Back To You, Mai Di: T-Mac II (Updated)

T-Mac, all smiles with Wang Hai, Eagles owner.

It’s time for an update on Tracy McGrady’s sometimes bizarre, steadily surprising adventures as a basketball nomad in Qingdao, a coastal city in China. When last I wrote of the former NBA scoring champion, his Double Star Eagles were on an epic losing streak to the start the season, which eventually reached 12 painful games. Things are looking better recently, though most of my main questions remain the same. I’m not one to sneer at an athlete on the way down, but his career in China so far makes an interesting story, and perhaps a sad one.

The Eagles look to extend a recent winning streak to six when they visit the second-place Shandong Flaming Bulls tonight, who are led by Pooh Jeter, Jackson Vroman and the Jordanian forward Zaid Abbas. (Any bells ringing? Jeter played at Portland — and his sister is the gold medal sprinter — and Vroman at Iowa State.) The game may even make CCTV 5. When I last reported back in December, McGrady (Mai Di, as he is called in this country) was about to break loose for 41 points, albeit in the last game of the big losing streak. Here’s how it has looked since then.

  • EAGLES WIN! EAGLES WIN!! T-Mac hits for 24, 8 boards and 6 helpers in his usual 35+ minutes, as Qingdao knocks off the Jiangsu whatever-they-ares. (You ask, I answer: they’re the Nangang Dragons. So there.) The other import, forward Chris Daniels (Texas A&M), adds 26 and 11.
  • Similar numbers in a loss to the Zhejiang Chouzhou Bank (the Bankers?!), for whom Eddy Curry (yes, EDDY CURRY) notches 33 and 5. Daniels shoots 16-19 against Big Eddy, ends with 37 and 12.
  • Win Two! Dongguan Leopards only dressed one foreigner, though. (“Foreigner” universally means “American”, of which two are allowed. A third import is permitted, if he’s from Asia. Jordanians rock this league significantly.) 29, 4 and 9 for Mai Di, while Marcus Haislip (a top-10 scorer from U Tennessee) answered with 36 and 7. Daniels was again Qingdao’s big gun, with 37 and 12 (15-19 from the field).
  • T-Mac didn’t play against league powerhouse Guangdong Southern Tigers, who are led by Yi Jianlian’s 31 and 14 (the only team, I’m sure, whose leading scorer is not American. Yi gets a lot of dunks in this league, and huge respect that he didn’t quite earn in the NBA. I wonder if he considers a second shot at The Association?). Daniels posts 34 and 11 on high-percentage shooting. They call him 6’11” here (2.11 m), but he likely isn’t. A hometown San Antonio boy that the Spurs don’t need; he doesn’t defend much, it appears.
  • Second straight DNP for Mai Di, as his old back issues flare up. (By the way: Chinese indoor stadiums are routinely frigid. Fans don’t take off their coats in places like Beijing or Jilin. And I have strong doubts about the quality of training staffs on CBA teams — most Chinese people are horrified at the use of ice for ouches.) Also a second straight loss, to Fujian (also with only one foreigner). Daniels hits 29 and 15.
  • T-Mac’s back for a loss to the Foshan Long Lions, whose Shavlik Randolph blitzes the Eagles for 41 and 19. (He was also something of an Internet sensation here, with his jazzy piano playing in hotel lobbies.) Daniels again outscores McGrady, 25-20.
  • Fourth straight defeat, this time to Bayi Rockets (the People’s Liberation Army team, formerly dominant in the CBA but now mediocre since they cannot/do not play any foreigners. This is also the team that brawled with Georgetown Hoyas two summers back, remember?) The first of the Chinese “bigs” to make the NBA (though without the later impact of Yao Ming), Wang Zhizhi is still the Army’s man, with 25 and 11, while T-Mac goes for 23, 6 and 6. Bayi, long suspected of getting the “black whistles” associated with corrupt refereeing, score late despite an apparent shot-clock violation. Qingdao walks off in protest. Mai Di vents on China’s Twitter, and his Weibo (English language) rants against the officiating get him a one-game suspension.
  • Without him, Qingdao knocks off Shanghai, also hamstrung by the continued absence of Gilbert (yes, Agent Zero and his wonky groin, though presumably no firearms, are here!) Arenas. Daniels does it again, to the tune of 31 and 14 rebounds.
  • WIN! And a signature game for Mai Di: 38, 13, 8 assists, even left some points at the free throw line, going 10-15. Daniels goes for 23 and 12 against Jilin province’s Northeast Tigers.
  • Third straight W, this time versus a top-3 team in the Liaoning Hunters (my province, but not, unfortunately, in my city; a six-hour train-ride got me to see the then-Dinosaurs last year). TM: 31, 6, 6. Daniels 24, 11. Corners being turned?
  • The Beijing Ducks, defending champs, go down to the Eagles. Big boards for T-Mac (likely due to poor Ducks shooting  and his stationary D, but still!): 15, 17, and 4 dimes. Ducks point guard Stephon Marbury, “Starbury”, Ma Bu Li as his adoring Beijing fans call him, goes for 31 and 8 caroms but only 3 assists. He does pretty much what he wants on the court, penetrates at will, but not much help this time. Daniels roasts the Ducks for 30, 11 boards and 7 blocked shots.
  • Sunday’s win over Tianjin is led by Daniels: 42 and 10, 4 blocks, 10-16 FG, 19-21 FT! T-Mac fouls out with 23, 3, 7, again under 35 minutes of playing time (he’s 34 this year, and not a young 34). Still, it’s five straight, kids!
  • UPDATE:  In the Shandong match I mentioned above (Jan. 22), he explodes again for big numbers (38 and 14, and plays the most minutes that I’ve noticed, 38; Daniels is quiet, only 16 and 7 in 27 minutes, with foul trouble; by the way, the games are 48 minutes, like the NBA). The Flaming Bulls win by 7, though. They’re an interesting club, and run better offensive sets than most teams I’ve seen. And quicksilver, tiny-but-strong Pooh Jeter? 38, 6 boards, 8 assists, 5 steals. He, like Marbury, can get his shot pretty much any time he wants, and has a nice stroke. Abbas went 18 and 9, and the second American, Jackson Vroman, only 6 and 8. He’s an anomalous American, in that he doesn’t score much, but in games I’ve seen is more a hustling “glue guy” at forward, diving for loose balls and defending like he wants to.
  • Another loss followed last night, at home against a league power, Xinjiang Flying Tigers. (They’re an outlier, literally, in this league: while every other team is in the highly populated coastal east of China, in a crescent from north to south, these Tigers are way out west in Urumqi. Tough road trips, but they’ve been league finalists three of the past four years.) FT were led by Florida State’s Von Wafer with a comparatively modest 25, 4 and 4, while former Jayhawk Darnell Jackson had 22 and 10. What distinguishes Xinjiang from many clubs is the strength of its Chinese players, of whom 4 scored in double figures. Qingdao, it seems, thought that signing McGrady would solve everything, including having lost a couple of their best nationals. Oops. T-Mac was back down to 30 minutes, going 22, 6 and 7. The league may be figuring out Daniels, too, who had 21 and 9 but has fallen out of the top 10 scoring list.

