The Washington Post

VERTICAL LEAP

Tracy McGrady is sprawled across a king-size bed in his Hyatt Regency hotel room, an aching mass of athleticism. It's a gorgeous day in downtown Buffalo, but you'd never know it from McGrady's room. The curtains are drawn, the lights are out, even his Play Station video game system -- he never leaves home without it -- is shut down. Luther Vandross is crooning love songs from the radio and McGrady is moaning.

But not to the music.

"I'm hurtin'. My feet are sore. My whole body . . ."

McGrady, a slim 6 feet 8 and 195 pounds, has just completed his third grueling practice in two days at the Toronto Raptors' training camp. And there's yet another workout this evening.

That McGrady is here at all, playing in the National Basketball Association five months after his 18th birthday, is among the more remarkable stories in professional sports. Seventeen months ago he had just finished his junior year at a small-town high school in central Florida, where he rocked opponents but attracted little notice. He wasn't pursued by major college coaches. Wasn't even ranked among the top 500 high school players in the country.

But a jaw-dropping performance at a nationally acclaimed summer camp followed by his transfer to a North Carolina prep school opened up his world. Soon, the big universities were on his trail and so were the pro scouts and so were the sneaker companies. This past June, Adidas signed the kid to a six-year, $12 million endorsement deal based solely on the expectation that he would some day be a terrific pro. Then the Raptors made McGrady the ninth player chosen in the NBA draft and signed him to a three-year contract worth $4.68 million.

Now, instead of a guidance counselor helping him navigate a class schedule, he's got a California-based agent, an Atlanta-based financial counselor and an Adidas safekeeper steering him through life's traffic. Instead of hot dogs at the Shake Shoppe in Auburndale, Fla., there's room service at the best hotels. Instead of lunch money jingling in his pocket, he has serious money in a Canadian bank account.

And a Visa card.

And a swank apartment atop a downtown Toronto mall.

And a condo in Auburndale.

And a sneaker to promote, the Equipment Real Deal.

And a $50,000 Lexus sports utility vehicle.

And a Mercedes-Benz -- though not the latest model.

"They're like $110,000 for a '98!" McGrady exclaims, incredulous. He purchased the less expensive '95 version. "I couldn't see spending my money like that."

As McGrady begins his rookie season in the NBA -- the first game is tomorrow night in Miami -- he will have more than financial matters to wrestle with. How will he handle the pounding his body will take over 82 games from men who are physically stronger? How will he handle the female groupies, the tireless autograph seekers, the "friends" with their palms out, the alluring night life, the large chunks of free time between games and practices, the media?

Over the next six months, The Washington Post will write periodically about McGrady's transition from high school to the elite 348-player work force that's the NBA. In the last half century, only seven players have been drafted out of high school into pro basketball -- four of them since 1995. That may not yet constitute a trend, but four in three seasons is certainly a phenomenon.

McGrady has the raw equipment for the NBA: bird legs with springboards in them (can you say 44-inch vertical leap?), arms that hang to his thighs, and hands that turn a basketball into a cantaloupe. Out on the court, watching how comfortable he is when dribbling, how inventive he is in the air, it's easy to imagine the possibilities.

"There's no question he belongs," says Raptors Coach Darrell Walker. "He does some things that make you go, Woo!' "

McGrady is soft-spoken with sleepy eyes and manicured nails and a nonchalance that conveys not a drop of fear -- the fear that maybe, just maybe, he might fail. Inside, he can't fathom that. Ever since he was 5, whacking baseballs deep into the outfield off a waist-high tee at home plate, athletic success has come effortlessly. "You don't even want to play him in ping-pong," says his old high school coach Ty Willis.

"I think I can play on this level," McGrady says with purpose, as though he's replayed this response over and over in his head. "It's just getting learning experiences right now. I'm not trying to get ahead of myself. I'm still 18."

By his own description, McGrady's the product of a "rough neighborhood" called the Hill in Auburndale, a quaint town of about 9,000 surrounded by lakes, halfway between Orlando and Tampa. But he has few of the rough edges commonly associated with rough neighborhoods and rough kids. "He still has the yes sir,' no sir' in him," observes Raptors teammate Carlos Rogers.

