MIAMI -- Tracy McGrady played seven and a half minutes in the Finals, which was seven and a half minutes more than T-Mac expected to play. To be fair, that's more than anyone anywhere expected one of the most star-crossed players in league history to ever play in the Finals.
His cameo came at the end of the Game 2 blowout and was as nondescript as the Spurs' lifeless second-half performance. He got one up shot and missed. There was no reprise of his famous 13-points-in-33-seconds epic that he put up in 2004 with the Rockets against the Spurs of all teams. He was a legend back then, a two-time scoring champ and a seven-time All-Star. But even when there were good times, McGrady was always something of a tragic figure.
"That's really the story of my career: what ifs," McGrady said the other day between Games 1 and 2. "What if Grant Hill was healthy when we were in Orlando and what if the Magic would have signed Timmy (Duncan). What if I was healthy and Yao was healthy when we played Game 7 against the Lakers in the second round. What if ..."
There are no two sadder words in sports. For all he did and all he accomplished, there was always something missing. His Magic squad was supposed to be the next great team with McGrady and Hill, but injuries wiped out Hill and Duncan decided to stay in San Antonio where he won more championships and added to his legend.
The Magic eventually traded T-Mac to Houston where he and Yao teamed up with Jeff Van Gundy, but again, injuries cut short what should have been something special. Then his knee gave out and that was effectively that.
"I couldn't believe that it took 11 years for me to start really experiencing really significant injury problems," McGrady said. "I dealt with a lot of nagging injuries, but when that 11th season hit and I dealt with that knee problem that gave out on me, it was like, ‘Damn.' I put in a lot of great years prior to my knee injury."
McGrady has been something of a godsend to the reporters covering the Finals. There is still an allure to T-Mac and he's reached the point in his life where he's open, accessible and willing to talk about anything and everything. He is an oasis on off days, telling tales about his life in the league from high school phenom to superstar status and all the way through a pair of unsatisfying stints in Detroit and Atlanta.
"The league was so much different than it is now," he said. "When I came in '97 you had men in the league. It's a lot of boys in this league now. That's what I've been trying to tell guys when they be asking the question about LeBron and (Michael) Jordan. I'm like, come on man, y'all can't be serious. This man, MJ, playing against grown men out there. It's a lot of boys in our league right now."
Despite everything he's been through it's still hard to think of McGrady as something other than the wunderkind star who appeared out of nowhere and took the league by storm. Nowhere was actually something called Mt. Zion Christian Academy and where it began was at the old ABCD camp, where he arrived as an unheralded player and left as the top prospect in the country.
McGrady skipped the rest of the learning curve, joining a wave of high school kids who turned pro along with Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. KG and Kobe are all-timers, certain Hall of Famers who have been validated by late-career surges. McGrady was never able to enjoy those golden moments but here he is, 34 years of age, not old by anyone's definition but wizened by 15 years in the league.
He was pissed off when he left Atlanta, where he felt promises had been broken. So he took a victory lap in the Chinese Basketball Association where cheering crowds met him at every stop, in airports, at arenas and hotels. He soaked up all of it.
"Chinese fans are unbelievable," he said. "They made me feel like a rock star. I sold out the CBA, every arena I showed up to was thousands of people just waiting for my bus to pull out. It was just ridiculous. I was overwhelmed with every city that I went to. To come home, relax for two months, to come be a part of this was great."
This, of course, is San Antonio, where he signed late in the season and has been along for the ride all the way to the Finals. The Spurs are everything McGrady never had in his prime and he can't help having some nagging feeling of regret that it took so long to be in this kind of atmosphere, playing for Gregg Popovich and being around other superstars.
"Well, yeah, but you figure the situation that you're in at that time that you can get it done," McGrady said. "Anybody would want to be a part of this. You figure this is going to be a team that's going to be there every year. The great coaching that Pop displays, the family bonding that they have here. All egos, they check them at the door. It's just not about one guy. They don't care about who gets the spotlight. Nothing. None of that."
However this turns out, Tracy McGrady has finally had a Finals moment. It wasn't anything like he or any of us ever expected or even hoped for back when he was one of the league's five best players, but the moment is all he has left. And despite it all, T-Mac seems at peace with how everything turned out.
"I don't have that baggage with me," he said. "It was a tough adjustment when the time came for me to change roles, yeah. But I wasn't going to allow me to not be a part of an NBA team. I wasn't going to do that."