Still, as he reminded us on Dec. 9, when he scored 13 points in the last 35 seconds to almost single-handedly erase a 13-point deficit in an 81-80 win over the San Antonio Spurs, McGrady might be the best pure scorer in the game. And it is this stretch with this team, with Yao as his running mate, that will determine if he's ultimately worthy of inclusion with the alltime greats, if he'll ever be mentioned in the same breath as Magic and Michael. If not, if he can't become the centerpiece of a title team, he will likely go down as just another entertaining scorer--think George Gervin or David Thompson--who came up short.
"Right now you can't even mention me in the same breath with Magic or Michael," McGrady says.
It is pointed out to him that neither of them owned his own plane.
McGrady laughs. "True, true."
In a hotel suite in Los Angeles, McGrady sits on the edge of his bed in front of a room service trolley, picking at a plate of pasta. His cholesterol is too high, he laments. His nutritionist has taken him off fried foods and sugar. Still, he looks disappointed as he jabs noodles with his fork. ESPN breaks into its programming to show replays of the brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the fans in Detroit. The melee is shown over and over. "This is terrible," McGrady says, "just terrible."
Yes, agrees his visitor. It's bad for the league, the players, the fans.
He looks up, slightly incredulous. "No, this linguine," he says. "It's terrible."
O.K. But what does he think about Ron Artest going into the stands? About fans throwing beer at players? After all, this brawl, along with Latrell Sprewell's recent complaint over being offered only $7 million by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kobe Bryant's ongoing bizarre behavior, has made the divide between fan and player as wide as it's ever been.
McGrady pushes away his plate. "What Ron did? That was self-defense," he says. "Look, it goes both ways. As a player, I know not to put my business out there, not to embarrass myself, [because] if you do, you're going to get bad publicity. Like what Spree said, I understand that, but there is another way of saying it. So I have to be careful. But fans need to be respectful, can't be running on the court. That's my office. If I go to your office and I'm stepping to you, you're not gonna hit me?"
McGrady says he wants to reach out to fans. He also knows that he has to. His lifestyle--the BMWs, Bentleys and Maybachs, that Falcon 2000, the gold watches, the properties strewn across the Southeast--is not paid for by salary alone. He earns at least $7 million annually by lending his name and image to Adidas and PepsiCo. For him to justify that income, people must do more than watch him: They have to love him. Or at least be moved enough by him to buy his sneaker, and Adidas's new TMac 4 (retail: $125) was among the hottest basketball shoes of the Christmas shopping season. And if he becomes too remote, he knows, his whole empire is in jeopardy. He has to keep reaching out to his fans, what Karl Rove would call taking care of the base.