December 24, 2012

Internationally Known: Tracy McGrady arrives in China with great expectations.

I wrote this feature as the cover story for SLAM China 2012 No. 23 where it was published in Chinese. The original English version was first published on SLAMOnline.com on December 18, 2012.

It’s an afternoon practice session at the Qingdao University Gymnasium. It’s a big city debut in the evening in Shanghai. It’s the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It’s the first round of the NBA Playoffs in Houston. It’s him as an athletic 18-year-old straight out of high school in Toronto. It’s him in his mid-30s as a veteran in China.

No matter what jersey he’s wearing, no matter the time or age, no matter the opponent, Tracy McGrady’s on-court demeanor rarely changes. Without the ball, he moves slowly, almost seeming to lumber painfully from one side of the court to the other. Once the whistle blows and the game begins, he speeds up a little, but his body language still gives the impression of lethargy, of being a little too relaxed, of being a little too disoriented.

But blink and you may miss the sudden spurt of energy, a sudden flash, an unexpected spin around an opposing defender, a perfect catch of the ball, a sudden spark of complete concentration, of complete orientation, a couple of quick dribbles to beat the next defender, a quick jump shot, a perfect swish.

Tracy McGrady may have landed in China as a professional just a few months ago, but a little bit of China has always been in the man who local fans now adoringly refer to as “Mai Di.” NBA players have a variety of different training regimes, but there is one—the practice of Tai Chi—that seems to be inherent in Mai Di’s game, whether or not he realizes it. Tai Chi—China’s centuries-old form of exercise and martial art—is a system of slow meditative physical exercises, designed for relaxation, for balance of health, for defensive training.

Walk down through any public park in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or McGrady’s new home of Qingdao, or anywhere across the country, and you’ll see Tai Chi in action. Young and old (well, mostly old!) Chinese practitioners exercising in slow physical meditation. Not every form of physical workout needs to be externally grueling; Tai Chi proves that the slow, almost lethargic-looking form of exercise can perform wonders, can offer the perfect internal balance, can prepare its subject physically, mentally and spiritually for grueling tests of the body and the mind ahead.

From Auburndale High School to the Mount Zion Christian Academy, from Toronto to Orlando, from Houston to New York, and from Detroit to Atlanta, Tracy McGrady—probably unwittingly—honed his Tai Chi skills. In the process, he became the best high school player in the US, became the ninth pick in the NBA, won a Most Improved Player award, was named to the All-NBA First-Team twice, became an NBA scoring champion twice, and played in seven consecutive NBA All-Star games. He became one of the most popular players in the world, and most importantly, one of the finest basketball players in the world.

And in 2012, he arrived in China, the land where Tai Chi has flourished, to flourish with his own command of Tai Chi Basketball. He arrived in the city of Qingdao to guide the city’s DoubleStar Eagles to greater heights than they have ever before.

*****

The Chinese Basketball Association is at its most advanced stage yet. The league has never been better. The talent level in each team stronger than ever before, there is more balance in the league than ever before, and with each passing year, the league gets richer and more popular across the world. There are also a high number of talented foreign players spread across the league, many of whom have been big names in the NBA in past years.

Foreign players have been hitting up Chinese shores for over a decade, but the most-hyped breakthrough first came when Bonzi Wells came in to play for the Shaanxi Brave Dragons. An unsuccessful stint by Yao Ming’s former teammate Steve Francis followed, but the league truly came into global attention when Stephon Marbury bought his talents to China. Marbury’s journey eventually took him and the Beijing Ducks to their first CBA championship in 2012. A year ago, during the lockout in the NBA, a multitude of NBA players—including Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, JR Smith, and Aaron Brooks—all chose to play professionally in China.

Looking around the CBA today, the list of foreign players can sometimes read as a list of the NBA’s ‘Where Are They Now?’ Mike Harris, Rashad McCants, Shavlik Randolph, DJ Mbenga (McGrady’s former teammate in Qingdao), Al Thornton, Quincy Douby, Josh Boone, James Singleton, Von Wafer, Randolph Morris, Sundiata Gaines, and Ike Diogu are earning their salaries far from home in China. Marbury is still leading the Ducks’ offense. This year, multiple-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas finds himself (chilling on the injury list) in Shanghai.

But let’s be real: Tracy McGrady has arrived this season as the biggest foreign name in the history of the CBA. Never before has an American star of his caliber played in front of China’s local audiences, been a teammate to their own players, represented a team of one of their own cities. Tracy McGrady, the man who played 15 fruitful years in the NBA. Tracy McGrady, the man who averaged 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game through his career. Tracy McGrady, who once scored 13 points in 35 seconds.

That Tracy McGrady is now playing in China.

*****

Qingdao is a beautiful city on in the Shandong Province on China’s East Coast. It’s one of the cleanest and greenest of the major cities in the country, and even earned the title of China’s Most Livable City in 2009 and 2011 by the Chinese Institute of City Competitiveness. The city is home to beautiful German-style architecture, pleasant beaches, wide roads, mountains spotting across the city limits, and most-famously, to China’s well-known Tsingtao Beer. Like McGrady, the city is laid-back and easy-going.

The Qingdao Eagles were formed in 2003, and since then, the city’s professional basketball team hasn’t yet had any memorable seasons in the CBA. They have featured a few half-decent foreign players in the past—like Dee Brown and Ivan Johnson—but the squad was never good enough for a playoff run.

But with McGrady’s addition this year, their fans—young and old—are expectant of great things.

