13 Points, 35 Seconds

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Those were the halcyon days. Back when the shooting guard spot was manned by legends of the game like Kobe, Manu, Wade, and Ray Allen. Back when Ginobili had a full head of hair (no, I’m serious). And then there was T-Mac.

The first three-pointer splashes in with 35.0 seconds on the game clock. And then the NBA’s best power forward, Tim Duncan, gets victimized for a four-point play. Hope starts creeping in. The league’s best perimeter defender, Bruce Bowen, is the next to fall prey to yet another shot from beyond the arc. Could it be? 7.4 seconds left. McGrady steal. McGrady shot. 1.7 seconds. 0 seconds. Ballgame.

I’d be lying if I said I watched that game. On Dec. 9, 2004, I couldn’t have cared less about basketball. What’s basketball to a nine-year-old just two years removed from living in India? I think the only two players I had even heard of were Shaq and Yao Ming. Those two were freaks of nature, and I wasn’t living under a rock.

I credit my love of basketball to three things: 1) I lived in New Orleans in 2006, while Chris Paul and the Hornets took the league by storm. 2) Steve Nash and the ‘7 Seconds or Less’ Suns. 3) Tracy McGrady. Because Yao Ming was injured that 2006-07 season, McGrady was the focal point of some of the Rockets games I caught on TV.

There were a lot of great scorers in the league. But T-Mac was different, captivating. He had started the season horribly. His body was apparently quitting on him. He wasn’t supposed to end up doing what he was doing. Human beings are drawn to feats of strength. We’re even more drawn to feats of sheer will.

Today there are only six items on my desktop: 4 clips of Michael Phelps races, the clip of Kobe’s 81-point game, and the video of McGrady’s 13 points in 35 seconds. As my basketball knowledge grew, that video was one of the first things I digested. And during the week of that game’s anniversary, the only thing I wanted to write about was him. (It’s also finals week, so I try to watch that video and tell myself anything is possible).

There’s nothing about those 35 seconds that makes any sense. Forget “Interstellar”: Tracy McGrady was bending space and time right there on that court. The ball was an obedient servant to a man possessed. NBA acolytes talk all the time about players getting in the proverbial “zone.” That was about as “in the zone” as someone could get. T-Mac rained shots on the Spurs from awkward angles and contorted positions. For 35 glorious seconds, he was a basketball god. There was no heat check. Only the buzzer signaling the most improbable victory. The more I watch the video, the more bewildered the announcers sound, and the more amazed I am by the impossibility of those 35 seconds. This wasn’t snatching a win from the jaws of defeat. This was cutting through defeat’s gut with a chainsaw, swimming into its intestines, and emerging with the win, unfazed.

For a franchise that flaunts its impressive lineage of centers, from Mutombo and Olajuwon and Yao to Dwight Howard, perhaps some more attention should be paid to the lineage behind James Harden, to the basketball equivalent of a Super Saiyan, Tracy McGrady.

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