When I was 12 and falling in love with NBA basketball, its most exciting players were 10 to 15 years older than me. Then five. Then they were my peers. Now players my age are described as “seasoned” or “washed up.” During a Phoenix Suns game I attended in 2008, as former all-star Grant Hill came off the court, a fan heckled, “Sit down, Grant, you’re too old.” Laughing, the then-36-year-old collapsed onto the bench and replied, “I know.”
I’m only 33, not a professional athlete, and despite some brief adolescent delusions, I never had a shot at being one. But if I share anything with NBA players my age, it’s an increasing awareness of my own obsolescence. For the past five years or so, I’ve felt myself steadily drifting from the center of culture—and by “culture,” I mean youth culture. Each year I get a little more obscure, a little farther away.
There are few forums that showcase age more acutely, or brutally, than sport. Unlike, say, an actor’s, an athlete’s career rarely enters its twilight with dignity, and there’s little hope of a comeback—even Michael Jordan’s 2001 return was a disappointment (and cut short due to injury). Athletes don’t just get older, they degenerate; each year, they’re a little slower, a little creakier in the knees, and, eventually, they’re forced to retire at an age when the rest of us are hitting our professional stride. Meanwhile, every season a new crop of rookies arrives with all of youth’s bravado, itching to usurp the older generation and claim supremacy.
While the athlete’s decline is common to all sports, in basketball—as opposed to hockey or football—the players’ faces are visible; they fail as people, not just human-shaped machines. Baseball, with its rigid, isolated positioning, lacks the communalism of hoops, and a full-sized soccer field is almost 10,000 square feet—twice the size of an NBA court. Professional basketball, which provides a stage for the personalities of its stars as much as for the game itself, engenders a type of engagement unique to sports: intimacy.
This brings me to two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady, who, with his woe-is-me eyes and weight-of-the-world slouch, has always been one of the game’s saddest athletes. And by “saddest” I don’t mean tragic, like Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe or even Nancy Kerrigan, but that T-Mac exudes a brand of melancholy that borders on pathos. While that draws me to him now, it isn’t what I liked about him when he came into the league, straight out of high school, in 1997. Back then he was only a teenager, and he was electrifying.
I won’t detail T-Mac’s achievements, which are multiple and various and often astounding. Instead I’ll focus on his most indelible moment: On December 9, 2004, with his Houston Rockets down 10 and under a minute remaining, T-Mac single-handedly defeated the San Antonio Spurs with 13 points in the final 33 seconds of the fourth quarter. (I defy you, reader, to match that feat even on an empty court, without a metric ton of defenders trying to stop you.) It was a rate of almost 25 points per minute, or—imagining he could maintain this pace for the full 48—1,200 points over an entire game. Fanciful math aside, it was a performance as astonishing as any, by any individual athlete, in any sport, ever.
The only possible comparison to McGrady’s one-man comeback—the instantaneous, stunning magic of it—might be religious exaltation. That, though, treads perilously into the realm of miracles, which suggests T-Mac’s achievement was beyond will or ability. To me, those 33 seconds articulate the urgency, fearlessness, and bewildered joy of youth.
With over 5 million YouTube views and counting, that moment of triumph will likely be remembered long after T-Mac hangs up his Adidas. But it’s also telling that seven years later, midway through his 13th season in the NBA, McGrady’s genius remains mostly a memory. At 32, after multiple surgeries on his knees and shoulders, he logs limited minutes with the woeful Detroit Pistons and, despite a few decent games, largely struggles on the court. That saggy-eyes expression, which commentators used to mock as “sleepy,” “lazy,” and “stoned,” now seems only downtrodden. As McGrady himself recently blogged, “It’s hard to love the game of basketball and hard to get up in the morning to play the game because you can’t be yourself.”
This “yourself,” of course, is T-Mac’s younger self: the one who had that magical night in December of ’04. The instinct to cling to an idealized, past version of oneself rings true to me. Unwilling to attach myself to any national, cultural, or ethnic community, for most of my life the only category I comfortably fit into was “young person.” Like Herman Hesse’s great hedonist Goldmund, I once included myself in the generation that could shout, “Let the old folks finish their dying! We’re sound and young, and want a good life while we can get it.”
Identifying with that sort of thinking at 33 feels pathetic and desperate. Yet I can’t call myself one of the “old folks,” either. All I feel—and I think I share this with Tracy McGrady—is “not young anymore.” When a one-time athletic phenomenon can only speak wistfully of former glory, it brings into striking relief what we lose as we age. With maturity, time slows down, and the immediacy of youth becomes compromised by the weight of the past or worries about the future. That’s why we watch sports, where we can be spectators rather than protagonists, and 33 seconds is long enough for a young man to create a legacy.
Pasha Malla is the author of three books and a contributor to FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. Excerpted from Maisonneuve, a Montreal-based magazine that keeps its readers informed, entertained, and enlightened on subjects ranging from culture to science.www.maisonneuve.org
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.