I have three main pools I draw from when I'm working on an NBA story.
There's the roster of current and ex-players I talk to. There's a handful of coaches and execs.
And then there are the courts.
I usually travel with a pair of basketball shoes just in case I can squeeze in a couple of runs somewhere. I do this primarily because even after 30 years of playing, I still love ball. But it also it helps me stay on top of what the people who truly love basketball and the NBA are talking about. If you don't hustle or are only concerned about scoring, well, I'm not trying to hear what you have to say. But the better a team player you are, the more likely I am to listen to your views because I consider you a baller.
Tracy McGrady has been discussed as often as the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers among the ballers I've encountered in the three states I've played in since his signing. Many of us in the media have written McGrady off as a has-been, and justifiably so. He has played only 65 games in the past two seasons combined. Obviously, a fair number of NBA execs believe he is washed up -- that's how the seven-time All-Star ended up signing for the league minimum for a non-playoff team in the first place. But among ballers, there still seems to be optimism. They aren't greeting his stop in Detroit with snarky comments but with excitement, and they're rooting for him. They want T-Mac to return, and, to be quite honest with you, I do, too. Not just because I'm a Detroit Pistons fan but because this is likely his last chance to prove he still belongs -- and, well, I'm a sucker for the underdog.
Consider this: Last year, fans voted in five players and coaches selected four who were over 30 for the All-Star Game. Two of those players (Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett) have had the same microfracture knee surgery as McGrady, who turned 31 this spring. Kobe Bryant, the man many consider to be the best player in the league, not only is a year older than McGrady but has played almost 15,000 more minutes, appeared in nearly 400 more games and taken 8,000 more shots than him in the course of his career, including the playoffs and All-Star Games. And that's not factoring in practices and international play. Yes, there have been times in the past three seasons when McGrady has appeared old, but the truth is, he's not. In terms of actual court time, he has logged only about 4,000 more minutes than LeBron James has in his career, which is about one season's worth of action for an All-Star-caliber player whose team makes a run in the playoffs.
McGrady has been woefully miscast as an old player trying desperately to hold on a la Allen Iverson or Shaquille O'Neal. But as the numbers show, that isn't true at all. A more accurate way to look at him is as an injury-prone superstar whose reputation has been sullied by run-ins with management and the playoff failures of the teams he's been on.
His ego-driven spat with the Houston Rockets and his post-workout dustup with the Chicago Bulls came from his desire to have a fair chance to prove himself. But as far as a lot of NBA types are concerned, he already has passed his full-time usefulness and has "proved himself" via the number of playoff series he has won: zero. McGrady's signing barely registered a blip because even when he was healthy, he didn't lead his team to greatness, so, conventional wisdom asks, "Why get excited over a gimpy underachiever?"
But what if he isn't gimpy anymore? What if what he said in his introduction in Detroit is true and his knee has recovered? What if the Pistons' wizard of a conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, can keep him healthy? This is the optimism in the voices of NBA fans, and not just the ones I played ball with these past few weeks. A month before the 2010 All-Star Game, McGrady was second among guards despite playing in only six games before Houston shut him down and put him on the trading block. He has a lot of people pulling for him because they believe he still has a lot of great ball in him. They don't blame McGrady for the playoff losses because they know his career postseason averages in every major statistical category are above his regular-season averages. They have seen him increase his numbers while guarding the opposing team's best perimeter players, from Milwaukee's Glenn Robinson to Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki. They have seen him carry teams when his All-Star teammates Grant Hill and Yao Ming went out with season-ending injuries. They have seen him give his all, and they want to see him end his career on his terms, not ignored because no one believes in him anymore.
But don't be mistaken; this is it for him. When the Los Angeles Clippers are telling a player "No, thanks," he can be sure the opportunities are all but dried up. In Detroit, he comes to a squad that has lost its identity almost as quickly as it has lost its grip on the Eastern Conference. With only 27 wins last season, the Pistons are a rebuilding franchise in need of a player they can rally around, feed off of.
McGrady doesn't have to lead the league in scoring again, but if he averages 15 points per game, he would be the team's highest-scoring small forward since Hill left to join him with the Orlando Magic. And that would be enough to not only reward his fans' hope but also show the rest of the league he still belongs. But if the elevation he reaches on his jump shot puts too much impact on his back and knees to allow him to play effectively in back-to-back games, or if he pulls up lame early in the season, it's hard to see him holding a roster spot in 2011-12.
For the Pistons, this signing is low on risk, high on reward. For T-Mac, it's all or nothing. He's coming to the Motor City to prove he still has something in the tank. That I don't doubt. The real question is, can he keep the motor running?
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.