- Spurs vs. Grizzlies: Series Hub
SAN ANTONIO — This is the way it was always supposed to be for Tracy McGrady — conference finals, clock running down in the fourth quarter, ball in his hands and the crowd buzzing at the thought of what he might do.
With T-Mac, anything always was possible, and nobody knows that better than the Spurs who were once on the receiving end of 13 points in the final 35 seconds on one mind-boggling night in Houston. Now though, with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili riding out the conclusion of a 20-point Game 1 blowout on the bench, McGrady is far outside the center ring under the big top. He’s more part of the cleanup crew that walks behind the elephants.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “It’s great to be part of this terrific organization and guys around here. I’m living the dream right now.”
Which says something about dreams or McGrady or both. For about a decade, T-Mac was a headlining NBA star whose name could be mentioned in the same breath with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and the rest — except in the springtime when reputations are forged.
For all of the improbable 3-point shots he made, high-rising slam dunks he threw down, thread-the-needle passes that he delivered right on the money, what McGrady could never do was win a single playoff series.
He had the numbers, but never the pedigree of a winner as he went 0-for-every postseason situation he was ever in, his teams on which he was the leader blowing 3-1 leads in Orlando and Houston and another pair of 2-0 leads with the Rockets. What’s more, every stop along the way in a different NBA jersey always would up with much recrimination, little remorse and the microfracture knee that led to his trade out of Houston signaled the end of his relevance as a star or even starter.
Until he sat on the San Antonio bench, mostly in street clothes for the 4-0 sweep of the Lakers, McGrady was the only scoring champ in NBA history to never make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Now T-Mac is in the conference finals, albeit in a drastically different role — the equivalent of playing for spare change and nostalgia as part of a rock ‘n roll oldies tour.
He has appeared in four games of the playoffs for a total of 17 minutes, shot 0-for-4 and hasn’t scored a point. Yet the fans at the AT&T Center are loudly cheering on that bid for his first bucket as a Spur.
“It’s great; a great feeling to know you have 18,000 people supportive of me and wanting to see me do well,” he said.
“I didn’t notice it the first time I got in, but people were telling me about it — ‘Did you hear the reception you were getting every time you touched the ball?’ — but, no, because I’m so locked in when I got it.
“But I got in [Sunday] and really noticed. It was something special.”
It’s not lost on McGrady that he entered the NBA in the same 1997 Draft with his new teammate, Duncan, though their roles, of course, are now vastly different.
“I came to terms of my situation and I got it,” he said. “It wasn’t in the cards for me to continue the health like Kobe and some of my peers I competed against when I was playing at the highest level. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. I had to go through a lot of stuff to realize the opportunities that I had. Things happen for a reason. The man above takes us through things we sometimes can’t understand but, later on in life, we realize some of the stuff we had to go through.
“This is a promotion for me. For so many years I tried to compete and take a team out of the first round. It just didn’t happen. Then I had to go through some things with my injury that were frustrating but I’m sitting at home – and I live by faith, not by sight – and [coach Gregg Popovich] called me out of the blue and here I am.”
Popovich reached out just before the start of the playoffs, 1 1/2 months after McGrady finished a season with the Qindao Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association, in what could be the latest chapter in Pop’s very own personal outreach program to unfulfilled NBA veterans:
— In 1999, ex-Blazers star Jerome Kersey hooked on with the Spurs and won the only championship of his 17 NBA seasons.
— In 2003, former Hawks All-Star Kevin Willis set down in San Antonio and claimed his only NBA title in 21 seasons.
— In 2005, it was Glenn Robinson, well past his “Big Dog” days as a No. 1 draft choice and superstar in Milwaukee, who came off the bench in the last of his 11 NBA seasons to win it all with the Spurs.
— In 2007, it was ex-Maverick All-Star Michael Finley’s turn as the 16-year pro won the only ring of his career.
It seems each championship season the Spurs have brought an old pro along for the ride. Now it’s McGrady in the ceremonial seat in his 17th season.
“It’s possible,” said T-Mac, “I can be a champion before I leave this game.”
When a guy gets out of the first round, he dreams bigger.