April 20, 2010

Here, McGrady's Still Great, II

...whose favorite player is a guy who can’t net double figures for a floundering team, and who is on that floundering team because his old team had no use for him except as a bench-warmer? There is some history here.

A row of teenaged boys bursts through a south entrance onto the swath of outdoor courts, running in between the north-and-south sidelines. Every third or fourth guy has a ball. I am excited at the prospect of playing, but I quickly realize this doesn’t mean that the courts are open. The kids never break formation, staying in their line like an arrow floating across the concrete.

They make their way over to the court closest the hangar – the same one where I shot around with the old man the other day – and scatter into rows. There are probably 75 of them, now divvied up into eight columns. My excitement over getting to play fades, and my curiosity over what is going on swells.

I am trying to continue my spotty conversation with the Chinese guys when someone who I take to be a college student approaches me and says hello. He is wearing a Denver Nuggets jacket – the second bit of Denver Nuggets apparel I’ve seen recently – and I ask him if he likes the team.

“No,” he says. “I like Tracy McGrady.”

This is both a curious and obvious answer. Curious because, in American parlance, McGrady is what you might call “washed-up.” He is averaging less than 10 points per game this season. That ranks No. 175 in the NBA, behind a guy named Cartier Martin, whose basketball career includes stints with Antalya Büyükşehir Belediyesi (in Turkey), Benetton Treviso (Italy) and the Iowa Energy. What’s more, McGrady, 30, plays for the New York Knicks, a team that has no chance of making the playoffs even in the wide-open Eastern Conference, where you don’t need as much as a winning record to make the playoffs. And McGrady is in New York because he refused to accept his fate with the Houston Rockets, where he was relegated to being a bench player after career-altering knee problems. Indeed, you won’t find many people in the States who mention Tracy McGrady straight away as their favorite player. And that makes sense – whose favorite player is a guy who can’t net double figures for a floundering team, and who is on that floundering team because his old team had no use for him except as a bench-warmer?

Still, this Chinese teenager says that T-Mac is his favorite player. There is some history here.

To be fair to McGrady, he did have a reign one of the best players in the world. In fact, he had a years-long climax that ranks among the most statistically impressive stretches of any player in NBA history. After being sent from the Toronto Raptor to the Orlando Magic in 2000, McGrady embarked on this run from 2000-01 to 2003-04:

2000-01: 26.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists
2001-02: 25.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists
2002-03: 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists while notching career-bests in field goal percentage (45.7 percent) three-point percentage (38.6) and steals (1.7 per game)
2003-04: 28.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists

Now, even though he was putting up these numbers, he famously never won a playoff series – a mark that stands to this day. But Chinese people are probably less concerned with his ability to march through the playoffs than they are with raw skills and aesthetic brilliance. And McGrady had those qualities in spades. To put his ‘00-‘04 numbers in perspective, LeBron James, who is roundly considered the best player in the world, is currently averaging 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.5 assists. So McGrady’s stretch – especially the 2002-03 season of 32.1-6.5-5.5 – is comparable to say the least. Heck, he once scored 13 points in the final 33 seconds of a game. Not a people in the history of the basketball could have done that. For a while, McGrady was indubitably one of the world’s best.

But he isn’t anymore, and, to be honest, hasn’t been for years. What gives, then, with him being so popular here – popular to the point of seeing posters and jerseys and having kids still say that he is their favorite player? Well, McGrady isn’t a star in modern-day China because of what he did back in the first half of the ‘00s with the Orlando Magic. Instead, McGrady achieved his popularity here for two main reasons: moving to the Houston Rockets, and signing a deal with adidas.

McGrady left Orlando for Houston in 2004. The Rockets, of course, had drafted Shanghai native Yao Ming in 2002, and when McGrady teamed up with Yao his star soared in China. Playing with Yao can do wonders for a player’s Chinese stock. Just look at another Houston Rocket, Shane Battier, a yeoman-like athlete who’s never had the statistics or athleticism or flare to become an NBA star in the States, but who is nonetheless an icon of sorts in China. Battier inked an eight million dollar deal in 2006 with the China-based Fujian Peak Group, which produces and markets sportswear. What happened in 2006 to suddenly make him such a marketable commodity in China? He was signed by the Houston Rockets. He has his own shoe line and you can see his face on posters all over the place. I would bet 50 yuan that there are more street-side posters of Shane Battier in Jinan alone than there are in all of America.