“I used to be a big fan of Shandong’s basketball team for more than 10 years back in the old days,” says Zhao Quan Min, a fan who showed up at the Qingdao University Gymnasium to watch McGrady and the Eagles play against the Bayi Rockets, “But I never really followed the new Qingdao Eagles. Of course, I used to like McGrady back when he used to play with Yao in the Houston Rockets. So it’s great that he’s here in our city.”

When asked about his expectations for the team this year, Zhao smiles and without a hesitation replies, “A championship.”

McGrady’s move is helping to bring non-basketball fans to the stadium, too. Wang Bi started coming to Qingdao’s home games after she heard about McGrady’s signing. She says she has been a fan of Mai Di for the past eight years. When asked why, she answered, “Because when I saw him on TV, he was so handsome, and cool!”

On game night, another group of fans sitting in the upper stands let their large banner—unfurled widely across the rows—do the talking: ‘T-Mac comes—Can Championship Be Far Behind?’

Speaking to reporters, McGrady admitted he knows little to nothing about his opponents in China. He’s new here, and he’ll learn. The CBA won’t be an easy league for him and his team, and there are no guarantees of success. But the city of Qingdao expects, and the fans are excited. Now, the pressure is on McGrady to deliver.

Or so we think. Because as the man himself claims, there is no pressure at all.

China loves basketball, and McGrady, who spent the best-remembered years of his career in Houston with China’s greatest player, Yao Ming, is rightfully loved in China. He has been a superstar in the US, and his arrival in China has been greeted with frantic fan frenzy. He was mobbed by fans as he first walked out through the airport, he is mobbed by fans screaming out his name at every home game, he has fans of other teams cheering for him, he has the attention of every person in the 1.4-billion strong country that cares for basketball, and even of a great number of those who don’t.

In the middle of this frenzy, this outpour of love and attention, McGrady seems as calm as ever.

“There’s no pressure!” McGrady exclaimed a day after his first home game in Qingdao—a loss to the Foshan Long Lions—when we asked him if he felt any burden of being the biggest basketball star to arrive in China, “No pressure. I just play ball. That’s all that I know to do.”

McGrady has had a rough start to his career with the Eagles, and the team has gone through a major transition phase since finishing ninth last season, their best ever finish since the team’s inception in 2003. Gone are last year’s All-Stars Li Gen and the American Lester Hudson. In came McGrady and former NBA player DJ Mbenga, who was soon replaced after a rough start by the American Chris Daniels. To put it bluntly, the surrounding cast in the team around McGrady is weak, but that is the price that the team has to pay for signing a former NBA superstar. Speaking to reporters, McGrady made clear that one of his goals is to help his Chinese teammates get better.

The Eagles finished last season with a 16-16 record, their best ever finish in the CBA. After a rough start to this season, the team fired their Korean head coach Kang Jung-Soo and promoted junior coach Zhang Shizhang to the top post. Unfortunately, as the new coach is learning, success won’t be too easy, even with T-Mac’s talents. Nine games in, McGrady’s Eagles are the worst team in China. At the time of writing, they were 0-9 and T-Mac was still looking for his first win in China. The team will have to work hard and figure out their identity if they plan to fulfill their first goal: to start winning games. The fans’ dreams of the playoffs, or that improbable championship, will have to wait for later.

But will there be a later? With the exception of Marbury, many foreign players have the tendency to use China has just a stepping stone or a phase in their career. There are no guarantees if McGrady will be in Qingdao, or even in China next season. McGrady sounded non-committal about his future too.

“I’m not thinking about long-term plans right now,” he said. “I don’t think that far ahead. I go day-by-day. I don’t know what the future holds for me.”

*****

If he doesn’t have a clear future, then McGrady will have to make the most of his present time with the team. And whether or not he likes to admit it, this is a team that is under major spotlight this season, and with every loss, the pressure on the players is going to increase exponentially. China loves McGrady because they love basketball superstars. But China loves winning even more.

Marbury—another great talent from the NBA who couldn’t find success back home—was able to turn it around and win an elusive championship with the Beijing Ducks in China. Marbury always had fans in China, but becoming a champion turned him into a legend. A statue of him—paid by the Ducks’ fans—stands outside the Wukesong/MasterCard stadium where his team won the CBA Finals last season.

McGrady will have no problem having individual success in China, putting up big stats (he’s currently averaging over 25 points, 4 assists and nearly 6 rebounds per game), and in the process, remaining extremely popular. He has been a great individual player and a popular one before, in the NBA. But he was never too successful with his team, and never tasted the sweet success of an NBA Championship. Now in China, he has to turn his fortunes like Marbury did and turn individual brilliance in to team success.

There will be questions and concerns constantly surrounding him. He’s in his 30s now and is being expected to carry a heavy load for the Eagles. Will he be able to do it on a consistent basis at this age? He has also been constantly hampered with injuries in the past, injuries that cut short what could have been an even better career.

The journey ahead won’t be easy. There will be loud noises screaming at McGrady on court and loud fan frenzy chasing him off of it. There will be the need to win and to entertain, to dominate and to help others in his team dominate. To stop his opponents and go somewhere neither he nor his new team has never been before.

Luckily for McGrady, he is already blessed with one weapon for the road ahead. He may look calm, slow, and a little too relaxed at times, but don’t be fooled: because like the art of Tai Chi makes one move gracefully to become stronger, McGrady has the graceful talent to come out stronger than ever on the basketball court. The eyes won’t always show it, but a switch will constantly flip off and on—multiple times a game—when he turns the calmness into deadliness, the lethargy into swift concentration.

When he becomes the most dangerous player on court.

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