Tracy Lamar McGrady, Jr., was born on May 24, 1979 in Bartow, Florida. His mother, Melanise Williford, was just out of high school, and his father, while caring and interested in Tracys welfare, wasnt an everyday part of his sons life. In need of help, Melanise headed a short ways north to Auburndale, where her mother, Roberta, lived. The two women shared the responsibility of raising Tracy. Eventually he would call both Mom.
Auburndalelocated between Tampa and Orlando, about 90 minutes from eachwas a comfortable town of just 9,000 residents, most of whom were white. Tracy felt completely at ease there. An aunt anointed him with the nickname Pumpkinhead, and just about everyone in town referred to him that way. He and his friends bounced around a neighborhood known as the Hill as though they owned it.
Life could be rough in Auburndale. One of Tracys starkest childhood memories was the shooting death of a cousins boyfriend. The incident convinced him that he didnt want to spend his adult years on the Hill.
did not have a lot of money, but he grew up with everything he needed.
Melanise commuted to Orlando every day to work as a chambermaid in a Disney
World hotel. She kept her son clothedno small taskand there
was always plenty of his favorite food, spaghetti with Robertas
sauce. Roberta helped out, too. She worked as a janitor, and dinner was
often whatever she caught while fishing at a local pond. A cadre of relatives,
meanwhile, made sure Tracy had lots of spending money come his birthday.
He remembers receiving as much as $100 each year.
Tracy discovered sports at an early age and proved to be a natural athlete. He was first drawn to baseball. Tall, thin, and wiry, he possessed a blazing fastball and could whip his bat throught the hitting zone with tremendous force. A Little League star in Auburndale, Tracy appeared headed for a career on the diamond until another round ball began to consume his life. He had played hoops all along, but didnt get serious about the sport until Penny Hardaway joined the Orlando Magic, in the fall of 1993. The rookie did things on the court that Tracy had never seen before. Hardaway quickly became his hero, the youngster emulating every part of his game.
Tracy began to turn heads in his junior year at Auburndale High School. In his first two seasons with the Bloodhounds, coach Ty Willis used him sparingly at the varsity level. The teenager matured into a dangerous all-around player by his third year, averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds a game. But off-the-court problems threatened to undo the progress he had made. A lazy student who was habitually late for classif he showed at allhe was kicked off the basketball team after mouthing off to a teacher. The incident dropped him off the radar screen of most college recruiters. Miami and Florida were the only schools that talked scholarship with him, but neither pursued the matter any further than that.
Tracy did have some
influential people in his corner. Among them was Alvis Smith, Tracys
AAU coach and a street agent for adidas. In the summer of 1996, Smith
wangled an invitation for the 17-year-old to the shoe companys prestigious
ABCD Summer Camp, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Tracy
arrived on the schools Teaneck campus a nobody. The big name in
attendance was Lamar Odom, a silky smooth lefty with the skills to play
guard or center. Tracy got himself noticed when he demanded to be matched
up against Odom, then blew him away. Later, in the camps senior
all-star game, he threw down a wicked windmill dunk that sealed his reputation
as one of the nations top prospects.
Given Tracys questionable standing at Auburndale, Smith scouted out a new high school for the soon-to-be senior. The pair settled on Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, North Carolina. The Mighty Warriors were one of the states perennial powerhouses, thanks in large part to coach Joel Hopkins. A strict disciplinarian with a hot temper, he liked to refer to himself as the black Bobby Knight. Smith thought Tracy would benefit from the coachs intense style, and convinced him that Mount Zion was the place for him.
Early on it appeared that Tracy had made a wise decision. He devoted himself to an aggressive conditioning program and followed Hopkinss instructions without so much as a peep. Player and coach grew closer, the two spending several nights a week watching NBA games together. The results of Tracys hard work and dedication were evident on the hardwood. Mount Zion twice beat Virginias Oak Hill Academy, annually one of the nations best teams, and climbed up USA Todays Super 25 rankings. Tracy was the catalyst. Playing all five positions and averaging nearly a triple-double, he did it all for the Mighty Warriors, acting as a defensive stopper on one end and an unstoppable scorer on the other.
