Even when healthy, McGrady has had to deal with the fluctuations in his playing time. In 14 games through Sunday, he had averaged 12.4 minutes, but as three recent games at SkyDome proved, there are few average stints. Against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 17, McGrady played 26 minutes; against the Milwaukee Bucks last Friday, 15; and against the Washington Wizards on Saturday, one.
On the court the 6'8" McGrady has exhibited a smooth jump shot with good range and slick ball-handling skills. He has a 44-inch vertical leap and the wingspan of a condor. Through Sunday he was averaging 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, but much of his scoring and rebounding had come in bursts. McGrady had eight points in 11 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 1, and 10 points and 11 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 15. In the aforementioned game against Boston, he scored a career-high 17 points and provided a soaring dunk and a breathtaking rejection that were the Raptors' only highlights in a bitter 88-83 defeat. Still, he says, that game did not bring him the greatest thrill of his young career. The pinnacle came on Dec. 13, when he found himself standing next to Michael Jordan during a game in Chicago. "I was freaked out thinking that I'm right beside MJ," McGrady says. "I wanted to say something, but my lips froze."
For McGrady, playing in the NBA is the first job he has held. The first paycheck he ever received was for $224,000. Cognizant of the volatility of this vast wealth in a teenager's pocket, Toronto's third-year guard and captain, Damon Stoudamire, 24, has watched over McGrady like a guardian angel. Their SkyDome lockers are side-by-side, and Stoudamire often sits beside McGrady on team flights, constantly whispering in his ear. "I tell him there's going to be a lot of guys wanting to hang with him and even more women," Stoudamire says. "During games he's going to face a lot of players who are jealous of him. I guess I told him to be careful of everyone he meets." Alas, Stoudamire hasn't been able to protect McGrady from the losing: At week's end Toronto was 3-23. Stoudamire has called the Raptors a "laughingstock," and SkyDome has come to be known as The Lost World.
Off the court McGrady has faced adversity as well. On Nov. 18 Thomas told the Toronto players that he might soon leave the organization if his plans to acquire a majority ownership share in the Raptors fell through. Thomas concluded his remarks by turning to his youngest player and saying, "Tracy McGrady, welcome to the NBA." Two days later, Thomas resigned. "When I heard the news, it really hurt me because Isiah was like a father figure," McGrady says. "I felt lost, like everybody else was in a boat and I was drowning out in the water somewhere."
Just four days after Thomas's departure, forward Popeye Jones greeted McGrady in the Raptors locker room and told him, "Get your stuff, T-Mac. We're about to be traded to Philadelphia." Toronto and Philadelphia newspapers were reporting rumors of a deal that would send Jones and McGrady to the 76ers for guard Jerry Stackhouse and forward Clarence Weatherspoon. The trade never came off (on Dec. 18, Stackhouse was shipped to the Detroit Pistons), but McGrady was disillusioned again, especially when he realized Thomas had initiated the talks. "You think you're playing for a solid organization and think you've put down roots. Then suddenly you feel like you're not needed."
Says Williams, "In two months Tracy's gone from 18 years old to around 26. He's learned that there are no mommies around here. Nobody is going to hold his hand."
Thus, the 1997-98 season is evolving into a postgraduate year for McGrady, a chance to learn the pro game and, by diligently lifting weights, to bulk up from his current 210 pounds to handle the daily grind. McGrady yearns for some stability, which is difficult to find in Toronto these days. Thomas is already gone, and coach Darrell Walker's hold on his job is tenuous. Stoudamire will be a free agent after this season, so he may be traded away before he flees. On Dec. 30 in Detroit the Raptors will play their 29th game, more games than McGrady has ever played in one season. There will still be 53 more to go. McGrady's dream of becoming Rookie of the Year has already vanished. The All-Star Slam Dunk contest was recently canceled. McGrady had one day off last week, and he had to undergo a root canal procedure. "One of my boys from Florida will tell me how easy I've got it because all I'm doing is hoopin', and I'll tell him, 'Cuz, you don't know the half of it,' " McGrady says.
After the loss to Boston, as McGrady walked out of the plush Raptors locker room through a maze of used towels strewed across the wall-to-wall carpeting, he spotted a familiar face who reminded him of his indecision at the outset of 1997. McGrady allowed himself to grin at the memory and then quietly asked, "Do you think I made the right choice?"