. They have sort of mended the fences. I told Tracy [earlier in the season]: 'That's family, so you have to resolve that. Because after basketball, you're going to have a family. You have to leave that stuff alone.' "
Then again ...
"Taking it personally on the basketball court, that's a whole different matter," Rivers added. "You gotta try to kick his butt."
The way Carter is soaring, it'll take some doing. Rejuvenated, perhaps, by the acquisition of Keon Clark in the Kevin Willis trade from Denver, Carter is coming off a 39-point showing in Toronto's comeback victory Sunday over Philadelphia, offsetting Allen Iverson's 51. The Raptors have won three in a row of their own to reach 22-19. Better yet, thanks to Clark's arrival, no longer is the NBA's high-jump champion playing on the most unathletic team in the league.
"This was the year I left Toronto, got on with my life and career in basketball," said McGrady, whose brilliant breakout only makes some of us (hello!) even more curious about what he and Carter might have achieved had they stayed together. "It's going to be special for the two of us -- like trying to beat your little brother."
Just not quite as special as April 1. That's when T-Mac returns to a boo shower in Toronto, the lone family reunion of three this season that will be televised to the masses for free. Says right here in our handy TV guide, NBA edition, that NBC has deemed Orlando at Toronto worthy of coverage. No foolin.'
Back to Mikey
The Washington Wizards play at MCI Center. Michael Jordan is a MCI pitchman.
Cynics among us might suggest that Jordan's role as Wizards hoop supremo is merely one of the side duties that comes with selling long-distance service. At least that's how it looks to us mortals, one year into His Airness' presidency.
Jordan attended six of the Wizards' first 41 games, all losses. Ongoing insubordination from Rod Strickland and Tyrone Nesby has been mostly met with resounding silence from President MJ. No matter how hard he is working behind the scenes -- and associates insist he's burning up MCI phone lines in an effort to rebuild the league's sorriest squad -- long-suffering Wiz fans can only conclude that their savior is not interested. What else should they have thought Friday, on Jordan's first anniversary in charge?
The educated consumer knows Jordan didn't get the so-called Wizards into their current predicament. It wasn't Jordan who traded big for small and young for old -- twice -- in a short span. Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland and Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond weren't Errors Jordan, nor was the $105 million contract Juwan Howard got.
Fine. Now try to rationalize the message of apathy he transmits to the coaches, players and public by not being at least somewhat visible. Why should people pay to watch what Jordan avoids? The educated consumer, again, knows it will take more than 12 months or even 24 for Jordan to construct a decent squad. But the wait might not seem as long or hopeless for the constituents if Jordan was waiting along with them.
Actually, Friends Of Mike have a rationalization. They argue that Jordan can't let the public see how much he cares, because he'd be branded a bigger flop if he tries his hardest and generates no immediate improvement. Since immediate improvement is an impossibility, the thinking goes, perhaps a steadily sinking ship will somehow lead to the ownership change Washington seems to need.
Problem there, though, is that Jordan accepted this presidency knowing Abe Pollin is no free-spender. Jordan signed a five-year contract well aware that Pollin never wants to relinquish his operating control. Didn't stop Jordan from predicting a playoff campaign and inviting the media, in September, to "judge me by what happens this season."
At this point, most of us cynics are simply wondering whether he'll bother to show up for the All-Star Game. The Wizards are hosting it Feb. 11, last we checked. At some place called MCI Center.
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The family feud between Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady appears over, but the games go on.