He always did love to go left, here, past a Jilin Northeast Tiger.

To summarize: Tracy McGrady’s face is on every ad for CCTV (China’s ESPN) coverage of the Chinese Basketball Association. (So is Marbury. So is Yi. So is Wang Zhizhi.) According to my favourite information source for Chinese basketball, Jon Pastuszek’s excellent site, McGrady has been reported to demand $5000 for personal interviews. Outrageous? Maybe, but so is the way he is mobbed here. Remember, he was flying high when playing for the Houston Rockets alongside Yao Ming; he wasn’t the NBA scoring champ any more, but he still was a graceful, above-the-rim, highly skilled finisher in those days, and nearly every game he played was on Chinese television. Grown men, tears streaming, holler “I love you!” at him. My favourite factoid: Mai Di leads the league in chants of “MVP! MVP!” – from hometown fans when the Eagles are on the road, at least according to one source (whose reports carry immense trustworthiness, and not only because I can read them).

However, even with a recent run of tight wins, including one game-winning shot by Cousin Tracy, his team is 7-18 7-19 and a game behind the four two teams tied for second-to-last. The league’s scoring leaders, with their homes of now-fading NCAA glory, are these men: Quincy Douby (32.4 ppg), from Rutgers U; Shavlik Randolph (31.8), Duke; Charles Gaines (31.1), Southern Miss; Josh-Emmanuel Akognon (31.1), Cal State Fullerton; Arizona’s Marcus Williams (30.9); and yes, finally, in sixth place, from your Qingdao Double Star Eagles, it’s, well, it’s Texas A&M’s Chris Daniels (30.3). Four more Americans fill the top 10, none of them named McGrady. [UPDATE: As mentioned, Daniels fell out of the top 10 since this was first posted, and notably Stephon Marbury has joined it. And since you asked nicely, two Chinese players crack the top 10 in rebounds, a list led by former Florida Gator Donnell Harvey (16.5 rpg). Randolph is third. The assist race is over: a Jordanian guy named Osama Daghles, who played at Midwestern State, is way ahead at 10.2 apg. Jeter and Marbury are third and fourth, while McGrady’s seventh.] He’s more of a facilitator now. Cousin Vince does more of that these days, too, but he’s still doing some scoring, AND he’s playing for the Dallas Mavericks. What he did with his astounding basketball gifts is unforgivable in some circles — see Simmons, Bill, et al. — but he’s still pulling his weight in the NBA at 36.

Tracy McGrady, though his T-shirt last fall famously proclaimed that he “hearts China”, may already be preparing his exit strategy. When he complained digitally about the quality of Chinese refereeing – see? China is not so different from the rest of the world, though I haven’t heard of other leagues having to bring in foreign officials come playoff time! – he warned that he wouldn’t be coming back here to play if it didn’t improve. So, next stop, Manila? Roma? Munchen? For better or for worse, it’s certain there won’t be so much tear-stained man-love in his next stop – and probably not as much money, either. I wonder what this young man, young in every kind of normal career arc but a greybeard in the jock world,  will do next. It’s a loooooooooonng walk when retirement happens well before you’re forty.

What, no Raptors jersey? No Hawks?

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