Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic
I don’t particularly like baseball. It’s a step-up from college football, but I can’t remember ever watching an entire MLB game after turning 10 years old. Instead, I watched basketball and then went out to my hoop out back and tried to duplicate Michael Jordan’s tongue wag, or the left-handed dunk Starks threw down over Jordan’s Bulls (I had an adjustable rim, obviously). Baseball reminded me — and still does — of a long-running argument my grandparents used to have over a Euchre hand while drinking lemonade on their porch.
But after growing up a bit, I can’t fault those who love the game of baseball. It’s unwise to treat anything you’re passionate about as sacrosanct above all else, so I adjusted and conceded that other sports might be as inspiring to others as basketball was, and is, to me. Maybe that’s why when Tracy McGrady announced his retirement from the NBA, long after anyone really cared about him, I thought about Joe DiMaggio. It’s hard to explain why because I lack the requisite diction, but I’ll try.
If you look at DiMaggio’s nine World series titles, 10 American League pennants, 13 All-Star nods and so on and so forth, the differences with McGrady’s career — one without a ring or even a simple playoff series win — are acute. That’s what makes this such a hard comparison to make.
No matter what we do, some people do it better. These other people can seemingly perform some task, play some sport, or instrument, or occupation, or manipulate a paintbrush better than you, or me, or really anyone. These people are often called “naturals,” “savants,” or a “genius.” That which comes hard to the majority comes to them with ease. As John Keats once said, “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
Keats was a genius, and he couldn’t understand why poetry was so hard for others. Keats was also sort of stuck-up.
But Keats knew poetry, and for him it was as innate as painting was to Picasso or the guitar to Jimi Hendrix. Some people just fall into their perfect complement. Basketball came naturally to Tracy McGrady. So much so, he was drafted right out of high school, a 6-foot-8 savant who could jump out of the gym. When the Raptors selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 1997 draft, they had no way of knowing of what they were getting, of course. Even basketball naturals take time to acculturate from high school to the NBA.
I’m not so old that I can remember watching Joe DiMaggio play for the Yankees. Except for a brief time in my life when cable was the rule, rather than the exception, I never even saw highlights. But ESPN’s SportsCentury series coincided with my parents’ brief flirtation with cable while I was finishing up high school, and it turned me on to DiMaggio when he was named the 22nd-best athlete of the last 100 years — right behind Gordie Howe and in front of Jackie-Joyner Kersey. I watched his mini-biography and heard sportswriters discuss his inherent gifts, and his smooth grace on a baseball diamond. Whether it was in the actual SportsCentury series or some ensuing program on “Joltin’ Joe,” I can’t really be sure, but the way the old men spoke about DiMaggio’s five-tool perfection on a baseball diamond sounded familiar.
Tracy McGrady was just entering his third — and we’d learn later, final — season with the Raptors when the SportsCentury series ran. His third season in Toronto showed his first statistical leap before he embarked on seven consecutive All-Star nods and one miraculous season (2002-03) that’s only been topped by 15 other NBA seasons in history. He never won a playoff series in all that time, so we debate his Hall of Fame worthiness. I get why these sorts of inexorable disputes rage so hot these days, but McGrady seemed beyond corporeal enshrinement in Springfield. When you watched McGrady calmly isolate on the wing before a quick head fake and a wiggling dribble into the paint to finish or find a wide open teammate, it was just Keats writing an ode as the leaves blew in the September wind.
McGrady, for his part, was never contemptuous of the others who had to work hard to do what he did so naturally. Keats had Shelley and Byron as contemporaries. McGrady had Grant Hill and Mike Miller. It took me a long time to make the connection, but both DiMaggio and McGrady were simply better at their sports than their contemporaries — hard work had little to do with it. Yes, in the grand scheme of things (or should I write rings), McGrady is not on par with DiMaggio. It’s not even close. I doubt McGrady even makes many top 100 all-time NBA player lists — though he should (Bill Simmons has him at 77th).
But McGrady’s brilliance shouldn’t be confined to a best-of list, or whether he’s worthy of the Hall of Fame. Nor should he have to experience the cantankerous pieces from Orlando Sentinel scribes who denounce his unrealized potential after the unfortunate denouement to his career. T-Mac was born to play basketball, and anyone that ever watched him during that run in the early-to-mid 2000s knows exactly what I’m talking about. They watched him every night and marveled at his gifts. For they were gifts, not payment for hard work earned.
