|The Sleeper Has Awakened|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
With much due respect and a bow to a master storyteller, Frank Herbert, yours truly often refers to Tracy McGrady not as T-Mac but-T-Muad'Dib, or the Kwisatz Shaderac.
I do this because what the hell else am I supposed to call this freak of nature? How does one refer to the Chosen, such an obvious act of God? One must go fiction, because he is beyond belief otherwise -- so far beyond it until you must believe. His Game leaves you no option.
"He's doing things we've never seen before," said Planet Detroit coach Rick Carlisle after Set 2, before going on to say things meant to inspire his own troops, but it was the first part, the part that wasn't propaganda, that revealed.
Most NBA alumni in the commenting business are quick to say how things were more competitive in the olden days, how good they were, compared to today's self-absorbed, hip-hopping slugabouts. Not so with McGrady. When his name comes up, NBA alumni only grunt, and go quiet.
"He's more like maybe a young Scottie Pippen -- but Scottie Pippen with a whole universe more offense. He's like ... Hmnm ... really, nothing I've seen," said Elliott.
How is that? First, contrast T-Mac with the best out there today, then with the choicest product of the brewer's art.
Shaq? Shaq abandoned Dune long ago, went La-La, to lead House Harkkonen, also known as the Lakers, to three straight NBA titles. Did T-Mac try to emulate his game? No. You can't emulate an earthquake. So the boy T-Mac studied Penny Hardaway's game ... though, luckily, not all of it.
Kevin Garnett? It is true, Big Ticket is the regular season 2003 MVP, here in my book, and now has the full attention of House Harkonnen. But KG and Shaq have more to work with than McGrady has with the Orlando Fremen ... I mean, Magic. And yet, these same Magic are a No. 8 seed poised to depose the No. 1-seeded Detroit Pistons, and to reclaim Dune. They are so poised because of McGrady. Big Sleep is the closest thing on earth, or in NBA basketball, or in the state of Florida, at least, to a basketball supreme being.
T-Mac leads the Magic by deed, inspiration and fear, shows them a new Weirding Way to fight, based on these facts:
He can stop any perimeter player on the other team. If he can and has blocked Kobe's j, he can stop anybody. The only question would be, can he stop Alley I. for a precious few critical possessions. More sooner than later, we'll see. I've seen Doc Rivers (the David Lynch of this production) operate, and he'll do something shrewd yet crazy like that if A.I. is going off and there's nothing else to be done.
I'd pay to see that.
In Game 2, Chauncey Billups, playing point, had 16 points in the first quarter, on five-of-eight shooting. He flicked away Jacque Vaughn like a fly. Once, I swear, Jacque landed 10 feet away, then went sliding across the floor further another 10. There was no foul called because there was no foul. Billups just flicked him away. So Doc Rivers then put Muad'Dib on Billups, and that was the end of that. McGrady housed Billups like an octopus houses a crab, unhinged him, snaked away his dribble twice, shut down all his looks at perimeter jumpers and shadowed his drives and basically took away everything from him but the dish. Billups went 1-for-12 the rest of the way, finished with 25.
Uunderstand, Chauncey Billups, for all of his considerable aristocratic talent, arrogance and high maintenence, can get his shot on any guard in the league. Understand that.
Then understand this: The opposition must double or triple T-Mac when he's on offense. When I die, I want to come back as a stand-still jump shooter who plays with Tracy McGrady. Because I will be left open for many jumpers.
Where is this basketball wonder, this T-Muad'Dib from?
From Dune itself!
He's from tiny Auburndale, Florida, right off I-4, halfway between Orlando and Tampa. Now, one can see a Warren Sapp coming from such a place. All of Florida is rigged for football, somehow. But such otherwordly basketball talent?
How can this be? Isn't hoop the hard-rock City game?
This co-existence can lead to much misunderstanding.
Before we get to that, examine T-Muad'Dib's specs.
First, there's his length. Ask anybody about T-Mac, and they always talk length. I don't remember anybody talking about length until T-Mac. Length was there, but they didn't call it length. Length is height, and even more height than what appears to the naked eye. Length is deceiving. T-Mac has grabbed Kobe's jumper in mid-air a time or two. Nobody does that. Certainly nobody does it without retribution.
"He's so long!" Kobe protested, when asked about T-Mac blocking his shot. He sounded like Sting (as Feyd Rautha).
T-Muad'Dib is 6-feet-8 or 6-9, depending on how he chooses to carry himself; his sleeve drop is nearly 50 inches, shoulder to top of knee. His fingers are ultra-long. Add it up, you're talking seven-footer, with quicks, with the lateral body control of a man 6-3, with bounce, huge hops, with no flex span, with pure boi-yoy-yoingggg ...
So you are not talking about blocking his shot, or getting your shot off against him. You are not trying to talk about that. You are just trying to survive out there with him.