Tracy, however, slipped into old habits as the season neared its end. When Hopkins challenged him at practice one day, the two got into a heated exchange, wrestled one another to the ground and almost came to blows. Ironically, the ugly confrontation accelerated Tracys maturation process. When cooler heads prevailed and he and Hopkins made amends, he suddenly felt like a man. The metamorphosis colored his thinking in the following months.
A McDonalds All-American, Tracy led Mount Zion to the #2 ranking in the country, and was named national Player of the Year by USA Today and North Carolinas Player of the Year by the Associated Press. His final numbers for 1996-9727.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.8 steals per gameattracted the attention of every major college coach. After Odom, he was rated above other prep stars such as Shane Battier, Ron Artest and Marcus Fizer. Leaning toward Rick Pitino and Kentucky, Tracy seemed ready to commit to the Wildcats.
But then word filtered
down from NBA super scout Marty Blake that he was being projected as a
potential first-round pick by several pro teams. Tim Duncan and Keith
Van Horn were the only clear-cut lottery picksafter that there were
no impact players. When Smith and Hopkins both advised Tracy to skip college,
he decided to try his luck in the draft.
ON THE RISE
Of the teams interested in Tracy, the Chicago Bulls appeared the most serious. GM Jerry Krause negotiated to send Scottie Pippen to the Vancouver Grizzlies for their selection, #4 overall. But hours before the draft Michael Jordan nixed the deal, promising to retire if Pippen were traded.
That opened the door for several other teams, including the Toronto Raptors, who also had their eye of Tracy. Two years earlier, GM Isiah Thomas, hoping to land Kevin Garnett, had outlined a plan of attack to bring along a high school phenom. Now he dusted off the blueprint in anticipation of selecting Tracy. When the 18 year old was passed over by the first eight clubs in the draft (Duncan and Van Horn went 1-2), Toronto grabbed him. Tracy consulted with Hopkins and Smith, who agreed that at least one of two would stay with him throughout his rookie campaign. The NBA rookie salary structure took all the intrigue out of contract talks with the Raptors, while Smith used his contacts to arrange a sweet deal with adidas, which paid Tracy $12 million over six years.
Thomas was praised
in most circles for his efforts to build a winner in Toronto. With Damon
Stoudamire and Marcus Camby already on the roster, he had assembled the
makings of a talented nucleus that might one day challenge for the NBA
title. Tracy seemed to fit perfectly into this picture. As it turned out,
however, his first year as a pro was a nightmare, as was the 1997-98 season
for the Raptors.
The problems started early for Toronto when injuries to Camby, Carlos Rogers, Popeye Jones and Walt Williams decimated the frontline. Coach Darrell Walker quickly lost control of the team, and Toronto won just two of its first 24 games, dropping 17 in a row at one point. Eventually, Thomas jumped ship, accepting a life raft with NBC as an announcer, and Walker was fired and replaced by Butch Carter. Meanwhile, a couple of February blockbuster deals sent Stoudamire, Rogers, Williams and Jones packing. In their stead arrived Alvin Williams, Gary Trent, Chauncey Billups, and Dee Brown, among others. Suddenly the youngest club in the NBA, the Raptors bungled their way through the rest of the campaign, finishing at 16-66. Among the few bright spots on the team were Camby, who demonstrated All-Star ability when healthy, and swingman Doug Christie, who began to mature into a solid scorer.
Tracy watched most of the misery from the bench. First, he landed in Walkers doghouse for what was interpreted as a bad attitude. The coach criticized Tracys work ethic, telling some that the youngster wouldnt last two years in the league, and almost never played him. When Carter took over, he used a more delicate touch with the rookie. The new coach sat down with Tracy and explained that he had to develop into an outstanding practice player before he could even think about being an NBA starter.
