By Brian Spencer
Give the fans what they want, Mike D’Antoni: they want Tracy McGrady.
Nearly 20,000 fans packed Madison Square Garden Saturday night with the Oklahoma City Thunder in town for their only visit of the season. That’s why we were there—to catch Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, et al. in action—and until the trade-deadline deal that landed former All-Star Tracy McGrady in New York, we thought that’s why a good chunk of other people would be there too.
This was unexpected. There was actually a buzz in the building, a real palpable sense of excitement and energy, and for once it was actually for a guy suiting up for the hometown Knicks. Not for Kobe Bryant, not for Carmelo Anthony, not for LeBron James (whom was represented by a handful of forward-thinking fans sporting customized James Knicks jerseys).
The loudest cheers, the impassioned chants, the standing ovations, the whole night all belonged to the discarded NBA superstar of yesterday, Tracy McGrady, who after sitting out all but six games for the Houston Rockets this season was scheduled to make his Knicks debut as the team’s starting shooting guard. The fans knew it, and they showed up in force to welcome him and again pin their immediate, if not long-term hopes on a player who’s better days are clearly in the rearview mirror.
Laugh all you want, but there’s not much else to cheer for until summer. Fan favorite Nate Robinson has been shipped to Boston, and as generally appreciated as David Lee, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler are, none of them can individually or collectively motivate the long-miserable Knicks faithful to show more than a passing interest in the season’s final 28 meaningless games.
But with Tracy McGrady in Knicks’ blue and orange? Maybe GM Donnie Walsh is actually onto something here. Maybe he’s actually going to parlay this into a healthy boost to the Knicks’ rest-of-the-season ticket and merchandise sales. Short-term rental or not, Knicks fans are psyched about this guy: after the halftime break, from our seats alone I counted eight or nine people pulling on brand-new jerseys and t-shirts emblazoned with McGrady’s name and number. McGrady still, apparently, sells.
Devout fans of the NBA know why McGrady was acquired (salary-cap space) and in which stage of his career the 30-year-old is in (the final legs). But on our way to the game we agreed that there’d be thousands of people at the Garden who don’t know the score here. They saw the headline, they remember McGrady as a high-flying, boxscore-stuffing stud, and they can’t believe how little the Knicks had to give up to get him. In this simplistic view, they see the stars beginning to align over the corner of 34th Street and 7th Avenue: first McGrady (whom the Knicks will definitely resign this summer), then LeBron and Chris Bosh, then a string of championships. They’ve been waiting a long time for this, and finally, the waiting is over.
For one night, at least, those fans were right and I was wrong. McGrady was the last announced Knick starter, and the applause greeting him as he rose from the bench and trotted onto the court was deafening, sustained, and sincere.
We set a pregame over/under on total points scored by McGrady at 12 (I took the under), and he damn near had it after one quarter. He wasn’t nearly as dominating as his final line on the night hints at, but give him credit: he was active, aggressive, hustling, and confident. He was knocking down jumpers, taking it to the hole, finding open teammates, putting himself in a position to succeed. Whether you came into the game with low or high expecations, everybody left impressed, and in my case, surprised. There was no way I saw him logging 32 minutes, or finishing 10-17 for 26 points, 4 boards, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers.
The Knicks lost the game in overtime, 121-118, but while I’m sure the home crowd would have welcomed the win, few seemed to expect it, or to care much about it. During the overtime period, the chant reverberating around the arena weren’t “Let’s Go Knicks!” or “De-fense! De-fense!”: it was “We Want T-Mac! We Want T-Mac!”. After a few minutes, D’Antoni relented and gave them what they wanted.
Who knows how much longer the honeymoon with McGrady will last; it could be for a few more months, it could be for less than a week given the uncertainty of McGrady’s health and durability. For one night, though, the Knicks fans got what they wanted—a star to rally around—and the fading star got what he wanted too: to feel wanted again.