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A Tough Question
Tim Crothers
December 29, 1997
When Tracy McGrady of Toronto is asked if he's happy that he skipped college, the reply is yes, but...
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December 29, 1997

A Tough Question

When Tracy McGrady of Toronto is asked if he's happy that he skipped college, the reply is yes, but...

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It's Jan. 10, 1997, and Tracy McGrady has just dominated yet another high school basketball game. He's in a musty locker room, picking up dozens of malodorous socks and towels, because tonight it's his turn to handle that chore. McGrady has just spent two days with a reporter who is eager to learn if McGrady an exceptionally gifted senior forward, will apply for the NBA draft. The kid has talked at length about his life. About how he grew up poor, fatherless and anonymous, living with his grandma in the tiny Florida town of Auburn-dale. About how he never aspired to any college grander than nearby Polk Community until he was unearthed in the spring of 1996 by Joel Hopkins, coach at Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C. About how he decided to transfer to Mount Zion, a budding national basketball power, for his senior year and how he took his first airplane flight, from North Carolina to New Jersey for a summer basketball camp. About how at that camp astonished college coaches from Kentucky, Syracuse and other schools dangled the possibility of a scholarship, and how dazzled NBA scouts told him he could be among the first 15 picks in the next year's draft. About how those divergent paths made for the most gut-wrenching decision of his entire 17 years. And, finally, about how his fondest dreams were to guard his hero, Penny Hardaway, to slip on a pair of Air McGradys and to see his face on a McDonald's cup.

Forty-five minutes after the game, McGrady says goodbye to the reporter and scoops the last of the wet towels into a duffel bag. He begins walking toward the gymnasium exit when he suddenly turns back toward his interrogator. "Let me ask you a question," says McGrady, wide-eyed and desperate for some sage advice. "What do you think I should do?"

Tracy McGrady, now a Toronto Raptors rookie guard-forward, is almost always alone. He says that he used to have an entourage, but the guy had to go back to cosmetology school in Florida. So day after day McGrady sits by himself in a lavish, prefurnished three-bedroom, three-bathroom, three-TV apartment in Toronto that overlooks Lake Ontario and once belonged to Blue Jays pitcher Juan Guzman. McGrady lives like a shut-in. When he's at his apartment—which he is virtually all the time when the Raptors aren't on the road—McGrady folds himself into his couch and studies grainy videotapes of Magic Johnson running the Los Angeles Lakers' offense during the Showtime era or plays video games or watches college hoops and wonders what might have been. McGrady doesn't read newspapers, and his huge apartment contains one book, Spencer Johnson's inspirational tome The Precious Present.

McGrady is wistfully indulging in a teenage fantasy. He makes countless long-distance calls, and there are no parents or siblings around screeching at him to get off the phone. His beeper blares so ceaselessly that his November cellular-phone bill reached nearly $1,500. McGrady calls relatives and friends in Florida and his girlfriend in North Carolina. About once a week he compares notes by phone with second-year Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who also went straight from high school to the NBA and who befriended McGrady last summer during a meeting set up by their agent, Arn Tellem.

Occasionally McGrady stares out his 12th-floor window at the incoming Canadian winter with a deep sense of dread. Before he came to Toronto, he had seen snow only once in his life, and he behaves somewhat like a bear in hibernal ion. sometimes sleeping as many as 20 hours in a day. He despises the cold so much that although he lives just a few blocks from SkyDome, he always drives to games. Funny, when McGrady isn't alone, he usually hangs out with thousands of people.

When Isiah Thomas, then Toronto's executive vice president for basketball, selected McGrady with the ninth pick of last June's draft, he believed McGrady was the second-best player available, behind only Tim Duncan. McGrady already had a six-year, $12.3 million endorsement deal with Adidas. In September, on the day McGrady signed a three-year contract worth $4.68 million, he boasted that he would be Rookie of the Year and would invent a unique jam that would win the Slam Dunk contest during the All-Star weekend. With his bank account bolstered, McGrady promptly bought himself a $47,000 Lexus sports utility vehicle and a 1995 Mercedes. He pledged $300,000 to Mount Zion Academy. He bought his grandmother Roberta Williford a house on a Florida lake, and he bought a condominium nearby, where his mother, Melanise Williford, is staying while the new house McGrady purchased for her is being built. "I'm just blowing up because I can't believe this," said McGrady before training camp began. "It can't get any better."

He was right.

Perhaps it was a foreshadowing that, before entering his second exhibition game, McGrady forgot to tie the drawstring on his shorts. He played one-handed until the first whistle, using the other hand to hold up his pants. "I guess I'm still a little nervous about this," he said afterward.

At 18 (he won't turn 19 until May 24), McGrady is the youngest player in the NBA. He's so young that he started this season with a teammate, John Long, 41, who was playing in the league before McGrady was born. (After suffering a broken jaw, Long retired on Nov. 12.) McGrady is the fourth player in the last three years to leapfrog from high school to the pros, and the fates of the other three are diverse. After two NBA seasons Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett signed a six-year, $125 million contract, the richest in sports history. Bryant already is the darling of the Los Angeles Lake Show. However, forward Jermaine O'Neal is mildewing on the bench in his second year with the Portland Trail Blazers (on Sunday, he was placed on the injured list with a strained left calf muscle). "Jumping from high school to the NBA is like a virgin sleeping with a 40-year-old woman with three kids," says Toronto forward Walt Williams. "You better raise your game a lot or you'll be humiliated."

McGrady learned that lesson during a preseason game against the Denver Nuggets. After botching a windmill dunk at one end, he retreated on defense, whereupon Denver's rookie forward-center, Tony Battie caught him with an elbow while going up for a shot. Battie got the basket and a free throw. McGrady got a jaw joint contusion that forced him to miss a preseason game. His development was further curtailed on Nov. 4 at SkyDome against the Golden State Warriors when his youthful exuberance caused him to try to block a layup with just 1:31 left and the Raptors ahead by 21 points. He sprained an ankle, which eventually led to a sore arch that cost him 11 games and sent him into an emotional tailspin. "Tracy started feeling sorry for himself, but I didn't treat him like a teenager," Thomas says. "I told him, 'You're a grown man now. You've got to keep up.' "

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