Those who know him attribute this quality to his grandmother, a churchgoing woman who inspired McGrady to keep the kind of friends who didn't draw trouble. At 61, Grandma Roberta Williford has moved off the Hill and into a beautiful home on Lake Jessie. Her grandson has granted her dream. In a couple of years, she will retire from her custodial job at a local elementary school and have more time for fishing.

McGrady's 36-year-old mother, Melanise Williford, has already retired. No more housekeeping at Disney's Yacht & Beach Resort in Orlando. She's living with Roberta on the lake until her new home is built next year. Tracy's taking care of her now.

And what of his 40-year-old father? Tracy McGrady Sr. has long had his own separate life, been married for 16 years now. He and Tracy's mother never got hitched. Theirs was a high school romance, and after Tracy was born it was over. Young Tracy doesn't harbor any resentment toward his father, who remains in the background, never quoted in stories about his son's success. "My dad's been around," he says. "He did what he had to do. He wasn't a bad father."

Tracy is trying to help him, too. He bought his dad a Cadillac and told him to look for a house so he could move his family out of their apartment. "I've got to hook my dad up," he says, in the insistent tone that such a thing was long overdue.

To carry such responsibilities at this stage of manhood must surely be daunting. He's a millionaire not old enough to buy a bottle of wine. He's the symbol of accomplishment for his family. His beeper is constantly going off -- friends and relatives eager for anecdotes, eager to live the experience through him. And yet as much as he wants to remain just a kid, he is zooming into another atmospheric zone.

When McGrady was home last month, he attended a football game at his old high school and quickly discovered he had become the attraction. At first it was just a lone, hesitant ninth-grader, encouraged by McGrady's former guidance counselor, Rita Jarrett: "I know Tracy. He won't mind. You can ask him for an autograph." But then one kid became two and two became three and three became a mob. And the mob wouldn't leave him alone. And McGrady became annoyed.

"I told him, Tracy, you've got to find out how to handle this so you don't get irritated,' " Jarrett recalled. "And he said, I just wanted to watch the football game.' "

There are so many expectations. He has become their Tracy McGrady, the whole town's. Marvin Wiley, director of parks and recreation, wants to arrange a Rotary Club luncheon to fete him. When was the last time an 18-year-old was guest of honor at a Rotary Club?

Willis, the former Auburndale coach who lost McGrady to Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., has elevated the glorification of his onetime star.

"I've seen him do things that you can't do -- that Jordan can't do, I don't believe." Wait a minute. As in Michael Jordan?

But Willis persists. There was the time Tracy took off for a dunk, ball cupped in his right hand. Rising higher and higher, he lost control of the ball in midair, then regained control while still in flight and threw it down with his left hand.

You've got to be kidding me. The kid did what?

But ask McGrady about Jordan and his eyes become big circles and he starts fidgeting with his hands. He's not yet a peer, his manner suggests. No way. He's just another teenage fan of His Airness. "He's just so smooth. I just want to be on the court with him, see how he moves. I just want to see that with my own eyes. Boy! . . . Whew! . . . M.J." Dreams of Grandeur

All across America kids are waiting in line to be the next Tracy McGrady. A half dozen blue-chip high school players already have contacted NBA scouting director Marty Blake, wondering how they might score a multi-million-dollar shoe contract. The playgrounds and youth leagues and super camps are incubating these hopes. Everywhere now, dreamy youngsters figure they, too, can skip college in pursuit of what is a wicked long shot under any circumstance.

"Sure, they'd all like to go to the NBA," Blake says, "and nobody wants to go to school."

The rapid success of Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, a '95 high school grad who just signed the richest contract in sports history -- six years, $125 million -- only encourages fanciful thinking. Locally, 17-year-old DerMarr Johnson, a junior at the Newport School in Kensington, already is being hailed as a sure bet to land in the League. Salivating grownups have begun the buzz that he's good enough to skip his senior year.

