Expectations, Failure, and Man's Search for Meaning


Bear with me, because this is the first obituary I've ever written.

There was a time (basically from his first season in Toronto until his first in Houston) when Tracy McGrady was the very best perimeter player in the NBA. I know, you're taken aback by that, because Kobe was clearly the best, but that's a bunch of crap. McGrady, when healthy in those days, was something heretofore utterly unknown in the NBA: as HP puts it, "He was Bernard King’s scoring in Scottie Pippen’s athletic frame." But it was more than that, because so many these days have that sort of athletic potential. He was that dream combination realized. He really could score like King, and he really did combine that with Pippen's all-around skills. He had a spectacular understanding of how to create a play, he could rebound, and (when he set his mind to it) he could be a defensive stopper. And for a period of about four or five years, he brought it all together in one beautiful package. He was pure energy and power on the court, and yet he made things look so easy (Joe Posnanski once wrote that this was Carlos Beltran's problem - his greatness seemed to come so easily that everyone felt comfortable in criticizing his effort). He'd fly into the lane for the dunk, and no one could stop him, because no one else had his combination of speed, agility, size, and pure leaping ability. He was an utter joy to watch.

Unfortunately, those efforts were wasted, perhaps, on some unlucky Magic teams and a 2005 Rockets squad that was, frankly, jobbed in the playoffs. And what came after from T-Mac wasn't quite as good, and his luck (and, by extension, the Rockets' luck) didn't improve enough over the next four years. So, in the end, people who should know better will look at the last twelve years of McGrady's career and say he didn't accomplish anything.

This is related, of course, to the continued calls of "Me-Mac" and other not-quite-as-witty-as-their-users-think epithets. For these people, McGrady was "selfish" (as if these commenters have any insight into McGrady's psyche), or "lazy," or perhaps deliberately injured. To me, this makes little sense, but I learned a long time ago that sports fandom doesn't really attract rational types. In any case, this line of thinking is wrong. McGrady accomplished something more significant than anyone else in the history of the NBA, because it reflects the realities most of us face in our daily lives (and brace yourselves, because I'm about to get all sappy and poetic and shit).

The fact is that people like Jordan, Bird, or Russell are totally unlike people like you and me. No, wait, that's not accurate. They're almost entirely like us (save for the ridiculous athleticism, but that's not the point), because they're human beings and have the same desires and needs as all of us. What I mean is that their experiences are totally unlike what most people go through. For example, despite the oft-repeated story (and it's misinterpreted, btw) about Jordan getting cut from his high school team, he had virtually everything in his professional career go exactly right. The Bulls surrounded him with good players (particularly Pippen) and a coaching staff that catered to his every desire. He came into a league diluted by rapid expansion. Good things happened to him. That doesn't deny his greatness, it's just a fact - in order to be the greatest, you have to get lucky, too. Sorry, fans of Ayn Rand and Gilded Age mythology, that's just the way it works.

Maybe I'm just a weird guy. I've never been particularly attracted (as a fan) to players like Jordan. Their success is just too foreign to me. Guys like Barkley, pre-'08 Garnett, Gervin, etc. - those who were undeniably great, but who nevertheless "failed" - are much more interesting. Others might chalk up their failures to some character flaw, but the truth is that most greats don't get the sort of breaks that Jordan, Duncan, and Kobe got. Most stars - like most people - struggle to achieve as much as they can, but they come up short of perfection. McGrady is simply the most extreme example of this. An all-world guard in his prime, bad teams, bad injuries, and bad luck conspired to make that brilliant period in his career something a lot less than perfect.

This is the way I think about T-Mac's career (so far; admittedly, he might pull off a miracle and totally change his "legacy," but in any case, his time in Houston is what it is). McGrady showed us that sometimes (most of the time, actually) your best isn't quite good enough, but you have to find some meaning in that failure - you have to understand that sports and life involve more than "effort" or "heart." Incidentally (or maybe not), the man the Rockets traded for Tracy had a very similar career path and legacy, albeit on a smaller level. Rockets fans should be used to this by now (Sampson, Francis, McGrady, Lucas... much-heralded players whose careers didn't quite live up to our expectations), as should Houston sports fans in general (I know what I'm about to say will sound like blasphemy, but... Earl Campbell's career wasn't exactly the epitome of sporting success, folks, and neither were those of Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell, or Craig Biggio). There are a lot more Jimmy Wynns in the world than Willy Mayses, but that doesn't mean that Jimmy's career lacks merit.

How will we remember T-Mac's time in the Rockets (assuming what we believe to be the inevitable happens)? For a lot of you, it's going to be 13-in-33, or the dunk over Bradley, or his contributions during "the streak," or some other specific play. Here's how I'm going to remember him: as a fantastic swingman who set the basketball world on fire for the better part of a decade, who was a victim of the ridiculous ways in which we pin all credit and blame on a single player, and whose failures are filled with a hell of a lot more pathos and meaning than any clip of Kobe lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy over his head. Effortless agony, indeed.

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