"If all these guys were out on a playground somehwere, believe me, it wouldn't take long for them to figure out who was supposed to get the ball, and no matter how good they thought there were before he showed up -- they'd know to get him the ball," said Orlando Coach Doc Rivers. "And that can be a problem when the defense pays more attention to him, and you stand around waiting. No matter what you say, as a coach, that's the tendency, and they're the ones out there. Your instinct is that him shooting is a better option than you shooting. And you're right too, but sometimes you still have to shoot, if that's what the D dictates. That's the beauty of the game."
This may be why McGrady stood up in a team meeting after the Magic lost the second game of the series to the Pistons, despite his 43 points. "Don't wait for me," he warned his minions. "I can get mine anytime I want. You know that. But I need for you to get yours when you can. I don't need you to get mine. I need to you to get yours." Use the power of your own voices. McGrady told his teammates to look for their shots as they would if they did not play with the Kwisatz Shaderac -- just to play their own Weirding Way game, use the power of their own games, knowing their games would be expanded because the defense would be playing them while leaning toward him.
McGrady can take the weight. His body has great tensile strength, like Allen Iverson's, only much, much longer. It's like T-Mac played football or something. (Which he did. He played baseball, too. Orlando's director of marketing, Chris D'Orso, loves working with him, as you might expect of a man who can help you sell out the remaining 2,000 seats in a 17,300 seat building in a couple of hours. But D'Orso has to be careful; if he has a Lousville Slugger giveaway night in T-Mac's name, T-Mac wants some of the bats! If there was a NBA decathlon, T-Muad'Dib would probably win it.)
On a McGrady drive during the decisive 18-0 third quarter Magic/Fremen run out on the Pistoleros, Ben Wallace and one of those hard-rock Rebracas went up in front of him and made scissoring motions with their anaconda arms and ridged hands, like Maximus in a gladiator scraimmage, when he cut off that poor guy's head with two swords and then asked was the crowd not entertained. That's a foul, of course; only I thought McGrady might come out of the encounter decapitated, if at all. A normal man would've.
McGrady came out smiling ferally, looking at Ben and Zeljko with those Eyes. The Sleeper had awakened.
This greater intensity was just what Page 2's basketball maven Charley Rosen had called for earlier in the season, when he quoted Horace Grant calling into question Tracy's heart, will, intensity, commitment to defend each enemy possession, defense. Perhaps in his mind, Grant was comparing McGrady to the ultimate competitive standard, Jordan ... but perhaps his appraisal had a bit more cat hiss in it. Perhaps it was observation mixed with nostalgia and insanity. Sometimes once-feared players become insane when they near retirement. I give you Charles Oakley, or Michael Jordan, for that matter. Ho Grant might have been right if he was comparing T-Mac to Jordan, who had the intensity of a blowtorch. But I've seen T-Mac give it all he had and more in playoff series losses to the Bucks and the Hornets, to the point of total exhaustion, and then say in his weariness, "I have to get better. I must get better." Seen him outplay Kobe and beat the Lakers. So ... this charge by Grant to Charley led to an airplane confrontation among the Magic, where T-Muad'Dib simply asked jealous doctor Grant -- who had hit maybe 10 field goals all year at that point -- what was wrong with him. Didn't he see that he, T-Mac, was leading the league in scoring? What was Grant doing? Grant looked at T-Mac -- and decided to call out Rivers, swelling up like he wanted to fight or something.
Predictably, not very long after that, Horace Grant, who was once a serviceable compliment to Michael Jordan on championship teams in Chi-town, who once lost in Orlando in the Finals with Shaq, was unemployed, and out of ball.
They come and go. Only their genius lives on. McGrady soldiered on, in his way. It isn't an obviously intense way, all in your face, a Northeastern game, like Artest, K-Mart, busting you, like intimating basketball has come to be. T-Mac plays more like Clyde Frazier did once, or like Henry Aaron played baseball -- he plays at his speed of his choice.
Languid, burst, languid, burst. Super burst. Burst. Fourth quarter, plenty left. Burst, burst, ball game. And if you're playing him, you end up thinking, "Oh, well. At least he didn't hurt me. At least I'm not beat up, too. Manana."
It's not disaffection, or laziness, or anything negative. It's merely his habit, or his style, or his lack of style, which, actually, can be said to be the best style, for the long haul. For years people told me Rickey Henderson didn't bust his butt. Now he has more of everything than anybody who ever played baseball, and people are begging him to please stop already. It's how and where Frazier, Aaron, Henderson and McGrady were born and raised, and it's effective over the long haul. So cool it seems to be effortless. In most trades, it is hard work, making something look effortless. Very hard work indeed. I don't see why hoop would be any different.
Well, looks aside, T-Muad'Dib ended up leading the league in scoring this season, at over 32 points a game. He led the league despite what we saw Kobe Bryant do last February, averaging 40 for a month. In a league of Shaqs and Kobes, of Iverson's Total Green Light, of Nowitzki-At-Will-From-Deep-Over-the-Top, of Duncan, of Garnett the Big Ticket, it is Tracy McGrady, T-Mac, T-Maud'dib, the Kwisatz Shaderac, who led the league in scoring, and now leads a No. 8 seed by a No. 1 for just the third time ever, and for the first time in four games, if it ends Wednesday night.
