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Before his dunk on Shawn Bradley, before 13 in 35, before 62, and before 2003, Tracy McGrady wowed everyone with his self alley-oop dunk in the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia. It was an iconic play that will forever be remembered every All-Star weekend as one of the defining moments of the McGrady lore.
The irony is that T-Mac showcased the dunk in a game against the Boston Celtics in the 2000-01 season — his first with the Orlando Magic after leaving the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2000. It drew the “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd. His teammates were awed. But it occurred in front of a half-empty Fleet Center on local television in a preseason game. In other words, it didn’t really happen.
It was equivalent to McGrady conducting a soft opening before unveiling a store to the public for real. He was working out all the kinks. What was the path of least resistance to attempt the dunk? Where on the backboard did he have to throw the ball to? Where on the court did he have to throw the ball from? Once T-Mac ironed the creases of the dunk just so, he was ready to debut it on a bigger platform.
Fast-forward to 2002. Coming off a breakout year in 2000-01, where he was voted in as a starter as a first-time All-Star and was named the league’s Most Improved Player, McGrady was selected to his second-consecutive All-Star team but this time as a reserve. Michael Jordan coming out of retirement had something to do with that.
But unlike the 2001 All-Star Game, where he had a quiet performance (two points in 21 minutes), T-Mac made his presence felt the moment he stepped on the floor at the All-Star Game in 2002.
Leading 45-38 in the second quarter, the Western Conference had the ball in transition. Dirk Nowitzki threw a two-handed chest pass up the court to Peja Stojakovic, who in turn took one dribble and pulled up for a midrange jumper from the right elbow with Paul Pierce aggressively closing out in a day when All-Star game defense wasn’t as rare. Peja’s shot grazed the front rim, Jermaine O’Neal wrestled the rebound away from Gary Payton and tapped the ball to McGrady.
While all of this is happening, Jim Gray is conducting a sideline interview at the end of the Eastern Conference bench with Michael Jordan, who is trying to watch the game while rambling about the reason why he’s continuing to play the game of basketball.
As MJ is talking, McGrady is dribbling the ball past half-court. Nowitzki is defending the paint. Steve Nash picks up Ray Allen, who is running to the left corner. Elton Brand is at the top of the key. And Gary is trailing the play.
For those who knew T-Mac’s tendencies, it would have been easy to presume that he was going to pull up and take a 3-pointer. Especially given the laissez-faire environment of an All-Star Game.
Instead, McGrady decides to improvise. For a split-second, if you freeze the video, you see an open lane to the rim for T-Mac. It’s as if the Red Sea parts for a nanosecond. McGrady launches the ball underhanded against the backboard from the free-throw line. Nash is the only player for the West that makes a concerted effort to stop T-Mac, but it’s too late.
As the West defenders converge on McGrady, like the Red Sea collapsing around him, he catches the ball off the backboard, jumps off two legs, and throws down a tomahawk dunk. The crowd is whipped into a frenzy. The East bench goes crazy. But the best reactions come from press row. Two different reporters watch the play unfold right in front of them under the basket and in the aftermath of T-Mac’s explosion, they throw their hands up in the air in disbelief. It’s as if their brains malfunctioned trying to compute what they just saw.
This time around, in front of a sold-out crowd at the First Union Center on national television in the All-Star Game, T-Mac’s dunk happened.
Jim Gray asks Jordan, “My goodness! What did you think of that one there [from] Tracy McGrady?”
MJ replies, “You’re talking to me! I’m missing the game!”
Not bad for a grand opening.
That’s when it became clear that McGrady just did something special. The fans, his teammates, the media, even Air Jordan himself, all of them marveled at what they just saw. Greatness.
I have a confession to make. It’s been hard for me to write about the one player who stoked my passion for the game when I was growing up. I’ve read all the other pieces out there about McGrady, and my manifesto really summed up his career better than anything else I could have written.
T-Mac remains my favorite Magic player of all-time. I can forgive him for his imperfections because at the end of the day, he was the best player on my favorite team. Moments like his dunk take on a larger-than-life significance. That dunk, the memory of experiencing that dunk as it was unfolding live on TV, is why I love the NBA.
There’s an innocence to how we enjoy sports at a young age. It was there for me with T-Mac. He was my guy, and the feeling he gave me when I watched him play on a nightly basis is indescribable.
It’s why I’ve struggled to write about McGrady this week, and it’s why that moment in Philly is so transcendent for me. I was graced with a superhero at an impressionable age when I still believed in them. That’s my lasting memory of T-Mac.