SAN ANTONIO -- Yes, Tracy McGrady noticed the cheers when he checked in to Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. They were unusually loud for a guy playing mop-up minutes in the San Antonio Spurs' blowout victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. What T-Mac didn't hear was Mark Morrison's song "Return of The Mack" booming through the speakers.
"What?" McGrady said when told about it on Monday. "I didn't know that. That's funny, man. They used to play that for me in Toronto."
Toronto. That's going back. A different world. Next month will mark 16 years since McGrady was drafted by the Raptors. We're coming up on 13 years since he signed that big contract with the Orlando Magic. It's been 12 years since he played in the first of his seven All-Star Games. Nine years since he led the league in scoring for the second time. Eight and a half years since he scored 13 points in the final 35 seconds of a game to lead the Houston Rockets over the Spurs.
And after all the individual accolades, the ones that got him the headlines and the "SportsCenter" lead stories and the commercials, a significant career milestone occurred with little fanfare less than two weeks ago: He participated in a game beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs.
He was on the court for only 52 seconds in Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors. He didn't take a shot. He has yet to score in the 2013 playoffs, actually. And it's fine with him, all part of the trade-off he's willing to make to be a part of something that he never accomplished when he was the marquee name.
"I'm back to having fun again," McGrady said Monday, sitting on a basket support after Spurs practice. "It's a different type of feeling, to really come in the games and hear the cheers, it's overwhelming. It feels good to have that type of reception -- and for different reasons. Usually I get 'em for scoring 30 points. Now I get 'em just for being a part of this team.
"It's a great feeling, man. I'm back to having fun. It's great to be a part of this terrific organization ... I'm living a dream right now."
This isn't how any of us envisioned it. But it's funny how now that the expectations are gone, there seems to be greater enjoyment of and by McGrady.
He used to be derided for his playoff failures. In his first eight trips to the postseason he never made it past the first round. When the Rockets advanced to the conference semifinals in 2009, McGrady watched in street clothes, as he'd entered the phase of his career that was defined by injuries -- back, knee, shoulder, you name it. He never was a double-digit scorer again as he floated to three more teams, then went off to spend the past season in China with the Qingdao Eagles.
After the Spurs waived Stephen Jackson in the final week of the season, they brought in McGrady.
"We wanted to have another body just as an insurance policy," coach Gregg Popovich said during the first round of the playoffs, and he was just as honest about his limited expectations when he talked with McGrady.
Now Twitter starts buzzing with optimism that T-Mac will see playing time whenever the Spurs hold a large lead in the fourth quarter. If he does get in, fans in the arena get excited at the mere possibility that he'll shoot when he has the ball.
If McGrady had false illusions that he deserved to be starting, it would be painful to watch him reduced to this role when he's still only 33. He's a member of Tim Duncan's 1997 draft class, after all, and you don't see Duncan clinging to the end of a roster. Instead McGrady welcomes whatever chances he can get, appreciates the support that's still out there.
Pop called me out of the blue, and here I am. It's possible that I could be a champion before I leave this game. And that's a beautiful thing. And even though it wouldn't be the type of role that I would like, I'd still be a part of something.
”-- Tracy McGrady
"I came to terms of my situation," McGrady said. "I got it. It wasn't in the cards for me to ... continue the health like Kobe and some of my peers that I competed against when I was playing at the highest level. It just wasn't in the cards for me. I had to go through a lot of stuff to realize the situations, the opportunities that I had. Things happen for a reason. The Man Above takes us through things that we sometimes can't understand, but later on in life, we realize some of the stuff that we had to go through. This is a promotion for me.
"For so many years, I tried to compete and take a team to the first round ... I mean, take a team out of the first round. It just didn't happen for me. Then I had to go through some things, through my injury. It was frustrating. I'm sitting at home. I live by faith, not by sight. Pop called me out of the blue, and here I am. It's possible that I could be a champion before I leave this game. And that's a beautiful thing. And even though it wouldn't be the type of role that I would like, I'd still be a part of something.
"Any minutes you get in a playoff game like that, it's great minutes. For me to want to be on this stage for so many years, it just never happened. But to have this opportunity right now ... I mean, it's great."
He had his share of attention in China, where he has always been popular and went to another level by playing alongside Yao Ming in Houston. Hundreds of fans showed up to see him arrive at the airport and knocked down chairs in the rush to get closer to him, according to Nikki Zhang, a reporter for Sina, the Chinese version of Twitter (McGrady has 2.4 million followers on Sina, by the way). Fans would pack the arena and cheer for him even on road games.
"It was like rock-star status," McGrady said.
Now he's the roadie. But he's also seven Spurs victories away from a championship. And if you think his limited participation would make a ring feel more plastic than golden, you weren't there to see how jubilant Juwan Howard was in the Miami Heat's winning locker room last year even though he played only nine playoff minutes.
I've had long conversations with Grant Hill about accepting his fate and appreciating the good times when injuries rerouted him from superstar to role player, and I get a similar vibe from McGrady. The lesson: It doesn't matter if you got downgraded from first class to a middle seat in coach, as long as you're excited about the airplane's destination.