It's simple. They can't stop him. And he can stop them.
Well, I can't say yet. After all, it's his secret, not mine. The story is just beginning. T-Muad'Dib is only 23 years old.
I do know there's the Vein. The Vein looks like a garden hose as it shoots down from his shoulder through his right, or shooting, arm. Maybe that's what gives him the Power.
Maybe it's just good circulation.
Maybe, outside of his physical gifts, he has more in his tank. My associate Moon pointed this out in the third quarter of the game, during the 18-0 Magic/Fremen run: "Why, he's not even sweating! He's breezing through this game!"
Mind you, this was against House Detroit Piston, the best defensive team in the league, by statistic at least. But they were swept away by Muad'Dib's merely normal B game, and by the inspired efforts of his many Fremen warriors, like rookie Drew Gooden (20 and 13; don't anybody wake him up; if he realized what he was doing, he'd faint) and Darrell Armstrong (18, 6-for-6 from the field), and, if you give him a look, Gordan Giricek. Some Magic are named like Fremen. Some of them even look like Fremen.
"(T-Mac) leads, we follow," said Gooden, "No way was I letting him down again. No way was I not helping him."
Also helping T-Mac is his Unlimited Shooting Range, his shots launched by the Super Arm with the Vein. He can hit the bomb 3 at any time; if he gets warm, he can hit many. He is Virtually Unstoppable. So there is virtually nothing you can do about it, or him. You have to give him that shot. Because if he gets an angle to the basket ... my goodness, it's time for Revelations already, boys and girls.
"He's talented," said Billups. Think so, Chaunce? McGrady converts high-speed, fly-by reverse layups in such a way that makes it look like Dr. J. in time-lapse photography. He's his own Time Machine. The Kwisatz Shaderac needs no Players Guild navigator. He can fold space himself,
So you have to give him the deep j.
If he's hitting that, then, well -- ship's in, school's out. Most guys who get hot from the perimeter, you just send a taller defensive assassin after them, that cuts out all the nonsense. Not McGrady. He laughs, and says, "Better bring another somebody with you -- that'll at least give me something to challenge me, occupy my mind," or words to that effect.
One day -- this year, if they go far enough in the playoffs -- I will give you a more extensive report, perhaps even from the mouth of McGrady/Muad'Dib himself, but for now, he leaves me speechless when I'm around him. I can report on what he does, like when the Orlando crowd was chanting "M-V-P!" when he went to the foul line the other day. He missed one as they chanted, then stepped back and put a finger to his lips and shushed the crowd. It fell silent, and they began to shush each other. Who else does that?
For now he leaves me speechless. This is not his fault. He answers questions in press conference, careful to couch his answers in platitudes. I've seen him waiting for a plane in LaGuardia in the off-season, probably off to save Planet adidas or something, and he still has the ability to fold space, even there, to appear, disappear and re-appear, make himself smaller or larger than his surroundings. He makes the T.D. Waterhouse Center in Orlando look like his own personal birdcage, an aviary that needs expanding, if only to allow him full range. Yet, he made an airport gate boarding area seem like Jacob Javits Convention Center. He sat quietly in his chair, nodded politely, and went back to his deep thoughts. He does not appear to have much of a regal opinion about himself. Let's hope he stays that way.
Shaq, the Big Loquacious, I can approach him and ask, "What do you want me to tell Kornheiser or Wilbon, Shaq?", knowing full well he will say, "Tell Wilbon I said I'm going to break my foot off in his ass," as Shaq has told me before, and then we will both smile, because we know Shaq doesn't really mean it, not really. Anyway, it's a good way to break the ice before we get down to cases.
Alley I., I can go up to him and say, "Allen!" He'll frown, look at me and say, "What?" And that'll be cool.
I've never met Dirk Nowitzki, but I'd like to. Seems like he'd be down. Amazing, considering English is his second language. I know if I balled in Germany, and the German version of David Aldridge or Sal Masakela came up to me and started asking me questions in German, I'd be a basket case, a nutbird and a total moron, put together. Ever heard German? I defy you to decipher it. Well, be that as it may, I know Dirk Nowitzki is extremely hard to guard, and will drop 40 on you in a New York minute, as the Blazers and that nice young man Maurice Cheeks can surely tell you.
I want to ask Paul Pierce if I can see his stab wound scars, if he's glad 'Toine seems to have understood he can be a rebounding machine, that the offense must flow through Pierce for the Celtics to even be watchable. Walker is a fine player, but, man, Pierce has got a gun. Powpowpowpow ...
I want to ask Baron Davis how good must he be, to drop 34 points on the Sixers while dragging a leg. I didn't even know you could play in the league big minutes dragging a leg, much less drop 34 in a money game doing it.
But with T-Mac, T-Muad'Dib, the Kwisatz -- I'm tongue-tied, speechless, left for words. So that's the extent of our report for now, admittedly from the periphery of the battle for the soul of the game, being partly waged on the Planet Orlando, Florida, also known as Planet Arrakis, Dune.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."