But it's not just the high-schoolers who are driving this kiddies-to-the-pros phenomenon. A growing number of collegiate players -- 47 this year alone -- are leaving school early to chase NBA riches as well. All of which has added fire to a larger debate about the value of a college education.

College has long served as a halfway house between adolescence and adulthood, an environment designed not only to develop the mind but also to teach one how to become a responsible citizen. Some argue, however, that the real function of college is to prepare one for the job market. And so McGrady simply leapfrogged that step -- as many other 18-year-olds do -- and went straight into the working world.

Unlike most 18-year-olds, though, he has become fabulously rich with his first gig. And unlike most of the fabulously rich, he'll be displaying his work habits in big-city arenas filled with demanding fans expecting their money's worth.

"Everybody's watching you do your job," says Walt Williams, the Raptors' starting forward and a former University of Maryland all-American who played high school ball at Crossland in Prince George's County. "You do anything wrong and a million people see you."

Through teammates such as Williams, at 27 the oldest Raptor on the active roster, McGrady is receiving considerable on-the-job training. "That's what I think we're here for," explains Williams, "to help the young buck with the transition."

Mostly, these informal tutorials are on the culture of the league and the trappings of celebrity:

Lesson 1: Watch out for earnest salesmen -- including your "boyz" -- with supposedly can't-miss propositions. "Everybody's coming to you," Williams says. "They've got their dreams. All they want you to do is start 'em up."

Lesson 2: Watch out for women who are looking to latch onto a star. "Women read the papers just like everybody else," says Raptors captain and star Damon Stoudamire, who is entering his third season in the league and has become a McGrady mentor. "They know who scored the most points, who has the biggest endorsement contracts."

Lesson 3: Don't let the trash-talking and envy of other players affect your game. "I told him there's going to be a lot of guys jealous of him," says Stoudamire. "He's going to face a lot of player hating. I told him to be careful."

Lesson 4: Don't become so caught up in your own fame that you forget who you are. "You've got to keep in touch with regular folks because this ain't real," Stoudamire says, waving his hand across the court where his teammates are training at Erie Community College in downtown Buffalo. "I walk out of here and there's probably four or five people waiting for my autograph. That's not normal. Tracy, he's got to stay humble within himself."

Thus far, humility hasn't been a problem. He forgot to tie his shorts for his exhibition-game debut at Toronto's SkyDome and spent much of his brief on-court time playing defense with one hand and pulling up his pants with the other.

"They fit me," McGrady told reporters after the game. "I just didn't tie the string. I'm still a little nervous about this."

McGrady has nonetheless set his sights high this season: To win the NBA Rookie of the Year award (as Stoudamire did two years ago). Though he sometimes appeared lost on the court during the preseason, he showed flashes of his promise: A no-look, behind-the-back pass that brought the house down during one exhibition game. A solid 12 points, five rebounds and three steals in just 17 minutes during another.

In an age of showboating and signifying and braggadocio without portfolio, McGrady is thus far a coach's dream: He knows what he doesn't know and appears willing to accept guidance on how to become a great player. His maturity has surprised both teammates and Raptors officials.

"Not once has he asked where's the disco or the parties," comments Isiah Thomas, a former NBA standout who now oversees basketball operations for the Raptors as the team's executive vice president. "He's not a wild guy. He's not out there."

Craig Neal was the Raptors scout who chased McGrady all over the country beginning in November 1996 when he was just starting to take off after transferring to Mount Zion, a budding high school basketball powerhouse. "I was always early and always stayed late," says Neal, who saw McGrady play nine times and work out twice.

Neal would just kind of "hang around" to see how the young prodigy interacted with kids, coaches, people of authority. Scouting at the pro level is so much more than assessing basketball fundamentals. Neal wanted to know: "Is he going to be good for the game? Is he going to give back to the game?"

He found his answers on a wintry night in St. James, Md.

Mount Zion had lost a big tournament, and Coach Joel Hopkins was so upset with the officiating that he wanted to protest by refusing to accept the second-place trophy. McGrady stood up and said: "Coach, that isn't right." Good sportsmanship was more important than making a political statement.