“I’m much more famous in China than I think I ever was in America, which is kind of cool,” Battier said in 2008, amid a sales explosion of his shoes over here.

(Here is a Peak-sponsored picture of a handful of Yao's teammates: Battier, Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo.)

Well, if playing with Yao can make Battier a star, it can make McGrady a legend. Even today, which is interesting because, you know, McGrady isn’t really good anymore. Last season he averaged just 15.6 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting a career-worst 38.8 percent from the floor. Oh, and he only played 35 games because of major knee surgery. But the Chinese still love him.

And this kid is but one of millions. In fact, there was a bit of an uproar earlier this year because McGrady was a leading vote-getter for the 2010 All-Star game. Part of being selected an All-Star is online voting, a way to engage fans around the world and let them vote for their favorite players. Here’s the catch about McGrady getting so many votes for the 2010 All-Star game: at the time, he had played all of six games because of his bum knee. And if only having played in six games isn’t enough to raise red flags about being an All-Star, then this should be: during those six games, McGrady was averaging 3.2 points and 7.7 minutes, the latter number prompting his demand to be traded from Houston.

He was a scrub, basically, but still got more than one million online votes from fans. No way a vast majority of those votes weren’t coming from China. An NBA Fanhouse article said, “It’s widely believed McGrady, who has been named to seven All-Star Games, is getting plenty of votes in China due to being the teammate of Rockets injured center Yao Ming.” It’s not hyperbole to say that’s the only logical explanation.

The same phenomenon played out with fellow Houston Rocket Aaron Brooks, a fine player, but not an All-Star. Brooks received the fifth-most votes of any Western Conference guard, behind only Kobe Bryant (one NBA MVP award), Steve Nash (two MVPs), Chris Paul (one of the leagues premier players) and, you guessed it, Tracy McGrady. So two of the top five vote-getting guards played for the Rockets, and neither of them were really All-Stars. Two more good-but-certainly-not-All-Star Houston Rockets were Trevor Ariza and Luis Scola, who finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in All-Star fan voting for Western Conference forwards. So yeah, being on Yao’s team makes you popular.

As does being inking a deal with adidas, which signed McGrady to a lifetime contract in 2002 and then proceeded to invest heavily in China. The sporting goods company spent an estimated $80 million to $100 million for the rights to clothe China’s athletes in the 2006 Winter Olympics and the 2008 Summer Olympics, which were held in Beijing. The company is zealously pursuing the Chinese market. From MSNBC: “A worldwide Adidas marketing campaign — ‘Impossible Is Nothing’ — was refashioned for China last year [2005] as ‘No Impossible Gold,’ to play to Chinese hopes that their athletes will top the medals table in 2008.

In 2005, adidas netted an estimated $300 million in China and even more in 2006. And according to the Web site “Fibre to Fashion,” the company’s sales went up by 45 percent from 2006 to 2007. Growth slowed in 2008 and 2009, what with the economy and all, but the company is still a giant in China. Here in Jinan there are multiple adidas outlet stores – I’ve bought two pairs of shoes there – and while on vacation in Shanghai, I saw one of the biggest billboards I’ve ever seen: an adidas ad that towered over a busy intersection featuring Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose, each of whom is signed with the company. (Howard, by the way, received the third-most online votes for the All-Star game. Coincidence? Nah, I don’t think so either.)

Basically, the company is doing its damndest to get a stronghold in China. And part of that campaign revolves – or at least used to revolve – around McGrady. In an apparent attempt to make McGrady as popular as possible in China, adidas brought him here in 2006 for a publicity tour. Also from MSNBC:
When Adidas brought NBA star Tracy McGrady to China last August for a well-funded publicity tour, all 800 pairs of a special edition basketball shoe sold out at stores in a single day. The sportswear maker hopes the enthusiasm that the young Chinese showed for those $170 shoes will spill over to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Heck, forget the numbers. Look at the logo adidas cooked up for McGrady when they inked a deal with him in 2002. It looks like a freaking Chinese character.

For these reasons, it’s a no-brainer that McGrady is popular in China. Alas, this season McGrady has looked crummy. After playing something like 1.5 million games, he’s all but cooked as a bona fide NBA force. He is currently averaging fewer point than he has since he was 19 years-old. But this kid still says, No, I don’t like the Nuggets. I like Tracy McGrady. The Houston Rockets-adidas combo must be to Chinese teens what the easy-intern combo was to Bill Clinton.

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