T-Mac and Tang

Ill-fated ‘80s music duo? Fast-food lunch combo? Bachelor grocery list?

The answer is D) None of the above. Here are some notes about two bits of news that might be meaningful to you if you have both a mildly unhealthy appetite for basketball and a streak of Chi-curiosity. They are about two ballplayers whose careers will likely never come in direct contact, yet which are bizarre mirror images of each other.

T-Mac, of course, is Tracy McGrady, the former NBA scoring wizard who spent last season in what was, to some, a startingly unimpressive late-career stroll through a season with the Qingdao Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association. Tang is T-Mac’s basketball opposite, a teenaged hoops prodigy from Jiangsu province who went to the United States for high school so that he could be a student and an athlete. Tang Zihao is called Chris Tang in the States, Chris for the point guard’s sporting hero, Chris Paul, and Tang as in the powdered sugary-orange drink, not as it’s pronounced back home in southeastern China.

“Surprisingly athletic” will be the phrase.

I’d read about young Mr. Tang in an excellent December feature by Jay Caspian Kang of Grantland. The 6’3” guard was mid-way through his junior year of high school at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, after having dominated at another school in his first two high school seasons. Oak Hill is legendary for the NBA stars that have “studied” there; it’s a tiny private school that, for reasons unclear, attracts many of the greatest high school basketball players in America and beyond. (Carmelo Anthony. Kevin Durant. The list is long and jaw-dropping.) It seems like a mini-me version of how, say, Crimson Tide football is the tail that wags the dog of the University of Alabama. (Or insert any number of other football/basketball factories with outsized influence on their academic hosts here, as you prefer.) From where I sit, it looks like the school sports ideal, which I stubbornly cherish, gone sour. It partly explains LeBron James “super-teaming” with Bosh and Wade in Miami, even though I’ve always liked that James played for his local high school in Akron instead of going the “prep-school” (basketball hothouse) route.

Yesterday, I chanced on a short documentary on the Grantland channel about Tang. Since Jeremy Lin became an NBA phenomenon in 2012, Tang’s narrative was fated to his being “the next Asian sensation”, which may be nearly as much illogical pressure as being the next Jordan/Kobe/LeBron has been for a generation of African-American kids. The same day, I read a brief notice that McGrady had signed a free-agent deal with the San Antonio Spurs, who had abruptly cut loose loose-cannon backup Stephen Jackson a couple of days before. (There was also this mock tribute, for lovers of pop-cult jock memorabilia.) T-Mac is remembered now almost as much for his noted playoff failures – those of his teams, which never survived the first round of the playoffs – as for his prolific production and flair during the regular seasons of his up-and-then-down career. While admiring his smooth athleticism, I’ve never been a fan, so that McGrady’s signing with the team-first, all-substance Spurs puts me in nearly as big a bind as having Steve Nash traded to the Lakers last summer, but in reverse: beloved player, antagonist team. T-Mac may be ready to do what his cousin Vince Carter, his former Raptors teammate the last time the Torontos appeared to have a future, has done with the Mavericks: to reinvent himself as a substitute,

How do you ask for Number ONE on a team with Tim Duncan on it? (Suspend judgement, coach. Wait and see.)

to give to a team what it needs. (Heck, VC even gets some “NBA sixth-man of the year” consideration.) However, it’s been nearly two months since his CBA season ended, and who knows how ready he can be to contribute? McGrady didn’t play in the Spurs’ last game of the season. (Go here, though, for a thoughtful and engaging six minutes with the man and the San Antonio beat writers.)

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. (Chris) Tang Zihao has one more year of high school. I hope he gets to play more next season, and that his ambitious family is also making sure he gets the off-court education they were sure he wouldn’t get in a Chinese sports academy. As for Tracy (Mai Di) McGrady, well, I hope he doesn’t mess up my Spurs! For those who love teamwork – passing and movement and high hoops IQs – they’re a beautiful team to watch. Maybe there can be a little late afternoon sun, a pleasing twilight to an NBA career that had seemed to fade to black. I’m a sucker for fresh starts.

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