Carters stern-but-forgiving hand was just what Tracy needed. He called his coach Uncle Butch, and listened attentively to everything Carter said. By seasons end, Tracy was flashing his talent on a nightly basis. He also found an ally in Kobe Bryant. The two had become friendly by virtue of their membership in the NBAs Jumpa Straight From Prepa fraternity. Bryant, in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers, advised Tracy to seize opportunities in practice and games to impress the Raptors. That, he said, was all the organization wanted to see.
In the second half of the year, Tracy began to gain a better feel for life on and off the court in the pros. He hit the weight room and pushed himself and teammates in practice. His first career NBA start came in late December against the Washington Wizards, and he hit for 13 points and grabbed five rebounds. In 10 minutes of action in the Schick Rookie Game during the All-Star weekend in New York, he scored nine points. Against the New Jersey Nets, also in February, he recorded season-highs with 22 points and eight rebounds. Carter rewarded Tracys progress by inserting him in the starting lineup for the last 11 games of the campaign. For the year, playing 18 minutes a night, he averaged seven points, four rebounds, and one assist. Most important, he weathered the storm of a rocky rookie year and learned from his mistakes.
Things began to look
up for Tracy in June when the Raptors pulled off a draft-day trade that
brought Vince Carter to the club. The two had originally met while playing
AAU ball in Florida, and their friendship grew during their days in North
CarolinaTracy as a senior at Mount Zion and Carter as a burgeoning
star for the Tarheels. Their bond strengthened after they discovered they
shared the same bloodlines. Indeed, at a family reunion, Tracy found out
that his grandmother and Carters grandmother were cousins.
Thanks to the NBA lockout, which dragged into the winter of 1998, Tracy and Carter had plenty of time to get reacquainted. But the second-year pro did more in the prolonged off-season than hang out with his new teammate. On the advice of Joel Hopkins, he worked out with a personal trainer named Wayne Hall. Uncle Butch, meanwhile, visited him in Florida and put him through the paces at a football camp run by his brother, All-Pro receiver Cris Carter. When the labor dispute finally ended, Tracy, who added 15 pounds of muscle to his once spindly frame, looked like a new player.
As a team, the Raptors featured more bulk, too. Most notably, GM Greg Grunwald acquired veterans Kevin Willis and Charles Oakley, who gave Toronto a sorely needed physical presence in the paint. Their impact was immediate. The club broke from the gate in the NBAs abbreviated 50-game schedule playing with passion and confidence. In February, the Raptors christened their new home, the Air Canada Centre, with a 102-87 victory over the Vancouver Grizzlies. From there, they battled hard night in and night out. With a final record of 23-27, Toronto enjoyed its best season in franchise history.
Carter, who was named Rookie of the Year, set the league on fire with his high-flying dunks and high-scoring performances. Alvin Williams gained valuable experience running the point. Christie rounded out his game with a more consistent effort of defense. And Dee Brown led the NBA in three-point baskets.
Tracy also became an integral part of the team. Coach Carter found a role for him as a sparkplug off the bench. Though the increase in the teenagers minutes was minimal, he often entered games in crucial situations. Tracy split time between small forward and point guard. On defense, he was the key to Torontos trapping defense. Under the boards, he was so quick off the floor that he kept balls alive that normally would have fallen harmlessly into enemy hands. Tracy finished second on the Raptors in blocked shots (1.35) and field goal percentage (.436), third in rebounding (5.7) and steals (1.06), and fifth in scoring (9.3) and assists (2.3).
Part of Tracys improvement was linked to his friendship with his cousin Vince. The two were rarely seen apart from each other. Tracy spent most of his off-time at the rookie's apartment, playing video games, listening to Busta Rhymes and feasting on fried chicken and pork chops. Teammates jokingly referred to them as Siamese twins. Coach Carter took note of the chemistry between the two and made sure to get them on the court together more often.
At times, however, the cousins took their relationship too far. That was apparent in the fall of 1999, during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers. The pair was so focused on playing to the crowd that they forgot to play defense or pass the ball to teammates. Toronto fell 112-102, and forward Antonio Davis, newly acquired from the Indiana Pacers, called a closed-door meeting and administered an old-fashioned dressing down of the two young stars.
