Eight months ago he was nicknamed Pumpkinhead. Today he's called Showtime. Eight months was Tracy McGrady's gestation period, the time it took him to be conceived, polished, delivered and perhaps even a little corrupted by the basketball star system. In that time he has gone from being an obscure Florida high school player to the brink of the NBA draft. From a nobody to the Man. Tracy always figured he'd need a guardian angel if he was to navigate the incredible journey to the pros that every player dreams of, so it's no wonder he jumped last May when the man on the telephone said he was from Mount Zion Christian Academy.
Maybe it's the 17 housemates. Or the 4:45 a.m. wake-up calls to run five miles in the dark. Or the 15 hours of church services and Bible study every week. Or maybe it's the ban on earrings and phone calls, Walkmans and girlfriends, even trips to the mall. Or maybe it's that Mount Zion plays only six home games this season and 22 on the road, where Tracy is the focal point of hostile crowds and aggressive double teams. Whatever. Several times every day he asks himself how he could have left his doting grandma, Roberta Williford, and sunny Florida for this.
Tracy understands that without both the national exposure and the draconian discipline he has received at Mount Zion, he would not be plotting to skip college and enter the NBA draft in June, to follow in the path of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal.
Mount Zion is a coed private school in Durham, N.C., with only 200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The Mighty Warriors' basketball coach, Joel Hopkins, refers to his program only half jokingly as "a Christian boot camp," where he shepherds youths like Tracy, players who need some guidance in their lives. Hopkins is a taskmaster who doesn't care that he is compared openly—and unfavorably—by his players to everyone from Bobby Knight to John Gotti. "We're strict with the kids, but that's because we're primarily dealing with the unchurched, the young people who have fallen through the cracks of society," says the Reverend Donald Fozard, who founded the school in 1985. "We're here to give them second chances and benefits of the doubt."
This is a place where the value of faith and mulligans is understood: Fozard is the brother-in-law of former NBA player and coach John Lucas, who runs a drug rehab program that has helped numerous athletes; and Hopkins was expelled from North Carolina Central University in 1990 for smoking marijuana. But Mount Zion is also a fledgling basketball factory, a more pious version of prep schools like Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., and St. John's at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., that over the last decade or so have groomed some of the nation's best players. The success of these basketball programs, which have consistently earned high national rankings, has served to boost their schools' profiles. While Hopkins claims that Mount Zion doesn't recruit, he does coach players from six states, and he has a budget for scholarships worth over $75,000 that all 13 of his players share to help pay the $8,600 a year tuition. Fozard, an ardent basketball fan who has been known to praise the Lord and castigate a ref in the same breath, proudly proclaims that 90% of the Mighty Warriors' scholarship money is contributed by the more than 1,000 members of Mount Zion Christian Church.
Tracy lives in a 14-room house with Hopkins and his wife, Pam, their three children and the other 12 Mighty Warriors. Living under one roof has helped the Mount Zion players mold themselves into perhaps the finest high school team in the country: They had a 20-1 record at week's end despite playing almost exclusively on the road. The Mighty Warriors were second in the nation in last week's USA Today Super 25 high school rankings, and there may be as many as nine Division I prospects on the roster. It's a team so talented that one senior, small forward Brian Williams, is weighing scholarship offers from UCLA and Maryland, yet he can't crack the starting lineup.
By far the mightiest Warrior is Tracy, a 6'9" senior who was averaging 27.4 points and 9.1 rebounds through Sunday, while playing all five positions on the floor. He is a human Play of the Day. His dunks are the stuffs of legend, but the one they talk about the most on campus is the time he caught an alley-oop pass while soaring past the basket and reached back and executed a reverse jam over two defenders. "There are plenty of moments when I sit on the bench in awe of his skill," Hopkins says. "I'd buy a ticket to watch him play pickup ball."
Says Mount Zion assistant Cleo Hill, "There aren't many 6'9" guys who can score at will in the post and hit the three-pointer. When he turns it on, you can tell he simply doesn't belong here."
In a game against Atlantic Shores Christian School of Chesapeake, Va., on Jan. 10, the first Mount Zion home game in 41 days, Tracy performed like a salesman showing off his wares. In the first quarter he made four poster-quality dunks. In the second he nailed three three-pointers and scored 11 points in a span of only 53 seconds. In the third he played point guard and distributed the ball artfully on the break. In the fourth he stole an inbounds pass and capped the night with a reverse slam. He finished with 36 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks, four steals, one turnover and eight dunks in Mount Zion's 92-44 victory. When he left the game with two minutes left to play, some Atlantic Shores fans booed Hopkins for removing him.
Afterward one NBA scout muttered to himself the question that has shadowed Tracy for the last eight months: "Where the heck did this kid come from?"