Anybody that caught Joe DiMaggio in the time buttressing WWII might say the same thing. While it’s true Bill James himself (the man, the myth, the legend) once calculated that DiMaggio was robbed of more home runs by the deep left field wall in Yankee Stadium than any baseball player in history, it was the ease with which DiMaggio played that stayed with me from that SportsCentury documentary.
So DiMaggio’s power numbers were okay, but not great (361 total home runs and a season-high of 46 — though he’d never again reach 40 in his career). His 56-game hitting streak is still the most revered record in baseball — there are no PEDs that can get you singles every night. DiMaggio didn’t play a lick during his prime, either. From 1942-1946 (age 27-31), DiMaggio played on Air Forces bases during his military service.
Still, most don’t really talk about DiMaggio as the GOAT — despite being named “The Greatest Living Ballplayer” in 1969 by the MLB. Babe Ruth was the No. 2 athlete in the SportsCentury series. But man, how those old timers used to talk about “The Yankee Clipper.” What they described — in my fleeting vestiges from lolling Saturdays on the couch while lapping up the Sportscentury series — came very close to describing what was so amazing about Tracy McGrady.
I’d be disappointed if people didn’t get upset about Tracy McGrady when discussing his place among the all-time greats. He wasn’t like the all-time greats. Basketball came as naturally to McGrady as leaves to a tree. That’s not to say Tracy McGrady didn’t work to be great, but it came easier to him than to anyone and like almost everyone does with such gifts, he took them for granted. Maybe his intensity waffled in practice, or never even showed itself. McGrady certainly failed to scream at teammates when they needed a solid tongue-lashing. But he brought it even when his teammates didn’t. How could he not? Tracy McGrady was born to play basketball, and so when he had the basketball in his hands, it was like Keats poised with the quill above the parchment, and DiMaggio as he was rounding first base after lining another pitch off the left-center wall in Yankee Stadium.
So much of sportswriting is finding the right words to describe what we’ve all just seen. I probably don’t have the right ones for McGrady because his prowess involves a level of nuance my lexicon lacks. He was just so natural and gifted on a basketball court it could make anyone pissed off when he failed to achieve even a single playoff series victory. The clichéd phrase for McGrady is he made the extraordinary seem ordinary, and so some penalize him. Some who know better, followed his career more closely, or had their hopes crushed by a one of the teams he starred on, probably resent all that unrealized potential. Because of this, I understand why some question the McGrady paeans after his retirement.
But I was gifted with a buffer with which to enjoy McGrady’s game. I wasn’t an Orlando Magic fan growing up. He just played for the Magic, so I could enjoy him without the interference of fandom. He was just so special to behold during a time in the NBA when there were precious few who could make us smile. He was probably a lot like Joe DiMaggio, but without the hardware or the team needed to accumulate that hardware.
DiMaggio played for the most popular baseball team of the century during a time when they ruled the sport and baseball was America’s pastime. Tracy McGrady was drafted by a team entering their third year of existence, then signed with a team in free agency that was one year removed from their decade anniversary as a franchise. He played in an era when contracts were skyrocketing, attendance and television ratings were falling, and the league had just lost the Greatest of All Time. But DiMaggio and McGrady were both naturals in their respective sports.
Contextual arguments about McGrady are just confusing the matter at hand though: he possessed some of the most unadulterated basketball skills in NBA history, skills which crested in an Orlando Magic uniform. So did DiMaggio when he put on the Yankee pinstripes. They aren’t the two most obvious athletes to compare, but that’s what my brain’s neurotransmitters consigned me when I heard the news that McGrady was finally making his goodbye official.
Every now and then, when DiMaggio’s name is uttered, a precocious writer publishes something particularly unnerving to my advancing years, or I turn a page to see Keats’ “On First Looking At Chapman’s Homer,” it sounds hyperbolic to write, but I think of Tracy McGrady’s midrange jumper, and his snake-like swivels towards the basket. That, more than any stats, all-time rankings, or Springfield esteem, is all you need to know about what I remember the most about Tracy McGrady.
There was no accounting the apogee of McGrady’s greatness on the court, and despite a career littered with playoff nadirs, even now — looking back — we still can’t.