Tracy had already stirred some controversy when he told the media he deserved to see the floor at least 30 minutes a game. The Toronto front office didnt appreciate him popping off, especially since his game still needed honing. Consistency was his biggest flaw. The Raptors couldnt count on him for the same effort and production every night. Until they could, he would remain the clubs sixth man.
Tracy and his agent,
Arn Tellem, kept close tabs on how Toronto dealt with him. Due to become
a free agent at the end of the season, the 20-year-old felt he had tremendous
leverage. When he turned down an offer from the Raptors for six years
at $70 million, it was clear that he might bolt for greener pastures when
the campaign ended.
Playing both for a new contract and Torontos first real shot at a playoff berth, Tracy gave the Raptors a strong lift off the bench as the teams sixth man. Going into the All-Star break, the club boasted a record of 22-19, its best mark ever at the midway point. Tracys scoring was way up, and he was getting everyone in the offense involved with smart passing. More impressive was his commitment on defense. Often assigned an opponents most lethal scorer, Tracy responded well to the challenge. In back-to-back games, he shut down Grant Hill of the Pistons, then Allan Houston of the Knicks. In the game against Detroit, he and Hillalso a free agent after the campaignkidded about where they were headed. Both mentioned Orlando as a possible destination.
By the end of February, Coach Carter had to make room in the starting five for Tracy. With him, Vince, and Doug Christie teaming up, the Raptors presented matchup problems for everyone they faced. Toronto won 11 of its first 13 with Tracy as a starter. He pulled down 15 rebounds against Chicago and blocked seven shots against Houston. At seasons end, his average in every significant category15.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.91 blocks and 1.14 stealsrepresented a career-high.
When April rolled around, the Raptors, at 45-37, secured their first post-season berth in franchise history. Drawing the Knicks in the first round, Toronto appeared ready for a playoff upset. But tensions simmering below the surface spoiled the fun. Some veterans werent happy about the teams offensive scheme, and the relationship between Tracy and his cousin had cooled somewhat. When the Raptors blew a chance early in their best-of-three series to win one at Madison Square Garden, New York breathed a sigh of relief, then completed a sweep with an 87-80 victory at the Air Canada Center, the first NBA post-season game ever contested north of the U.S. border.
Though it was small consolation, Tracy played fantastic end-to-end ball. In his playoff debut in New York, he poured in 25 points and hauled down 10 rebounds, and completely disrupted the Knicks in the paint. He went on to average nearly 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists for the series. With the NBA executives around the league watching, Tracy established himself as one of the leagues most treasured prizes on the free-agent market.
MAKING HIS MARK
After the playoff loss, it was time for Tracy to start thinking about his future NBA home. Elton Brand of the Bulls tried to persuade him to go to Chicago, but he was uninterested in a rebuilding team. Tracy ruled out the Raptors, toopartly because they fired coach Carter. The two teams in hottest pursuit were the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. Joining either would also allow Tracy to return to his home state and reunite with family and friends. During his three years in Toronto, he had often bankrolled relatives and childhood buddies on extended visits, but he relished the idea of seeing these familiar faces on a regular basis. Heat center Alonzo Mourning gave him a compelling sales pitch for the Miami organization, but Orlando coach Doc Rivers was even more convincing.
Rivers had taken the
reins a year earlier and guided an undermanned team to a surprising .500
finish. He charmed Tracy with a mix of intelligence, warmth, humor and
no-nonsense basketball philosophy. The second-year coach promised to put
the ball in his hands in late-game situations and concocted a hybrid position
similar to Scottie Pippens during Chicagos championship years.
In a sign-and-trade deal between Toronto and Orlando that netted him $93
million over seven years, Tracy joined the Magic and claimed uniform #1,
the number Penny Hardaway had once worn.
Tracy was also swayed by the Magics commitment to building a winner. Though he heard stories about fickle Orlando fans, he was impressed by the organizations pursuit of other big-name stars. Indeed, after being rebuffed by Tim Duncan, the club signed Grant Hill. Tracy figured that he and Hill could put Orlando over the top.
