We generally value athletes for what they symbolize. Sports aren't important, they remind us of things that are. Allen Iverson is the indomitable human spirit, Kobe Bryant the Faustian pursuit of perfection, Tim Duncan modesty in brilliance. It's our everyday experience with these themes that make these players so evocative. They stylize, or streamline, these ideals like art or fiction. In the end, though, they are only as meaningful as we need them to be. Marveling at moves and basketball IQ, or rooting for your team, only explains half of why these figures loom so large in public consciousness.
Here's why McGrady is different: at this point, his story is just plain sad. The injuries, the numerous lost loved ones, the depression, and the playoff woes—all of it together will get you down even if you're not looking for it. While Iverson or Garnett certainly take losing seriously, to some degree they leave that angst on the court. With McGrady, though, there's no separation between what we know of his personal life and the miserable cliche his career has become. In fact, his "can't get out the first round" tag is so heavy, so stark, that it alone would probably tug at the non-sports heartstrings.
I've been mildly obsessed with the Warriors' accessibility. They play basketball that can be understood by anyone, and as individuals sparkle with comforting imperfection. The Warriors are Ornette Coleman, but they've actually managed to transcend basketball (Coleman couldn't do the same with jazz). McGrady is the dismal mirror image of this: the emptiness and pain of his career are much bigger than quibbles over his game or teammates. If there's no reassurance to be found, it's because the ballad of Tracy McGrady is immune to sports. See him on the streets, and you'd probably try to hug him. And on some level, I'm sure he'd appreciate it.
"The Color of Pigeons," Bethlehem Shoals
FreeDarko.com, May 6, 2007