For so many years, Tracy McGrady didn’t see himself here. For all the accolades, superstardom and heroic performances, being a Hall of Famer was never his primary goal nor was it foreseeable.
McGrady won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2001 and never received another major statuette after that. Yet Thursday, he sat back in his chair with the Naismith Hall of Fame logo etched into the head rest, wearing his orange blazer with the Hall of Fame logo sewn into the breast pocket, staring at a Hall of Fame trophy with his name carved into its base.
“I didn’t know what the Hall of Fame was until I got to the NBA,” McGrady told reporters. “I didn’t even consider myself a Hall of Famer until I started working for ESPN and Rachel Nichols, every day we do a show [and she would say], ‘Future Hall of Famer.’ That shit just didn’t sound right to me and I’m being brutally honest. It didn’t sound right to me.”
Despite being one of the greatest players of his generation, he never won a championship. He won a couple of scoring titles while transcending his position as a point forward, laying the path for LeBron James to redefine the role of a swingman as a primary playmaker. But for Tracy, falling short of that crowning achievement always defined his career. McGrady was asked if he felt unfulfilled after his retirement.
“Absolutely, because that’s why we play the game,” McGrady said. “We play the game to win a championship. That is the ultimate goal. It’s not to make the Hall of Fame. Winning. That’s all it is. It’s all about winning. Listen, if me and where my career went, let’s just say the numbers and everything is the way it is after my career, if I was to win a championship, ah man, I’d be elevated even more. It’s just the truth. I’d be elevated even more.”
McGrady felt that he missed his window of opportunity to win a title, looking back on some of the decisions he made over his career. His prime was cut short due to a flurry of injuries, ending a stint of seven-straight All-Star seasons between Orlando and Houston. But it was someone else’s injury that took away his best chance at a title in his eyes.
“If I were to stay, we could’ve done something special in Toronto. A lot of people forget that when I was in Orlando, Grant Hill was my teammate,” McGrady said. “So, If I can take a team to a fifth seed without another superstar, without an All-Star, if I had Grant Hill, it’s no question. You have a window in this league. You look at LeBron, it’s very rare that somebody has the longevity of winning. Kobe as well. They had a great team.”
McGrady spoke of contrition with the boastfulness of a confident legend. He was sure to declare he was one of the greats at his surprise induction party, saying he was “damn proud of going into the Hall of Fame.” He has presented himself as someone who played at the level of greatness of the peers who surpassed his success, without having the opportunity to play on a “winning team.” It presents a chicken and egg scenario, wondering whether his teams in Houston should have enjoyed greater success. But the back and knee injuries that led to his premature decline did the same to his two greatest partners in Hill and Yao Ming.
“Paul Pierce is gonna be a first ballot Hall of Famer, right? He had a small window of winning when he had Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen,” McGrady said. “What they had, about four or five years of winning a championship and they obviously win. So, my window was in Orlando when I was at my best, I feel. If I had Grant Hill, that was my window of winning for an extended period of time in the Eastern Conference and it was just unfortunate.”
Now that he is in the reminiscing stage of his career, he looks back with pride. The pain of never winning a title is permanent, but his universal appreciation as an iconic player is enduring. McGrady measures his career against Kobe Bryant. Kobe finished with enough rings to fill a hand, but McGrady felt he worked to achieve everything Kobe earned.
“You can’t accomplish what I accomplished without working,” McGrady said. “So yeah, [Kobe] was obsessed with working. But the difference is y’all know how hard Kobe was working because you saw it. With me, it was behind the scenes like a fucking duck in the water. He’s paddling his ass off under that water, but you can’t see it. You can’t see how damn hard the legs are working. You didn’t see me. You didn’t see it. I’m like that duck that’s in that pond. I’m working to get to that other side.“
His crowning achievement may be his 13 points in 33 seconds to beat the San Antonio Spurs on December 9, 2004. That lives on as a testament to McGrady’s limitless talent. Despite this moment defining his greatness, it hasn’t been enough to impress his own children.
“I can’t get away from it; I made my kids watch it,” McGrady said. “You know what’s crazy man? I gotta really choke the shit out of my kids. I mean, here I am with the orange jacket on, about to get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I get the guys in the gym and try to tell them something, they act like I don’t know shit. Like I don’t know nothing, man.
“I try to teach them something. They don’t wanna hear it. But somebody who never played collegiate ball, never played in the pros try to tell them something, they listen. It’s the craziest thing. All of this knowledge, you know who I played against? [Michael] Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Steph Curry. These are the guys that you watching on TV! I played against them! Not only did I play against them, I was one of the best. It doesn’t resonate with them.”
Now McGrady leads a group of 21st century legends, with Allen Iverson, who achieved a level of success commensurate with the typical Hall of Famer without the requisite ring. Steve Nash is around the corner, with Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony potentially to follow. Nash will garner no controversy, but Carter and Anthony have tattered track records and inconsistent career paths.
McGrady’s rise to the top was steady and he remained dominant throughout his prime. His prime ended suddenly and permanently just as he was approaching the usual peak age at 28. Yet his body of work was so tremendous, he ended up in Springfield anyway. McGrady forces that conversation over defining greatness and success to carry on until the end of days.
As McGrady would say, anybody can win a championship, but everybody can’t get in the Hall of Fame.