Pride is a helluva drug.
First A.I., then Shaq. Now it's his turn.
Tracy McGrady -- once the next Alex English/Adrian Dantley/Bob McAdoo of his generation, the Penny Hardaway Remix -- is at the crossroads of a career that only three years ago had Hall of Fame written all over it.
Now, after the news broke Tuesday that his chance to play for Chicago might not materialize because the Bulls reportedly are concerned he might not be willing to "embrace a secondary role" on the team, McGrady has a soul-wrenching decision to make: Do I face the reality that I might have to be an exaggerated (but still significant, depending on which team I go to) role/bench player? Or do I want to prove that I'm still a star?
It's basketball's Cinderella story. The ugliness of the game's business meets the beauty of a player's pride while contracts need to be signed by the stroke of midnight. In the fairy-godmother-less saga that has been the past three seasons of T-Mac's basketball life, his story is on the verge of unfolding the same way it did for Allen Iverson last year and the way it is for Shaquille O'Neal right now. Each of them has to look inward to find out what's important.
I'm one of McGrady's biggest fans and supporters, even though we had a falling-out recently over a miscommunication on my end and a misinterpretation on his. But in T-Mac's case, the decision should be clear: Don't try to prove any of the doubters, haters or realists wrong. Instead, be a smaller reason a team gets a ring instead of a bigger reason it doesn't.
Under the right circumstances, 10 points in 24 minutes per game can beat 20 in 36 all day at this stage, especially if he's doing it for a team that will play between 86 and 100 games next season as opposed to a team guaranteed only the regular season's 82. The question for McGrady is this: Would he rather have his career end like Charles Barkley's or Gary Payton's?
There's an obvious answer. But pride, I say, is a helluva drug.
McGrady should have a ring. Or at least, he should be able to play for one. Believe what you want about him, but he deserves that experience. It's up to him now to put himself in position to get one. If the stories coming out of Chicago are true, and if it is also true that the Bulls have already begun looking at other players (Eddie House, Keith Bogans, Desmond Mason, Rudy Fernandez), then there's only one thing for McGrady to do, one place for him to land: L.A.
And I don't mean the Clippers.
With the Lakers, let's just say this: McGrady off the bench in a significant role to support Lamar Odom and (now) Matt Barnes would give the champs a depth so ridiculous that -- barring injury -- Pat Riley would have to start thinking about 2011-12 as the first chance for his new Miami Heat to even dream about getting a ring.
McGrady alone could tip the scales and turn the Lakers into something very special. A one-year dynasty, if that's possible. Maybe longer. He could put them in the barbershop conversation as the Lakers team that the other great Lakers teams couldn't beat. He needs to see this. But first, T-Mac needs to see himself differently.
Being that player, that complementary player who still has the All-Star skills, should be more important to him after 13 seasons in the league than proving to the world that he was the first Kevin Durant.
As the options dwindle, T-Mac needs to create a new reality -- a reality that doesn't include what we're painfully and unfortunately watching O'Neal and Iverson go through.
As Craig Robinson says toward the end of "Zack and Miri ": "Sometimes we just need someone to show us something we can't see for ourselves."
If McGrady can get out of his own way, he can be a part of something more special than anything he has experienced so far in his career. That would make the hell he's gone through to get to this stage of his career all worth it.
But like I said, pride is a helluva drug.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.