It didnt happen in the 2000-01 campaign, mostly because early in the year Hill went down with an ankle injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. The loss of the six-time All-Star changed everyones role on the team. Rookie shooting guard Mike Miller was expected to shoulder more of the scoring load. Darrell Armstrong, who had blossomed into a legitimate point guard in 1999-00, was pushed to speed his development even more. Big men Pat Garrity, Andrew DeClercq, John Amaechi, and Bo Outlaw had to increase their production in the paint.
No one, however, was asked to do more than Tracy. He prepared for the campaign by strapping weights to his arms and legs for distance runs and sprints, pumping iron, and honing his game on the court of one of his new neighbors, Shaquille ONeal. Posting career-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and minutes played, Tracy led the Magic to a 43-39 record and a trip to the playoffs. He topped or tied the team in scoring 58 times, in rebounding 35 times and in assists 24 times. He was named NBA Player of the Month in Februarythe same month he spearheaded a nine-game winning streak and made his first All-Star appearance.
Tracy got stronger as the season progressed. He beat Philadelphia in late March, banking in a buzzer-beater as he swooped down the lane. Weeks later he torched Washington for 49 points, and dished out 11 assists in a game against Boston. Tracys 26.8 scoring average was the highest ever for a player younger than 22. For his efforts, he captured the NBA's Most Improved Player Award and was named second-team All-NBA.
The season wasnt all smiles for Tracy. In November, he criticized GM John Gabriel, the 1999-00 NBA Executive of the Year, for dealing Outlaw to Phoenix for Jud Buechler. Tracy caught heat for his comments, though he was simply echoing the thoughts of his coach. In the playoffs, he couldnt lift the Magic over the Milwaukee Bucks. In Game 1 he finished with 33 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. In Game 2, he scored 20 straight in the first half. In Game 3, he exploded for 42 points (becoming the second youngest player behind Magic Johnson to score 40 or more in a post-season contest) and added 10 assists. All along he played suffocating defense, holding Glenn Robinson to less than 20 points a game and barking about it night after night. Still, it wasnt enough, and Orlando fell in four.
Tracy and the Magic
looked forward to Hills return in the fall of 2001, especially after
the club added veterans Horace Grant and Patrick Ewing to provide muscle
and leadership. Also, Miller, the 2001 Rookie of the Year, developed an
effective low-post game that promised to give Rivers another reliable
option in his offense. Yet once again, Hill suffered an ankle injury that
sidelined him for virtually the entire year. While Orlando tried to plug
the hole with contributions from Garrity, Troy Hudson and Monty Williams,
the onus was back on Tracy to raise the level of his game. He welcomed
the pressure for the second season in a row.
Tracy was the story for Orlando from opening night until the clubs first-round exit in the post-season. During the summer, he had studied video of Magic Johnson to learn how to handle the ball against smaller opponents. He also watched film of Larry Bird, picking up important information on using screens. In turn, Tracy became a more complete player. He led the Magic in scoring (his 25.6 points a game ranked fourth in the NBA), rebounding and minutes played, and finished second to Armstrong in assists and steals. Named to the All-NBA First Team, he was one of only two players in the league to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. He also earned the respect of writers, who placed fourth in the balloting for MVP.
For Tracy, the 2001-02 season was an educational experience in more than one way. Several times during the year, including twice in the playoffs, pain flared up in his back. Since he had never before been slowed a serious injury, Tracy was greatly concerned by the problem. To his relief, he found the treatment to be very simple. He wasnt getting enough fluids. Tracy now makes sure to drink plenty of water when training and during games.
Though the Magic improved by just one victory, they entered the playoffs with high hopes. The Eastern Conference had no clear-cut favorite. Unfortunately, Orlando ran into Baron Davis and the nothing-to-lose Charlotte Hornets, and fell in four frustrating games. Tracy played well, but again didnt get support from his teammates.