"You could tell he was a special kid," Neal says.

Jarrett, McGrady's former guidance counselor, agrees. She explained how McGrady had quietly made amends for the one incident that blemished an otherwise commendable reputation at Auburndale. During his junior year he was suspended for quarreling with a teacher and then refusing to go to the office. As a result, he missed the district tournament and the episode made the newspapers. Without him, Auburndale's Bloodhounds were trounced. The coach was upset, the mother was upset, McGrady felt the school had treated him unfairly.

He was steamed at Auburndale High for a while, but he grew out of that. Mount Zion's disciplined regimen helped him: wake-up calls at 4:45 a.m. to run five miles, church and Bible study three times a week, no partying. He lived in a 14-room house with his teammates and the coach and his family. He had chores.

When he returned home for Thanksgiving after his first semester away, some noticed the change. Jarrett found out he had apologized to the teacher for the incident that had caused his suspension. He was living up to all his potential.

"It was a good decision to go to Mount Zion," Jarrett says. Rigors, NBA Style

The last Raptors practice of the day is over and McGrady is whipped. He's also starved. Finally, a knock on the door. Room service.

Ah, yes, the chicken-and-shrimp stir-fry has arrived, along with the apple pie and vanilla ice cream. The phone rings. The spicy Buffalo wings he ordered from a carryout are downstairs. When the wings are brought up they're in a large pizza box that McGrady sets aside on his hotel bed.

He decides to plop into the stir-fry first. He begins by picking out the bell peppers, then the sauteed onions, then the squash -- until he has systematically purged every vegetable. "This ain't me," he says, lips wrinkling up as though the removed items were cooties. With the vegetables gone, he douses the dish with ketchup. Now, he's ready to eat.

At this point, McGrady's cultural tastes do not run deep or wide: He likes the slapstick of comedians Jim Carrey and Martin Lawrence and the swaggering music of slain rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Over the summer, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, last year's high-school-to-the-pros phenom, introduced him to karate movies. Now McGrady is a karate-movie junkie.

As the season progresses, he will have only so much time for karate movies. When he's not studying the Raptors' complicated defensive schemes, McGrady will be studying how to become a businessman. Thomas, the Raptors' top basketball executive, has mandated that he enroll in college via a correspondence program, probably at Florida State.

"I don't want a kid on our team who is uneducated," Thomas says. "Money without education doesn't mean anything. Money without education, and the athlete is no better than the drug dealer."

McGrady has internalized Thomas's philosophy. "I'm still a college student," he says, "but I'm in the NBA."

In the NBA, but still 18.

Before he arrived at training camp, he telephoned Thomas's office to see if he could acquire tickets for the Buffalo Bills-Detroit Lions game. No problem, Thomas assured him, all the while snickering in his mind. This kid is so young. After two days of wearying practices, the thought of attending a football game during the four hours of downtime between workouts had evaporated from the young man's brain. "Man, I ain't messin' with that," he says, stretched out on his hotel bed, memories of punishing cross-court sprint drills fresh in his mind. Must get some rest.

Later, Stoudamire, the Raptors captain, smiles at his protege's having learned another vital lesson in his rookie indoctrination. NBA training camp is no joke. "I think he didn't know what to expect."

Welcome to the NBA, son. ABOUT THIS SERIES:

Eighteen-year-old Tracy McGrady is living the dream of kids all over America. He's gone from high school directly to the National Basketball Association. Overnight, a small-town kid is dealing with riches, fame and all manner of temptation. The Washington Post is following McGrady's transition this season, writing periodically about the new world he is entering and the environment that shaped him. Today's story follows him to his first pro training camp. NEXT: Coming home a star. CAPTION: Tracy McGrady, the Toronto Raptors' 18-year-old rookie, stretches after a grueling workout in Buffalo. At left, Roberta Williford, McGrady's grandmother, and his friend Obey Maldonado in the house the player bought for her after signing a multi-million-dollar contract. CAPTION: After strenuous two-a-day practices, McGrady collapses on his bed at the Buffalo Hyatt Regency.

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