Recognizing that Tracy’s skills were being wasted—and that Hill’s health could no longer be counted on—the Magic fine-tuned the club for the 2002-03 campaign with an eye toward the post-season. Shawn Kemp was signed to help out in the middle, and Jacque Vaughn was brought in to provide a new look in the backcourt. Meanwhile, Armstrong, now in his mid-30s, was shifted to a reserve role, where he could be a sparkplug. That gave Miller and Garrity more responsibility on offense and defense.
Of course, Tracy remained the centerpiece of Orlando’s title hopes. His numbers were terrific in the season’s opening weeks—he was pouring in 30 points a night—but the Magic still had the look of a .500 club. Hill was feeling his way back, Kemp was out of sync, and an injury to Horace Grant robbed the team of his veteran savvy.
When Hill was shut down for the year in January, the team had to make a move. The Magic dealt Miller to Memphis in return for Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricec. Gooden flourished in his new surroundings, while Giricec showed signs of developing into a solid contributor.
Still, the Magic were a one-man team—albeit it a highly entertaining one. Tracy enjoyed one big game after another, including 52 points against the Bulls, 48 (and 47) against the Bucks and 46 against the stingy Pistons. He finished the year averaging an NBA-high 32.1 ppg, and also ranked second in field goals made (829), third in field goals attempted (1813), third in free throws made (576), third in free throws attempted (726), fourth in 3-point field goals attempted (448), fifth in 3-point field goals made (173), and tied for 14th in steals (1.65) and 18th in assists (5.5) (In addition, he led the Eastern Conference in the All-Star voting, then scored 29 points in the contest, including 17 in the third quarter.)
Orlando squeaked into the playoffs at 42-40, drawing Detroit in the first round. Tracy got his team off on the right foot, going for 43 and 46 as the Magic split the first two in Detroit. When Orlando returned home and won both contests on its floor, the club was on the brink of a major upset. But the deep, defensive-minded Pistons clamped down on Tracy over the final three games, and stormed back to claim the series in seven. Afterwards, a disappointed Tracy shouldered the blame, admitting that he didn't do enough to carry the Magic. But the stats told a somewhat different story. After his 31.7 ppg, the only other Orlando player in double-figures was Gooden. Tracy may not have gotten his teammates into the flow of the offense, but they were often guilty of standing around and waiting for him to score.
Tracy's desire to take the heat for the Magic's post-season failure indicated he was growing into his role as a leader. Off the court, he was beginning to see life through the eyes of an adult. Indeed, Tracy got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, ClaRenda Harris. The two met in 1998 when she was working her way through NC State. He was shopping for a car in a Lexus dealership, but couldn’t take his eyes off Clarenda. A speech therapy major, she helped him feel more confident talking with reporters and in front of TV cameras.
On the court, his
development didn’t stop, either. Though he was already viewed by
many as a bona fide superstar, Tracy knew that what separates big-time
stat guys from all-time greats are championship rings. To lift his team
to that level, he showed a willingness to do all the little things—take
a charge, set a pick, dive for a loose ball.
When the Magic first created the ill-fated Hill-McGrady tandem, they had visions of Jordan and Pippen—with Tracy starring as second banana. The time had arrived to reconsider that relationship. In fact, Orlando needed to find a new supporting star for Mr. McGrady.
While the Magic front office reassessed its roster, Tracy suited up for the 2003 Dream Team. He led the squad in scoring at 14.5 ppg through the team's first four games. But an aggravated back forced him to the bench, where he stayed.
Orlando’s 2003-04 season began with an overtime road win over the Knicks. With the off-season addition of Juwan Howard, the Magic looked like an improved team. But when injuries hit Hill, Gordan Giricek and Pat Garrity, the Magic was bound to struggle—though no one could have predicted just how badly.
Orlando followed its first victory with a franchise-record 19-game losing streak. Rivers lost his job as head coach, and was replaced by Lenny Davis. To make a bad season worse for Tracy, he missed a couple of games after the death of his great grandmother, then was sidelined with a strained tendon in his right foot and patella tendonitis.
The highlight of Tracy's campaign was a 62-point performance in a win against the Wizards. In turn, he became only the 11th player in NBA history to reach that single-game total. He joined an elite group that included Michael Jordan and David Robinson.
The Magic finished with a 21-61 record. The silver lining came when they garnered the first pick in the 2004 draft. Tracy earned his second straight NBA scoring title averaging 28 points per game. He also led his team in assists and steals.
After the season, the question for Tracy was whether he wanted to continue to wear a Magic jersey. He mentioned many teams he would like to play for, including the Lakers, who would be interested if Kobe Bryant bolted. Another rumor had Phil Jackson and Shaq heading east for the top selection in the draft. But it turned out that the Rockets had the right fit. Steve Francis headlined a package of players sent to Orlando for Tracy and several other teammates. With the All-Star pairing with Yao Ming, the deal instantly transformed the balance of power in the West.
Houston next got to the job of surrounding Tracy and Yao with the talent to make the club a true title contender. Veterans Mike James, Jon Barry, David Wesley, Bob Sura and Dikembe Mutombo eventually rounded out the squad. For head coach Jeff Van Gundy, this was the type of hard-working, defensive unit that fit his grind-it-out style.
Initially, however, players and coach struggled to adjust to one another. Van Gundy didn't like the inconsistent effort he got from his team, and the Rockets didn't always see the wisdom in his basketball beliefs. Houston was a sub-.500 club until December, when it won nine of 15. Not coincidentally, Tracy had a terrific month. He topped 30 points five times, including a 48-point outburst against the Dallas Mavericks, posted a couple of double-doubles and play excellent defense.
With their star buying into Van Gundy's system, the rest of the Rockets fell into place. Yao became more assertive in the paint, and Wesley, Sura and James ignited the transition game. Houston climbed the standings in the Midwest Division, finishing behind the Mavs and San Antonio Spurs at 51-31. It was the franchise's best mark since the days of Charles Barkley in the mid-1990s.
Tracy was the catalyst in the team's turnaround. He wound up in the Top 10 in 14 statistical categories, including scoring (25.7 ppg), steals (1.73 spg) and minutes (40.8 mpg). While his shot selection was questionable at times, he raised his efficiency from the field to 43%, while also increasing his passing and rebounding numbers, and decreasing his turnovers. By season's end, Tracy was doing everything Van Gundy was asking of him, and the pundits believed the Rockets could make some real noise in the playoffs.
The post-season opened on a high note for Houston, as Tracy and his mates took the first two of their series against the Mavs in Dallas. He was sensational in both contests, going to the hoop, hitting open jumpers, cleaning the boards, and getting back on D. But the Rockets' season turned on a dreadful stretch in Game 3, as they coughed up a huge lead and lost 106-102. Houston won only once more in the series, capturing Game 6 as Tracy exploded for 37 points. Two nights later, they were drubbed on the road, bowing out in a humiliating 40-point defeat.
As for Tracy, he absorbed a lot of the criticism for Houston's collapse. Of course, that's the plight of a superstar. When his team tanks, he must accept the blame. Going forward, Houston has the nucleus and the coach to challenge for a championship. Penetrating deeper into the playoffs will depend on a variety of factors, including a more focused effort from Tracy. Just as important, his teammates will have to start thinking—and playing—more like a team that knows it can win a title.
TRACY THE PLAYER
Comparisons to Scottie Pippen tell you a lot about Tracys talent. He is fantastically athletic and possesses a wonderful instinct for the game. There literally isnt anything he cant door cant learn to do.
Tracy doesnt have a classic jumper, but he has worked extremely hard to become accurate from the outside. Every year he has increased his range and proficiency from beyond the three-point arc. Closer to the hoop, he may attempt a wild shot on occasion, but he has such phenomenal body control that he often cans those shots or draws a whistle. And Tracy is developing into a clutch free-throw shootera crucial skill for a big-time go-to guy.
Too often in the early part of Tracys career he pouted and complained, partly because he is a hardnosed competitor. Given his youth, however, that had to be expected. As he gets older, Tracy will have to find a way to channel his desire to win into a more positive force. Teammates like him and are in awe of his ability. The final piece to the puzzle is to earn their respect as a leader.
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